Sunday, June 21, 2015

Kuala Lumpur & Little India, the National Herbarium, Underground Religion and the Garden of Knowledge

Heady scents and eye-popping colors of the devotional floral market in 'Little India,' Kuala Lumpur 

Kuala Lumpur -- "KL" -- is the very large, very modern and very metropolitan capital of Malaysia.  People who have never visited Malaysia might be surprised at how accessible, efficient and advanced mass transportation here is -- it's fun too! For our home base while we visited the herbaria in KL we stayed in an area called the Brickfields, very near KL Sentral, the transportation hub of KL. There's an express train from the airport right into KL Sentral, and from there it's easy to catch one of the commuter trains or light-rail trains or even the monorail to take you where you want to go. But walking is also a good way to explore the neighborhood in what they call "Little India." Getting sidetracked there was a major pastime -- being carried away by the sidewalk food-stalls and their intriguing aromas of fire & spices, the dancing reflections of sunlight bouncing off gold jewelry in all shapes and sizes, the vibrant silks of swaying, embroidered saris for sale, the bold, colorful fountains & temples, stalls festooned with lavish devotional floral offerings. It is a wonderful place just to stand back and watch what goes on!  

                                     A colorful fountain in "Little India", KL

Welcome to Brickfields, KL!

Many Malaysians proudly claim a South Asian heritage and it shows up in the clothes, foods, temples, mosques and fountains of KL. There's a strong and living connection to Tamil Nadu in south India, but there is plenty of love for northern India too! 

Open this box from the Jesal Sweet House at your own peril -- this is NOT a good place to go on diet!
Laddus and Bedas and more

Our first herbarium stop in KL was the world-famous Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia, known simply as FRIM. It is the National Herbarium for Malaysia, with origins going back to the colonial era.

The Kepong Herbarium at FRIM
The Kepong Herbarium and FRIM are one of the leading centers for the study of tropical forestry in the world. The FRIM grounds are also a top eco-tourism destination, with nature trails, a medicine garden, waterfalls, botanical gardens and a canopy walkway. We were met there by the very kind Dr. Sam Yen Yen, and she gave us a wonderful tour! 
You'll find lots of plants of interest on even a casual stroll around FRIM: here is the flower Amherstia nobilis -- "Pride of Burma" -- in full glory.  

Amherstia nobilis -- "Pride of Burma"
Note the single long curved stigma, surrounded by the anthers
on the ends of the pale pink filaments!

At the Kepong Herbarium, Dr. Sam Yen Yen met us and showed us how the collections are arranged.

Here we are in the specimen preparation room -- Dr. Sam Yen Yen explains drying procedures and equipment.

She also discussed how the Kepong Herbarium protects and preserves its specimens with a strong freezing protocol. Any idea what's in the freezer today? 

The frozen flower of Rafflesia pricei!!

Pest control a la Kepong

The Kepong has also incorporated one of its own innovations into pest management in the herbarium. They place dried slices of Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilisin strategic places throughout the collection & use them to monitor beetle activity and to trap pests. I'm looking for a South Carolina fruit that would work as a substitute!

Without doubt one of the most impressive features of the Kepong Herbarium is the artistry and efficiency of Ms. Fan Yoke Kuan, a long-time member of the herbarium staff who stitches the specimens to the herbarium mounting sheets. Just watch these flying fingers!

Ms. Fan Yoke Kuan at work!

     THE BATU CAVES -- Underground Religion

Lord Murugan holding his vel as visitors climb to the Batu /caves

While we were still in northern KL, we went to the Batu Caves, a series of Hindu shrines that date from the 1890s that are dominated by a massive statue of Lord Murugan.
Lord Murugan (also known as Kartikeya) is one of the sons of Shiva and Parvati. You may be more familiar with his brother, the elephant-headed god Ganesh.
The shrines are in a very large limestone cave at the top of these stairs. This is also the setting of the Thaipusam festival that attracted almost 1,000,000 pilgrims last year!

Check out this video for a different look at the steps!


Inside the caves you'll find a variety of small shrines, all beautiful and seemingly right at home in the vast airy underground. 
Inside the Batu Caves
At the base of the hill at Batu you'll find different sorts of religious-themed attractions. For example, there is a large statue of the very famous and beloved Hanuman. This god is one of the heroes of the epic Ramayana (the 2,000 year-old plus story of Rama and his wife Sita and the fight to get her back from Ravana, the misunderstood king of Sri Lanka).

Here he is opening his heart to reveal his love and devotion for Rama and Sita within -- that is the epitome of piety!


Welcome to the Ramayana Cave!
There is also an attraction at the base of Batu called the "Ramayana Cave" -- this is an ever-expanding religious exhibit that is filled with statues depicting many different and varied stories from the Ramayana. It is interesting and fun to visit and, with all its large sculptures and multi-colored spotlights, is both educational and intriguing!

Here's a popular image: the sleeping giant Kumbhakarna slumbers for six months before he wakes up to join his brother in the fight against Rama.

And, of course (below), here's Hanuman again, flanked on the right by one of the very aggressive monkeys you will find ''guarding'' the entire Batu Caves complex. These monkeys will unzip and raid your backpack while it is still on your back!

Rimba Ilmu
and the University of Malaya

Our last stop in KL was a good one! We visited the Rimba Ilmu (it means "Garden of Knowledge") research garden at the University of Malaya and also got a chance to visit the wonderful herbarium there. Dr. K.T. Yong was a great host and had invited me to speak with his class. Before the lecture he took us on a tour of the facilities. 

With Dr. K.T Yong in one of the Rimba Ilmu greenhouses.
Rimba Ilmu is a research garden with a strong community outreach program and has a wonderful series of displays.

Several of the herbaria we visited have made their seed/carpological collections into public attractions -- this is one at Rimba Ilmu is an especially nice example! 

Everyone's favorite seeds,
the prop-driven Dipterocarps!

Climbing Bamboo! (Dinochloa)

The garden at Rimba Ilmu is a real delight, planted with specialized collections and -- happily! -- all well-labelled!  Can you recognize this plant growing in Rimba Ilmu? It is ''Climbing Bamboo,'' a genus (Dinochloa) of bamboo that surrounds and crawls up rainforest trees! It climbs these trees in search of more light.

Climbing Bamboo (Dinochloaseeking another tree to climb!

The prospect of a photo op will always perk up
a post-lecture crowd! Thank you for your energy,
University of Malaya students!

It wasn't all play at the University of Malaya, as I got to speak with an enthusiastic group of students about the flora of the southwestern and southeastern US. They were an attentive and appreciative audience, and it made my task a lot easier!


We are getting near the end of the trip! In the next blog -- the last one -- we'll visit the fantastic herbarium at the Singapore National Botanic Gardens and of course re-visit the Sarawak Bodiversity Center one more time! Thanks for hanging in there for this long!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Trip to the Danum Valley; A Breakfast Guest; Noisy Gibbons, and a Leech!

Looking over the misty clouds in Danum Valley in Sabah, Borneo
Every botanist who goes to Sabah wants to spend time in the Danum Valley --  primary, undisturbed, mostly lowland dipterocarp rainforest. It is famous for its exceptional flora and fauna, and its world-class research center.  There are all sorts of animals there including Bornean pygmy elephants, the very rare Sumatran rhinoceros, orang-utans, sun bears, gibbons, mousedeer, and even clouded leopards. There are also over 270 species of birds at Danum. Of course, with botanist vibes, we didn't see any of those, but we did see leeches!

The road to Danum from Lahad Datu gradually took us through miles of palm oil plantations to logged secondary forests and finally into beautiful untouched rainforest. On the drive in, monkeys playing on the roadside became more frequent, as did the feeling of entering an almost forgotten, isolated part of the world. Once we unpacked our gear in the researchers quarters we began to explore this living laboratory.   

With Mike Bernadus

Danum hosts dozens of researchers every year and they all seek out this man -- Mike Bernadus, the resident botanical expert.  His decades of experience at Danum have made him invaluable.  He's a rarity among tropical botanists -- he is a strong, strong generalist and knows a lot about a wide range of plants and doesn't focus on just one family. He was also a great host and took the time to show us his collection and the facilities there, & even answered our questions about some of the most intriguing plants we saw! 

Voucher collection at Danum

One of the most interesting research projects at Danum is the ongoing work with the Center for Tropical Forest Science (connected with the Smithsonian) that monitors 62 forest plots in 24 countries. They are doing long-term research to study over 6 million trees and 10,000 species. At Danum they store the specimens here in the voucher collection. It's yet another reason -- as if more were needed! -- why herbaria are important!

Alsomitra macrocarpa -- a breakfast guest!
One morning at breakfast I spotted this under the table. At first I thought it was a scrap of a plastic bag until I realized that it was a seed joined to a membranous wing! We took it to Mike and he named it right off -- Alsomitra macrocarpa. This unusual liana vine grows high in the canopy -- 50 or 60 meters high -- and produces a seed pod that gets as large as a football (in fact, some children wear the empty shells on their heads like a helmet)!  Some people call this a "Javan Cucumber'' and believe it or not, it really is in the Cucurbitaceae (the cucumber) family.

Look out below-- Alsomitra macrocarpa pepo!

The pepo (the fruit that contains the seeds) is never really completely sealed (sort of like an open-ended bell) and when the time is right it opens up and hundreds of these shrink-wrapped seeds come fluttering down like cellophane butterfly gliders. They can glide for hundreds of meters, and land all over the forest. This one though, was local: Mike said it was from a vine growing outside his office window!

The Alsomitra seed up close.

Danum is a wonderful place for hiking and trying to match up what you find on the forest floor with the trees and vines that tower all around you. Here's the flower from a tree in the Lecythidaceae family, Barringtonia pendula.

Barringtonia pendula (young) fruit:
note the yellow ''stringy" flowers
about 2/3 down the fruit cluster.

Barringtonia pendula (fallen) flowers

The beautiful, woody vine Poikilospermum suaveolens.
Another very interesting and absolutely beautiful liana is Poikilospermum suaveolens. At times this robust liana appears to be the tree's canopy -- it is only when you take a closer look that you notice it is only a vine on the tree.  This plant is now in the same family as stinging nettles (Urticaceae). I have never seen another plant in that family as beautiful as this!  Like nettles, it is dioecious -- meaning the plant has either all female or all male flowers.  Unlike nettles -- it doesn't sting! 

At this present time there is NO one research work describing the lianas of Borneo, though there are (invaulable!) volumes which describe the trees in this area. It certainly would be the ultimate challenge and a great tool to produce a work like this!  Any takers?

As mentioned above, Danum Valley is a wonderful place to see wildlife -- and, as I also mentioned, we didn't see any!  But we did hear the cries of some male and female gibbons. These wonderful primates are found all over Danum and Imbak. Here's a brief video where there is not much to see; instead, listen to the sounds of the rainforest, the insects and then, near the end, the quickening and increasingly loud cry of a male gibbon -- crank up your audio!

And did I mention leeches earlier? Here's one of the little suckers in action. They stay low to the ground and wait on fallen leaves or on low vines. They are nothing remarkable to see -- they look like striped segments of spaghetti. But they are heat-sensitive, and as soon as some big warm-blooded animal wanders by, they attach themselves to their meal-ticket! The bite doesn't really hurt: it is more like a slight sting that quickly wears off. When the leech has filled up on your blood, they just drop off -- the perfect crime!

But not quite! They inject a mild anti-coagulant into you that makes your blood flow even when they are long gone. You only know you were leeched when you notice all the fresh blood on your pants or socks-- ick! You should always try to say something nice about everyone so how about this -- leeches don't typically carry any diseases! The video is a little blurry -- sorry about that!

Thanks for reading this far! Next blog we go to peninsular Malaysia to visit Malaysia's largest herbarium at FRIM (the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia), the famous garden at Rimba Ilmu at the University of Malaya, and a very large Hindu shrine set in a massive cave -- come back to check it out!

Friday, June 5, 2015

In the Field in Sabah : Imbak Canyon

Imbak Falls in Sabah -- a dramatic hike from the Tampoi Research Camp

Finally, Sabah! Sabah is on the north-eastern most part of Borneo, famous as the ''Land Below the Wind" (meaning that it is supposedly safe from typhoons). It is lush and green place, laced with hills and mountains and deep valleys. We were especially excited to be going to the Imbak Canyon Conservation Area (ICCA), a protected zone full of primary rainforest and fauna. Our project there was to meet with the resource managers/rangers at the station, show them a few of the basics about collecting plants in the field, and to talk with them about their plans for a future field herbarium. We also relished the chance to hike the rain forest there!

Imbak Canyon and Danum Valley are the two triangles at the north-eastern end of Sabah in Borneo. Imbak is slightly more to the north and west than Danum.
Imbak is an extraordinary example of one of the few primary rainforests remaining in Borneo -- along with a stunning array of plants, it is roamed animals such as gibbons, Bornean pygmy elephants and even the very rare Sumatran Rhinoceros. The surroundings are greener than the Land of Oz and you get the daily and nightly rainforest soundtrack of birdcalls, singing frogs, insects that never tire of their own high chirps and drones, and the reverberating long and short calls of male and female gibbons.

Welcome to Tampoi!
We stayed in the Tampoi Research Station, a rustic no-nonsense working research centre staffed with friendly people and situated in the forest right along the Imbak River. The forest and the camp were sometimes hard to distinguish!  
Research Officer Taufiq Saadudin & Ranger Joori Abiri oriented us to the camp and helped us plan our activities. Imbak is in the process of building a top notch research facility (to open in early 2017) & wants to create an herbarium with documented specimens for visiting researchers as well as teaching specimens for educational purposes.

With Taufiq and Joori (in blue) in the field

It didn't take long to get started collecting the next morning. Collecting in the rain forest is the ultimate challenge for botanist.  You are always looking for fertile plants (i.e. in flower or fruit) -- and you must be able to actually reach these structures! But in the rainforest most flowering occurs HIGH in the canopy -- 50, 60 or 70 meters high! Needless to say, we stuck to understory plants.  

Taufiq & Joori learned to collect and document flowering plants and fertile ferns, as well as make labels and supplement the collection with images. Here's a documented specimen of the well-known Eurycoma longifolia, known  commonly as Tongkat Ali.

This squid-like flower, Strophanthus caudatus,
comes from a woody liana, climbing in the canopy
high above but invisible to us below.

 But a hike in the rain forest can be full of  mysteries. On this occasion the forest floor was scattered with flowers and fruit that fell from high above and you can't tell if they came from a tree or from a liana climbing the tree. It will make even the most accomplished botanist ask the canopy in exasperation, "Which one of you lost this leaf or flower or fruit?''
One of the first things you learn in the rainforest is that it is an ecosystem to be studied on its own terms.
There were other treasures on the forest floor that actually came from there, like this marvellous Maiden Veil (Dictyophora sp.) fungus. It also bears the evocative but slightly less poetic name, "Stinkhorn!"
Look at the beautiful lacy surface of this Maiden Veil fungus!
While we were hiking Joori and Taufiq pointed out a particular Dipterocarp (the tree family that predominates in Borneo) that was oozing a clear resin that they called damar.

When burned, damar produces a fabulous scent, something like frankincense. Some types of damar (but not this one!) are so valuable that they attract damar-poachers from all across Sabah and even Kalimantan to Imbak to take it. Joori is burning some in the video just below.

Joori leads the way over a suspension bridge.
The rest of the trail took us through the untouched primary rainforest and all sorts of terrain, over creeks and along ridges, and over suspension bridges every time we came to the Imbak River.

Imbak and really all of Borneo are fabulous places for bird-watching. We were lucky enough to see a pair of Hornbills while we were there. It also helps when you have guides who can mimic bird calls as well as Joori and Taufiq!

Joori and Taufiq and the Big Belian.
One of the beloved features of Imbak is the "Big Belian,'' (Eusideroxylon zwageri called sometimes ''Ironwood'' or "'Borneo Ironwood") an exceptionally old and very large tree located not too far from Imbak Falls. Belian grows very, very slowly and produces a remarkably durable and heavy wood; as you might expect, it is a highly sought and over-logged tree in Borneo.  
Finally, at the end of the hike we reached the iconic Imbak Falls, one of the main features that attracts visitors to the conservation area. What a beautiful place to enjoy!

It was such a delight to see and hear the falls, and to get a chance to relax a little before it was time to head back to camp. When we finished at Imbak Canyon we headed over to Danum Valley, but that's for another blog! Join us there soon!