Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Pitcher Plant Paradise at Kinabalu National Park

N. burbidgeae - Pic courtesy of thestar.com.my
Pictures by CHAN AH LAK (The Star)

TO say that the pitcher plant is a botanical oddity is not far from wrong. After all, how many plants have leaves that look like pitchers? These jug-shaped containers trap insects that are then slowly digested to become nutrients for the plant. Carnivorous, flesh-eating plants? They are indeed that and more.

Kinabalu National Park in Sabah, which includes Mt Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South-East Asia, is thought to be the cradle of the evolution of the Nepenthes pitcher plant because 12 of the 80 species found in the world grow here. This is the highest concentration of species in one place. Three of these are endemic to Mt Kinabalu: the N. rajah, N. burbidgeae and N. villosa.

Kinabalu Park, officially gazetted in 1964, became Malaysia’s first Unesco World Heritage site in 2000. It is no wonder then, that most visitors to Sabah in search of pitcher plants make a bee-line for this park. Besides the trails around the Park HQ and the Mt Kinabalu Summit Trail, two Nepenthes Gardens have been established to enable visitors to view these exotic plants in semi-natural conditions.

The most easily accessible trail is found in Mesilau, which is within the boundaries of Kinabalu Park, just 45km from the park headquarters. The guided tour into the carefully conserved Nepenthes Rajah Natural Site is a two-hour return hike starting at 11.30am daily from the Mesilau Nature Conservation Centre. Visitors have to pay a RM5 entrance/conservation fee.

Our friendly and knowledgeable park guide that day was Ansou Gunasalam, who took us on an interesting 45-minute uphill slog past a scenic suspension bridge and a well-maintained jungle track, most sections of which have helpful banisters. The trail up to the highest point, the site of the Nepenthes Rajah, is quite a manageable climb for the reasonably fit.

Before embarking on the hike the officer reminded us to be careful where we stepped and that we were not to handle the pitchers or use the flash when photographing them. The pictures should not be used for commercial gain, only for scientific research or education, awareness promotion and conservation.

The first species we encountered was the Nepenthes burbidgeae, a rarely seen species because of its 1,700-2,lOOm above sea level (a.s.l.) habitat. It thrives in mossy forests and on serpentine soil. It is an aerial or upper pitcher plant which uses shrubs and trees as support.

Its elongated leaves, like all pitcher plants, end in tendrils that twine around other plants. These tendrils can develop into light green or ivory-white, 20cm, trumpet-like pitchers with maroon markings. It is named after its discoverer, Frederick Burbidge, a naturalist who explored Mt Kinabalu in the 1800s. The lip or peristome of the pitcher is striped green and maroon.

We were urged not to make any photo stops yet but to earmark specimens to photograph on the way down.

We continued our trudge to the top of the trail where we were greeted by the spectacular Nepenthes rajah which produces the largest natural pitchers in the world. This species is known to exhibit 50cm high pitchers. A famous postcard shows a local Sabah boy, Hin Ching, holding a Nepenthes rajah almost half his height. This postcard alone must have prompted many visitors to rush to Kinabalu Park to see the N. rajah.

The N. rajah is the most well-known pitcher plant because of its large size (25cm-60cm), ovoid (globe-like) shape and huge lid. The lids of pitcher plants are designed to shelter the pitchers from rain, which will dilute their digestive juices. In some species though, these lids have lost their original purpose.

The red peristome of the N. rajah is broad and scalloped and the inner edges are lined with short fine teeth designed to prevent insects from crawling up the smooth interior walls to escape. We discovered only partially digested insects inside the pitchers but were told that the highly acidic digestive enzymes (pH 1.90) can decompose frogs and even tree shrews within two weeks. Mosquito larvae also help in the decomposition process.

The Rajah pitcher is usually purplish brown and with its vaulted lid, it has been irreverently compared to a toilet bowl. Its fat, squat shape means it tends to be terrestrial, lying around on the forest floor. We were also shown the male and female flowers, and Ansou taught us how to distinguish between them. We came across several N. Rajah pitchers with closed lids or in the process of opening. The pitchers take a few days to open, and the peristome will then unfurl and expand.

We were also fascinated by a cluster of slow-growing, two-year-old tiny pitchers, three of which hardly covered a five-sen coin. Ansou told us that these had been planted by the Park as a conservation and propagation measure. It is no wonder then that visitors have been advised to tread carefully and not to pick up these precious pitchers with their hands. The lids are especially brittle and prone to breakage by careless handling.

Other species of pitcher plants that can be seen here are the epiphytic aerial N. fusca, terrestrial N. tentaculata and the N. rafflesiana which produces both ovoid-shaped lower pitchers as well as trumpet-shaped higher pitchers when the vines climb to a sufficient height.

The Mesilau Nepenthes Garden Trail has other attractions besides the pitcher plants. Several slipper orchids and necklace orchids (Coelogyne hirtella) are in bloom along the trail, as are pretty montane fungi, berries and mosses. From the top of the trail, there is also a panoramic view of the Mesilau Resort and Conservation Centre.

If you are climbing the Summit Trail of Mt Kinabalu, do inform your guide that you are interested in seeing pitcher plants. These plants usually grow off the main trail and you may need to scramble up high embankments and steep overgrown tracks to see them.

Start your hike as early as possible so that you don’t have to hurry to reach Laban Rata. The Timpohon Gate opens at 7.30am daily. Two of the most fascinating species you will encounter is the N. iowii, with its easily recognisable waisted pitchers and the tan-coloured N. kinabaluensis, a natural hybrid.

Kinabalu Park is the most scientifically- studied area in Malaysia because of its rich biodiversity. Mt Kinabalu, with its stark glaciated peaks soaring above the tree line, is surely the most attractive yet challenging mountain in our country to scale. Every Malaysian should try to climb it at least once in his or her lifetime. And while you are there, do watch out for the exotic pitcher plants.

Courtesy of The Star

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