Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sabah: Kinabalu - In Search of Nepenthes rajah

There is another entrance to Kinabalu National Park at Mesilau, around the back side of the mountain, up a long, poorly-maintained road past a World War II memorial and, at 1951 metres, the highest-altitude golf course in Malaysia. The Mesilau entrance is at a higher elevation than the main gate, high enough to be just below the prime growing sites for Kinabalu's remarkable pitcher plants. This was my first visit to Mesilau, and I had a specific botanical goal: Nepenthes rajah, both by size and by name the king of the pitcher plants.

To reach the site for N. rajah I had to climb out of the forest into the scrub zone. Fortunately for me there is a well-marked trail that leads straight to the plants.

Even more fortunately, there is a local guide at Mesilau, Ansou by name, who has worked with a number of visiting botanists and is remarkably knowledgeable about the bewildering array of plants on the mountain. Here he is at Mesilau Cave, one of the more fascinating spots along the trail though it is really a shelter under a rock overhang - not quite big enough to be dignified by calling it a cave. 

It is littered with the centuries-old leavings of the early human inhabitants if Kinabalu (more recently, botanists have used it as a handy shelter). Lord Cranbrook had visited the site some time earlier with a BBC film crew and had told Eileen and I about it, so I was quite delighted to see it in the flesh (as it were).

The trail first passes through some quite substantial forest...

...with large, impressive trees.

The forest floor is dotted with a variety of ferns...

....clumps of an ancient fern relative, Selaginella...
...and other clumps of an even more ancient plant, a moss.  This isn't just any moss, though; it is the giant hairy-cap moss (Dawsonia longifolia), the tallest moss in the world.  It can grow up to a metre high in places, though the stand in this photograph is nowhere near that.

The forest held beautiful flowers, too.  This is probably Cyrtandra clarkei (Gesneriaceae).

Though our focus was botanical rather than zoological, Ansou and I still managed to turn up a bit of animal life. Here is a Jentinck's Squirrel, a bit closer than the one in my last post...

...and here, a curious White-throated Fantail (Rhipidura albicollis), gives us a look-over. Fantails (or at least most of them, except for s few rather cryptic species in New Guinea) are generally tame, delightful creatures that spend a great deal of their time posturing in all directions with puffed-out plumage and ridiculously-spread tail. This little dance has a serious purpose: flushing startled insects from their hiding places so that the bird can snap them up. Other birds do this sort of thing, too, including the American  Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) and the whitestarts of the neotropical genus Myioborus, but few do it with the exaggerated flair of the liveliest of the fantails.

Before long, the trail climbs out of the forest into lower montane scrubland...

...dodges over rushing, boulder-strewn streamlets....

....and scales the rubble-strewn landslide screes that Nepenthes rajah prefers.
As we climbed, Ansou named the plants that grew along the path. This is an Elatostemma, a non-stinging member of the stinging-nettle family (Urticaceae).

This, as its flowers demonstrate, is a member of the Solanacae, the family that includes the humble tomato and potato (not to mention the less-humble deadly nightshade).

Begonias are highly diverse in Malaysia; this, according to Ansou, is Begonia berylleae.

This attractive, pale violet trumpet flower grows on a species of Strobilanthes, presumably S. galeopsis.

The two plants intertwining in this photograph are apparently a pepper (PiperMedinilla, the bearer of the pink flowers. sp., the one with mottled leaves) and a species of

Here is another Medinilla, this time on its own.

The fabled N. rajah was not the first pitcher plant we encountered on the trail. This is Nepenthes burbidgei, whose colour pattern reminded me of an antique wall print or one of the more rococo varieties of tulip.

This is Hornstedtia (possibly H. scyphifera), a form of ginger. The peculiar, elongated cone-like structure on the right is a flower stalk.

This shrub, with delicately lovely pink flowers, is, I believe, a member of the Theaceae.

Kinabalu stands at a crossroads between the Himalayas, with their North Temperate / Oriental montane flora, and the mountains of New Guinea in the Australasian region. Its plants, or their ancestors, have arrived from both directions. This branch, decorated with what appears to be a spray of oak leaves, comes from a tree that evolved in the Southern Hemisphere. Those oak-like 'leaves' are not leaves at all, but flattened stems (technically, phylloclades), and the plant itself is about as distantly related to an oak as it is possible for a woody tree to be.  It is a Malesian celery-pine (Phyllocladus hypophyllus, named for those tell-tale phylloclades), a conifer in the family Podocarpaceae, and a member of a genus (of only five species) that I last encountered in Tasmania and New Zealand.

Phyllocladus is not the only southern hemisphere conifer on the mountain. This is a member of the genus Agathis, the same genus that includes the legendary kauri of New Zealand. There are two species of Agathis on Kinabalu (out of four on Borneo), both threatened with extinction, and both almost entirely confined within the boundaries of the National Park.

And here is still another conifer with southern affinities, though its genus, Dacrydium, ranges north into southern China.

Weinmannia is a genus of plants (Family Cunoniaceae) widespread in the tropics and the southern hemisphere.  Its distribution may mark it as a survivor of the breakup of the great southern continent of Gondwana, a process that began as far back as the Jurassic (though Weinmannia, a flowering plant, is surely not as old as that).

This little plant with its rosette of tiny blossoms is a Red Sanicle or Mountain Trachymene (Trachymene saniculifolia), a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae) with white flowers and red fruit. The genus Trachymene is another element of the Kinabalu flora that probably arrived from the Southern Hemisphere. It ranges from Malaysia to Australia, New Caledonia and Fiji. The Mountain Trachymene itself ranges from Borneo to New Guinea, with a tiny, endangered population (sometimes referred to as T. scapigera) far to the south in New South Wales, Australia.

Many orchids have tiny flowers.  The flowers on this plant, probably a member of the genus Liparis, are beautiful, but so small that you could easily overlook them. 

This orchid, with its arching spray of minute green flowers, is probably a member of the widespread genus Habenaria.

I believe that this plant, with its lovely pink flowers, is a species of Aeschynanthus (like Cyrtandra, a member of the African violet family Gesneriaceae).

According to Ansou, the bearer of these bright blue berries belongs to the Rubiaceae.

Other than its pitcher plants, the most spectacular elements of Kinabalu's flora are probably its many and diverse rhododendrons -- unlike the celery-pine, a truly Himalayan element of Kinabalu's flora. Unfortunately I didn't see too many in bloom on my May 2010 visit, but Ansou identified this one as Rhododendron crassifolium, a widespread species in the highlands of Borneo.

We tend to think of Impatiens, the balsams, in terms of vast swathes of identical bedding plants set out in roadside flower beds or lined up for sale outside supermarkets. They are, however, sn interesting group of plants that have shown a good deal of evolutionary plasticity (see, for example, Jonathan Kingdon's superb book Island Africa for an interesting account). this one is probably Impatiens kinabaluensis.
Finally, we reached the first trailside clump of Nepenthes rajah.  The best plants were further up the trail, but as I was recovering from a severe bout of sciatica I decided to settle for the plants within reach.

Nepenthes pitchers are extensions of the leaves, developing from a soft bump on the leaf tip into a long, supple vine ending in the trap itself.  The pitchers on this plant were not big by rajah standards - a giant specimen can have a four-litre capacity, and can drown a rat - but they were impressive enough!  

When Sir Joseph Hooker described N. rajah in 1879,  he waxed ecstatic about it: "This wonderful plant is certainly one of the most striking vegetable productions hitherto discovered, and, in this respect, is worthy of taking place side by side with the Rafflesia Arnoldii. It hence bears the title of my friend Rajah Brooke, of whose services, in its native place, it may be commemorative among botanists."  Rajah Brooke aside (and the White Rajahs of Sarawak were remarkable productions themselves), "rajah" means "king", and king of the pitcher plants this certainly is.
The pitchers of Nepenthes spp. are so spectacular that it is easy to forget that there are Nepenthes flowers, too.  Male and female flowers are borne on separate plants; this, I believe, is a spray of female flowers.

Here are the flowers in closeup; they may never adorn a corsage, and they certainly take second place to the pitchers, but I, for one, rather like them.

Nepenthes, unfortunately, are too spectacular for their own good.  They have been massively overcollected for the horticultural trade, although every species, including N. rajah, is available as artificially-propagated plants.  All Nepenthes species are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) -- in fact, I had something to do with that. I introduced the proposal for their protection at the 1987 CITES Conference in Ottawa (the Malaysian government had been unable to send a delegation to the meeting, so I arranged for some staff to come over from the High Commission, got myself seconded onto the delegation with permission from the then head of their Wildlife Department, Mohammed Khan bin Momin Khan (who had to be gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to give his OK), and argued the proposal through.  No wonder I have a soft spot for these plants -- and especially for this one, one of only two species on CITES Appendix I, the Convention's highest category of protection (the other, N. khasiana, hails from northern India).  It was wonderful to meet it, finally, in the flesh (as it were) and where it belongs, high on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu.


  1. Thanks for sharing the plant info in Mesilau. I always overlook them because I don't know much about plant.

  2. Hi,
    May i have your permission to use the N. rajah pitcher image for an educational school presentation that ill be doing next week?
    thank you