Monday, August 19, 2019

Is Rafflesia an Angiosperm?

Rafflesia arnoldii is well known as one of two contenders for the title of World's Largest Flower, the other contender being Amorphophallus titanum. Both are native to Sumatra. Rafflesia arnoldii has a close relative in Peninsular Malaysia--Rafflesia cantleyi. In March 1918 I was given the opportunity to embark on a detailed study of Rafflesia cantleyi using fresh materials supplied by the Forest Research Institute Malaysia as part of its development of a Rafflesia Research Center in the northern part of Perak State. 

Rafflesia was described and given it name by the British scientist Robert Brown in 1821. Brown followed up with another paper in 1834. These papers were remarkable for the way Brown described the difficulties he had with Rafflesia. Although he had classified Rafflesia as a dicot flowering plant because of its 5-petalled flowers, the structure of the female and male organs are utterly different from all other flowering plants and Brown was not afraid to say so. However, instead of stimulating further critical enquiry, Brown’s misgivings have been ignored. In re-examining the morphology of Rafflesia in detail I have come the conclusion that Rafflesia is so fundamentally different from other flowering plants that it should be placed in a separate category of its own. It is a flowering plant but not an angiosperm like other flowering plants!

However, molecular biologists have gone the other way and embedded Rafflesia in the angiosperms close to or within the family Euphorbiaceae. My first attempt to publish my findings was rejected because  the editor and reviewers considered the matter to have been settled by molecular biologists.

As a scientist, I have always believed that every theory is science can be reexamined at any time and that this is what keeps science alive and relevant. In this case, new evidence is provided by photographs of structures made visible by careful dissection under a microscope. Those viewing the photographic evidence are free to evaluate the evidence themselves.  

I was able to get this paper published in the Journal of Tropical Forest Science and for those who are curious, here is the link to the paper.

Journal of Tropical Forest Science 31(3): 286–297 (2019) Ng FSP

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Another review of  Tropical Forest Scientist, just published in the journal Huntia,

Huntia 17(2) 2019 pp158-159. Ng, Francis S. P. Tropical Forest Scientist: Francis S. P. Ng & FRIM, 1964–1991. Kepong, Kuala Lumpur: Forest Research Institute Malaysia, 2018. 200 p., ill., maps, port. (some col.). $18.00 (US) plus postage. ISBN 978-967-2149-07-1 (paperback). Available from Forest Research Institute Malaysia 

Francis S. P. Ng spent 27 years of his career at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM). Following Malayan independence from British rule in 1957, it took eight years to “Malayanize” the Forest Department, which included FRIM. Ng joined FRIM near the end of that process as a first year pupil botanist in 1964. This intelligent, curious and highly motivated fledgling scientist hit the ground running, eventually becoming an expert in tropical tree biology and the Malaysian tree flora through exploration, experimentation and endless curiosity about trees. He took time out to earn a Ph.D. at Oxford in 1971.

Exploration of Malaysian forests led to numerous projects. In 1970 he began an extensive study of tree seedlings, seeds and fruits. A related study on seed germination eventually covered around 630 species. Experimentation on regeneration in logged forests yielded important insights.

His study of flowering-to-fruiting periods in trees led to a better understanding of gregarious flowering in Malaysian forests in which many species flower at the same time followed by mast fruiting unlike the more predictable times seen in non-tropical deciduous forests. His pioneering paper on “crown shyness” in several tropical tree species—treetops not in contact with each other, allowing unfiltered sunlight to pass through the canopy—was met with excitement among international dendrologists. He wrote on another aspect of tree growth in a joint paper with Francis Halle, who had already worked with others on classifying tree architecture. Missing from their work was an explanation of the architecture of the mature crowns of canopy trees, which completely change shape after a certain stage of growth. Ng’s insights into these and other topics unlocked research problems for others and led to his being invited to speak at numerous international symposia.

His first overseas symposium was Tropical Trees as Living Systems, at Harvard in 1976. He was one of 27 leading tropical forest scientists invited to contribute to the 1978 book of the same name. His chapter on germination theory discussed a problem with the presentation of only two European germination types in standard texts, but Ng found that four types occurred in the tropics. He comments, “Until then I had no idea whether my research, published in The Malaysian Forester, was having any international impact” (p. 79).

In 1978 Ng was transferred to lead plantations research in FRIM, a move by the new director to discontinue discrimination in staff development and promotion, and later that year was promoted to deputy director of the Forestry Research Division. By 1981 FRIM had become the intellectual center of Malaysia’s forestry sector. In 1986 Ng was appointed deputy general of FRIM, and he worked to put FRIM on a solid scientific footing before his impending retirement. He also spent considerable time collaborating with and mentoring others at FRIM and in the region. He worked on a joint research project with every new scientist to come under his charge to start them on their research careers. He also advocated for the importance of networking and information sharing. As time went on he shared more of his expertise with other governmental research institutes locally, regionally and internationally. In 1990 he was hired at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as chief of Forest Education, Research and Training, based in Rome. After six years away he returned to Kuala Lumpur. In 2009 he received the David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration from the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Much of Ng’s published work is in FRIM journals. His books include Tree Flora of Malaya (1 9 7 2 – 1 9 8 9, volumes 3–4 edited by Ng); The Tropical Garden City (1990) with Salleh Mohd Nor and Wong Yew Kwan; and Manual of Forest Fruits, Seeds and Seedlings (1992), covering more than 600 species. Ng took particular satisfaction from the Tree Flora of Malaya: “I think the Tree Flora of Malaya was the only flora ever completed in a former colonial territory after independence” (p. 175).

Ng has given us a narrative interwoven with information about tropical trees and forests, the 20th century Malaysian scientific world and various intriguing botanical problems. The format of the book combines chronological journal-style entries with grey text boxes expanding on topics in the journal entries, such as tree biology, forestry, science, post-colonial politics and more. The book offers an interesting and compelling recollection of a scientific world unfamiliar to many in the West. An index and two maps are included, one keyed to an accompanying list of the Malaysian forest reserves. —

A PDF of the book review section of the 17(2) Huntia, is now available on our Web site ( 

Friday, June 08, 2018

Review of my book Tropical Forest Scientist

My book has been reviewed by the Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Here is his review.

Gardens' Bulletin Singapore 70 (1): 259. 2018
BOOK REVIEW: Tropical Forest Scientist.  Francis S.P. Ng and FRIM 1964–1991.  Francis S.P. Ng. 2018. Kepong, Kuala Lumpur: Forest Research Institute Malaysia.  25.5 × 19 cm, softcover, 200 pp. ISBN 978-967-2149-07-1 (softcover), price RM30.

As its title indicates, this is both autobiography and anecdotal history of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia, or FRIM as it is better known.  It is a fascinating read for anyone interested in botany and forestry, but not just for its stimulating scientific and technical content.  The narrative tells the story of the Merdeka generation to whom the book is dedicated – the struggles fought as Malaysia established itself after Independence from British rule.  Francis Ng is a wonderful story-teller, though he is not telling of fictional events.  The many characters in his account are all real and it is at times perhaps brave of him that he recounts some moments of tension without fear of rebuke.  It is also clear that either he has a remarkable memory or has been very thorough in writing down the day-to-day happenings over so many years.  It is hard to know where to pick examples from, as the book has many entertaining moments.  The story of Frank White riding a Vespa and the ostrich encounter on a country road in Zambia (page 46) is a classic.  Likewise the phenomenon of crown shyness in Kapur (Dryobalanops aromatica), pages 85–86.  The conservation of species and habitats is a recurring theme, as it should be, and it is pleasing to note that Francis and his FRIM colleagues were prepared to stick their necks out to highlight the wanton destruction of pristine areas for human gain and nature’s loss, even resorting to an expensive newspaper advertising campaign (pp. 73–75).  The remarkable sapwood of the Jelutong (Dyera costulata), one of Southeast Asia’s tallest trees, is a revelation (p. 156).  I had not imagined that the wood of any large tree could all be alive, as opposed to the more usual division between dead heartwood and living sapwood, but the Jelutong apparently has a trunk that is entirely alive and suffused throughout with a latex that prevents anything from eating or decaying it! In conclusion we can all learn a lot from Francis Ng’s exceptional career, and his contributions to Malaysian botany and forest science are of a significance that has seldom been equalled.  It is a delight that we can benefit from his decision to tell his story so frankly and graphically.  The book is well illustrated too and FRIM is to be congratulated for the decision to publish it.       

Nigel P. Taylor
Singapore Botanic Gardens

Friday, February 02, 2018

Durian Asfa 50 is a hoax

This morning I met two durian experts in the Raub-Bentong area of Pahang to ask about Durian  Asfa 50, of which many photos are being passed around on What’s App. They both say, independently, that Asfa 50 is a hoax. The pictures belong to three separate varieties. The pictures that show deeply furrowed fruits, with many fruits on the tree, are Montong, a Thai cultivar that is very productive but not very tasty.  The fruits that are not furrowed and showing only one or two fruits on the tree is Black Thorn; this has best taste by low productivity. The intermediate one with shallow furrows and moderate number of fruits is Durian King. Even the leaves are different, to the eyes of experts. You can buy grafted plants of Durian King for RM15, and Black Thorn for RM35. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

First book reviews of "Tropical Forest Scientist - Francis S.P. Ng and FRIM"

This book was published three weeks ago and the first reviews are in.

" I spent roughly 17 hours reading it and making sure I understood every sentence. It was not tiring or tedious because the content was riveting"

" I started reading it during lunch time. I found it hard to put down even when lunch break was over."

" I have finished reading the book. It was a breathless story."

" I told Tan Sri ..... about your book and he is most interested to buy a copy"

" I gave your book to Dato....  He has finished reading it and liked it a lot. He thought the book was very interesting and different from other autobiographies."

These comments were from friends so they are not hostile. We will know the real public response from how the book sells.

I had a piece of good news. My previous book, Tropical Forest Fruits, Seeds. Seedlings and Trees was the most expensive book ever published by FRIM.  It was priced at RM250 at the FRIM bookshop, and USD150 for foreign orders. I thought the book would never sell. Well, last month, they sold the last copy. I saw a copy in a bookshop in Penang a few days ago and mentioned to the manager that the book was out of print. He quickly removed the book from display and locked it away.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Could the African tulip tree Spathodea campanulata be insectivorous?

Trees are not known to feed on insects, but some flowers are known to poison and kill the insects that take their pollen. The African tulip tree, Spathodea campanulata is a tree with insect-killing flowers. Their victims are pollen-collecting stingless bees.   

The theory proposed to explain this behaviour is that the African tulip tree has evolved to favour pollination by birds. Birds visit the flowers to take the sweet nectar at the base of the corolla cup. In the process, their backs get dusted with pollen, which they carry to the next flower. To reserve the pollen for the birds, the pollen contains a poison to deter insects.

A neat theory. but unsupported by facts.

The bees get killed, but new bees are born every day and they keep coming and getting killed. The deterrent does not deter.   

Birds peck a hole at the bottom of the flower and taking the nectar without being dusted with pollen.

Other insects, especially ants, visit the flower for the sweet nectar, and die within the flower because the nectar is poisonous.

How does the poison work? It is a nerve poison. Crawling insects that come into contact with the nectar lose control of their limbs and struggle to crawl out. The flower is big, and the poison takes effect in less than 30 seconds. Before a poisoned insect can crawl to the mouth of the flower, it slips and falls  into the pool of nectar at the base of the flower where it is immobilized instantly.  Bees that come into contact with the pollen presumably fall into the flower when they lose control of their wings. 

The bodies of the insects are retained in the fluid at the base of the corolla for up to four days before the corolla is shed.What happens during these four days? Are there  nutrients from the insects that the corolla can absorb and passes on to the tree before it is shed? Is the corolla a temporary digestive organ?

This work is published in the UTAR Agriculture Science Journal Volume 3 (Nov 1917 that readers can access by Google search.