Friday, May 13, 2011

Borneo a long-time lure for rare plant collectors

A few weeks ago I was writing about local plantsman Keith Adams. You may not have heard that Keith died last week. We will miss him. He was an extraordinary character who made frequent plant hunting trips to Borneo during his retirement years.

One of the plants Keith collected in Borneo, Rhododendron lowii, took 16 years to flower at Pukeiti. Not exactly speedy, but worth the wait, according to the Pukeiti team. It's a vireya or subtropical rhododendron with bright green glossy leaves and gleaming golden yellow trumpets.

I was fortunate to be given a plant of R. lowii recently by Mark and Abbie Jury and, to my delight, it has flowered twice already. It's a real collector's piece, which is understandable given that it can take 16 years to flower.

The plant is named after Rajah Low, and I thought I would tell you a bit about him. Although he should be famous for his rhododendron, he is actually better known in the orchid world. We should not forget also that he was a very able and popular administrator in Borneo and Malaysia.

As a young man he became interested in plants, not surprising given his father ran a London nursery specialising in orchids. This was the era when orchids were top of the pops and nurseries were sending brave young men all over the world to find exciting new species. When he left school, Hugh Low became one of these intrepid young men, agreeing to go out to the Far East collecting orchids for his father's nursery. Thankfully, his collections were a huge success and there are at least eight orchids named after him.

In those days, orchid nurseries would spend vast sums to obtain new species and plants were stripped from jungles all over the world. Apart from being beautiful, orchids had two things in their favour. They were expensive to maintain in heated greenhouses, plus their scarcity value meant only rich people could afford to acquire a collection. Nurserymen loved this scenario as they could name their price for new introductions. Collectors were sent to all the islands of the Pacific in search of orchids.

There were few white men in Borneo at this time so everyone knew everyone. Hugh Low fell in with Rajah Brooke who, by all accounts, was a rogue. Englishman James Brooke sailed to Borneo in the late 1830s with the intention of trading spices. His timing was perfect as his crew helped the Sultan of Brunei put down an insurrection and Brooke was given the title of Rajah of Sarawak - rajah being chief or king. Nothing like giving yourself airs.

In those days, enterprising Englishmen sailed off and claimed bits of the world and the government in London had to play catchup and paint a bit more of the map in British pink. India was the classic case where a single company controlled the country and similar things happened here in New Zealand.

Hugh Low became Brooke's secretary for the next 20 or so years. In many ways he had the perfect life living on the island of Labuan just to the north of Borneo, giving him easy access to the mainland to go botanising or exploring. Low was the first European to venture far inland and was quite at ease with the headhunting natives. In later life he wrote books about his adventures and the people he met.

Continue reading at: Borneo a long-time lure for rare plant collectors

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