Thursday, May 14, 2015

Tropical Forest Fruits Seeds Seedlings and Trees--Book Review

My book of the above title is the subject of a thorough review by Dr David Mabberley. It is an honour to be reviewed by such an authority. This review appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Tropical Forest Science which can be read freely on line. To save readers the trouble I reproduce the review here.

Journal of Tropical Forest Science 27(2): 282–283 (2015)
Tropical Forest Fruits, Seeds, Seedlings and Trees. Malayan Forest Records No. 52. FSP Ng.
2014. Forest Research Institute Malaysia, Kepong. 429 pp. RM250/USD150.

This handsome (and heavy) volume is the result of a 30-year study, the kind of project no longer
really possible (or appreciated) in the shortterm-oriented academic world of today, yet so fundamental in terms of practicalities. We learn that it was modelled on RS Troup’s Silviculture
of Indian Trees (1921) and was intended to be a reference manual for foresters, particularly with
a view to their using it in efforts to restore logged forest. It is derived from an initial synthesis
published in two volumes (1990, 1991) as Manual of Forest Fruits, Seeds and Seedlings.

After brief introductory chapters and a one-page bibliography, the bulk of the volume comprises the descriptions (pp 32–249), arranged alphabetically by family (and the genera alphabetically within those), and then seedling illustrations (pp 250–426), similarly arranged, the book ending with an index to generic names.

From a practical standpoint, the book will immediately be compared with EF de Vogel’s Seedlings of Dicotyledons (1980), though Dr Ng’s book has broader scope in dealing with seed and fruit structure through to tree-architecture,with gymnosperms as well as angiosperms. De Vogel’s book was based on a three-year research project in Java, leading to a thesis, and covered 150 species (133 genera) in 51 families, while Ng deals with 607 species (representing 309 genera in 86 families). De Vogel abandoned the classical distinction between epigeal and hypogeal germination, for example, while Ng has four germination types (with some subtypes), which he formally described in 1978. De Vogel has 16 seedling types with 9 subtypes whereas Ng has descriptions of seedlings as the first stages in the trees’ architectural development, of which he recognises 16 types in a key (p 15). De Vogel’s book was beautifully illustrated, partly in watercolours, by Mohammed Toha, one of the gifted artists who worked on CGGJ van Steenis’s magnificent Mountain Flora of Java (1972), whereas Ng’s book has studio photographs by ISY Ho and line drawings by the author. De Vogel had a glossary; Ng has some pages of ‘Essential concepts and definitions’. Research for the book started in the 1960s when tropical rainforests were much less depleted than they are today. Seeds were collected, documented and germinated. The development of seedlings was followed daily, photographed and described; when large enough, young plants were established in the arboretum and grounds of FRIM at Kepong. Such simple techniques give answers to questions on germination times besides potential dormancy and viability periods,which information was published separately by FRIM in 1991. Documented and discussed are the early stages of tree-architecture, until this becomes obscured as the tree matures, forming its massive trunk through self-pruning, and its apex arrives in the canopy to produce a crown with ‘co-dominant non-pruning shoots’ in what Ng calls a ‘postarchitectural stage’.

Each family entry has a brief introduction with distribution, number of genera and species and basic description, each genus within with its vernacular name, descriptions of seeds, fruits, and germination, with at least one example illustrated in line for each family, sometimes accompanied by colour photographs, together making up 225 figures. The bulk of the plates, whole pages of black-and-white and colour photographs of seedlings that follow, number 187. These are the meat of the book and will be those of greatest practical use and interest, a good example being the copious information on Syzygium spp. (p 185) for example.

Some of the introductory matter is perhaps a little less felicitous. The account of the ‘postarchitectural stage’ of tree development and discussion of ‘crown-shyness’, on which the
author has written before, are useful but, bearing in mind his unorthodox, iconoclastic discussion
of fruit-types, where he rightly criticises the foisting of temperate-plant-based thinking on the
tropics, his discussion of ‘leaves’ follows too much the very same essentialist Goethe canon rather
than the recent more objective work showing a leaf–stem continuum. Other statements may
surprise readers too, such as when the flower is best seen as an immature fruit rather than something ‘shed at the end of its predetermined life unless fertilised’. And as far as leaves go, do those of grass really have ‘determinate growth’? The author makes much of changes wrought in angiosperm classification by recent, largely molecular work (though this often supports the seed work published in the 1970s by EJH Corner, one of the few critics of then prevalent Cronquist-Takhtajan-Thorne ‘consensus’) and follows to a large extent modern family circumscriptions.

However, he keeps Myrsinaceae separate from Primulaceae, Polyosmaceae from Escalloniaceae,
and Pteleocarpaceae from Boraginaceae, while his Gentianaceae contains all Loganiaceae, and
he declines to split up Euphorbiaceae (even keeping Pandaceae within) when, unless split,
Euphorbiaceae has to embrace Rafflesiaceae! While (laudably) maintaining the traditional names Leguminosae and Guttiferae, he has given in to Lamiaceae (= Labiatae). In another international context, it is perhaps unfortunate that the book’s title does not include the word ‘Malaysian’ or similar and it is also regrettable that Flora Malesiana treatments have not always been followed, e.g. Heynea (Meliaceae) not being recognised as distinct from Trichilia for example, both suggesting a somewhat inward-looking approach. Similarly, Carmona (Boraginaceae) is now known to be nested’ in Ehretia, while the correct name for Symingtonia (Hamamelidaceae) is Exbucklandia, both of which (and several other) slips would have been avoided if reference had been made to modern plant-dictionaries. There are some spelling errors of which ‘septae’ is perhaps the most egregious—but all of these things are minor cavils and the author and publisher are to be congratulated on bringing Dr Ng’s major accomplishment to scientific notice. The ability to be able to identify fruits and seeds, seedlings and trees is in decline as older staff members retire and die.

Based on longterm study and experience, such an ability is not fashionable in an academic world aping that of the north, despite the fact that such botanical riches are unique assets of tropical nations when compared with the depauperate nature of temperate floras. Forest nurseries were formerly maintained in Peninsular Malaysia, but these too have largely lapsed there, forests being left to regenerate themselves, though in Sabah the tradition is fortunately strongly maintained. Although commercial nurseries in Peninsular Malaysia raise indigenous trees for urban greening, the range of species grown is a tiny proportion of the native tree flora. Many of these native tree species are endangered or even extinct, but those still hanging on could be saved by cultivation as has happened in many other parts of the world.

It is to be hoped that this milestone book will act as a wake-up call before it is too late. Malaysia’s
botanical heritage is in danger: without training and application of Dr Ng’s findings in practical
conservation efforts, Malaysia’s international reputation is in jeopardy.

David J Mabberley
Wadham College, University of Oxford,
United Kingdom
Macquarie University and Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, Australia

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Tropical rain forest in a shopping mall

A tropical rain forest has a four-layered structure consisting of a canopy of spreading tree crowns, under which fits an understorey of narrow-crowned juvenile trees, a shrub layer and a ground layer. I created such a forest in the 1 Utama shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur in the span of a few weeks in 2003. 

A description of the method is now published in the UTAR Agriculure Science Journal with pictures of the process. This can be viewed at the journal website

Monday, January 26, 2015

UTAR Agriculture Science Journal

The new journal was launched at a short ceremony at the UTAR Campus in Kampar this morning. It can be viewed at our website

To be kept informed by email of new issues, please 'subscribe' and enter you name, email and country.

I would like to have readers' reactions to help me develop this journal into something we will all find useful.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

UTAR Agriculture Science Journal

Next month, January 2015, we will be launching a new journal called the UTAR Agriculture Science Journal. UTAR stands for Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, I am the editor of this journal and we have been working on it for a year.

Not another journal!! That is the incredulous response I have been getting. We are indeed flooded with journals, mostly dying ones. Every week I get invitations to contribute articles to this or that 'international journal of science' or join the editorial board or become a peer reviewer. I ignore all of them. Originally scientists published to spread information for the public good. Now publication is business. Publishers make profits by selling journals to libraries and to readers. Some make scientists pay a publication fee. Scientists try to get published in the journals that have the best international circulation. Such journals charge heavy subscription fees because they believe that good libraries have no choice but to pay up. The scientist is just a pawn in this business.

The UTAR Agriculture Science Journal will provide scientists with a global audience at no cost to them. We will make the journal totally free of charge on the Internet. Readers will be able to download the contents without restrictions.For libraries that need to have printed copies we will provide printed copies at absolutely no charge, not even for postage.

How long with this journal survive? Stay with this blog and we will find out.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Price tag on Tropical Fruits, Seeds, Seedlings and Trees

I checked with the Publication Unit in FRIM today on the pricing of the book Tropical Fruits, Seeds, Seedlings and Trees. The price at the FRIM bookshop is 250 Malaysian Ringgit. I mailed  one copy to a friend in the USA today and that cost me RM 180 by postal air mail. The cost by Courier would have exceeded RM 300. The weight after packing was over 2 kg.

For overseas orders, the FRIM price is USD 150, not including postage.

As author I would like the book to be distributed quickly and cheaply but that is our of my hands.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tropical Forest Fruits, Seeds, Seedlings and Trees
Author: F.S.P. Ng
Published in October 2014 by The Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), Kepong, Selangor, Malaysia.

The biggest, most majestic, and least understood of all living things are the giant trees of high forests. It has been said that we know more about the big animals like elephants and whales than about the big trees.

The idea for this book began to take shape in the 1960s when tropical forests were vast and challenging, and foresters considered it their duty to restore logged forests by collecting and germinating seeds and tending the seedlings until they grew into mature trees. This book was intended to be their reference manual.

To ensure accuracy and consistency, all the relevant data were obtained first-hand by personal observation and experiment. Other sources were used to provide supplementary information. The book deals with over 600 species of tropical forest trees, representing 309 genera and 86 families. It describes the structure of their fruits and seeds, their germination characteristics, and their subsequent development.

At maturity, the big trees are characterized by towering cylindrical free-standing pillars rising 30 – 50 m or more above the ground, topped by spreading leafy crowns.  These pillars, which foresters call clear boles, provide the logs of the timber industry. Clear boles are ‘clear’ because all their branches have been shed and their scars smoothed over so that no traces of branching remain.

Trees are built from ground up incrementally, according to genetically predetermined programmes. These programmes were first recognized and described in the early 1970s as tree architectural models. The recognition of these models was the exciting highlight of dendrology—the science of trees—of the 1970s and 1980s.

The elucidation of tree architectural models has greatly improved our understanding of trees but it has also become gradually apparent that the form and structure of the canopy trees of high forests cannot be explained by tree architecture alone. As explained in this book, the architectural programmes or models specify the relationship between the leader shoot of a tree and its branches. This is an important relationship because without a clearly dominant leader shoot, it is not possible to make a tree. But to make a canopy tree, something more is needed.  As the young tree reaches canopy level, its branches are cast off until all that is left of its architectural model is a clear bole. The mature crown above the clear bole develops under a post-architectural programme in which the leader-and-branch model is replaced by a model of co-dominant limbs. Limbs are not shed like branches. In other words, the development of a canopy tree requires an architectural programme to develop its sub-canopy crown, of which the clear bole is the ultimate product, followed by a post-architectural programme to develop a mature crown of co-dominant limbs.

With the recognition of post-architectural development, we are closer to deciphering the complete development of trees.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, forest nurseries were maintained in every forest district in Peninsular Malaysia to raise seedlings for planting. This practice is now implemented strongly in Sabah but has lapsed in the Peninsula, where forests are being left to regenerate themselves. Most forest nurseries have closed and the ability of staff to recognize fruits, seeds, seedlings and trees is rapidly being lost. Commercial nurseries have come into operation, raising forest trees for establishment in urban areas, but the range of species they grow is only a fraction of the diversity of tropical forests. The future of many species now hangs in the balance, for without greater effort to propagate and grow them to maturity, they will surely become extinct. 
This book is sold at RM 250 at the bookshop in FRIM, Kepong. Weighing 1.86kg, the book is 429 pages long and crammed with germination data, line drawings of fruits and seeds, photographs of seedlings, and illustrations of tree form and structure.

The author joined the Forest Research Institute Malaysia as Forest Botanist in 1964 and was its Deputy Director-General in 1986 – 1990. He headed the Forest Research, Education and Training Service of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in Rome in 1991 – 1994. In 1994 – 1996 he was one of the founding Directors of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor. Dr Ng was awarded the David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration in 2009 in Miami. Among his other books are Tropical Horticulture and Gardening (2006) and 100 Years of Tropical Forestry Research (2010).  He is currently Consulting Editor to the Journal of Tropical Forest Science and Editor of the UTAR Agriculture Science Journal.                            

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Is water damaged by boiling in a microwave oven?

Last week I received by email a post about the danger of using a microwave oven to boil water. It says that a schoolgirl in England did an experiment comparing water boiled in a microwave oven with water boiled normally.She used microwaved water on one potted plant and normal boiled water on another similar plant. She was shocked that the plant given microwaved water deteriorated daily and died in a few days while the other plant grew bigger and bigger. Photographs of the two plants were provided to show how the plants fared day by day.

I decided to test this story by germinating bean sprouts. I bought a packet of seeds and placed seeds on tissue paper in ventilated transparent plastic boxes.Then I boiled one cup of water in a microwave oven and another in an electric kettle. After the water had cooled, I wetted one box with microwaved water and the other with kettle-boiled water. The seeds began to swell within an hour. Over the next four days the plants grew equally well in both boxes. Here are the pictures taken on the 4th day of my experiment.

The box on the right, with the letter M written on the lid is the one treated with microwaved water. There is no difference between the two sets of plants. In front of each box are two plants removed from each box to show the tallest and shortest plants in each box.  Yes, there was variation within each box.

The second picture shows the bag of seeds from which the experimental seeds were taken,  to show that the seeds all come from the same source.  

The third picture shows all the seedlings taken out from each box and arranged by height. The label M indicates that the bottom row is the one treated with microwaved water. The range of variation is the same for both treatments.
The fourth picture shows the seedlings grouped into small, medium and large size classes. The number of seedlings in each size class is indicated in the labels. I had 77 seeds in the box treated with microwaved water and 71 seeds in the other box. 

Anyone should be able to do this experiment, which illustrates a couple of important principles in scientific experimentation. 

In an experiment comparing two treatments, all other factors except the experimental treatments must be the same. The boxes, the tissue paper, the room and table top, the source of seeds, even the observer, must all be the same. Only the water is allowed to be different. The experiment was carried out in a room that nobody else could enter and disturb.

The experimental materials i.e. the seeds and seedlings in this case, are naturally variable. There would be slow-growers, fast-growers and in-between growers. If we use a small number of seeds we may accidentally have a concentration of small growers in one box and fast growers in the other box and the experiment would fail to demonstrate the effect of the water.The number of seeds (we call it the sample size) must be large enough to override the natural variation. If we do not know what natural variation to expect, we should start with a big sample. In our case, 70 to 80 seeds turned out to be big enough. If we had started out with too small a sample we could not have obtained a clear-cut result. 

Most experiments cannot be run so easily. The materials may be expensive and bulky e.g. coconuts instead of mung beans;subject to stringent ethical and moral controls e.g. humans and animals; require months or years to develop under unpredictable climatic and field conditions e.g. most field crops; impossible to obtains in large numbers from a uniform source. There are ways to deal with all these problems but the basic principles of experiment are the same.

Was the experiment by the English schoolgirl a deliberate fabricatiuon or a poorly planned experiment? I think it was a deliberate fabrication..