Friday, December 02, 2011

Secret Garden of 1 Utama: New Times

The Secret Garden of 1 Utama will, from December 2011, be open on Public Holidays, Saturdays and Sundays. Also, the hours will be extended from 10 am to 10 pm. Lights have been installed to enable visitors to experience the garden at night. Entrance continues to be free.

A new coloured brochure is being prepared and should be available by Christmas.

The walkways have been upgraded and should not be slippery anymore. A new fountain is being installed in the Kinta Orchid area. We will be putting in new plants that emit fragrance at night and plants that stand out in soft light, i.e. plants with white or silvery leaves and flowers.

The night garden will be a new experience for us. The public, as always, are welcome to share in the experience and to make comments and suggestions.

I met an American couple from Missouri (which has one of the best botanic gardens in the world) in the Secret Garden last week. They come to Malaysia every year and make it a point to visit the Secret Garden. Each year, they notice that the garden looks much better than the year before. I have also met a Professor from Holland--a professor of the history of ideas--who visits the Secret Garden every year, and blogs about it.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

What tree did Parameswara really see in Malacca?

It is taken as a historical fact that Malacca was founded by Parameswara, who named it after the melaka tree. Parameswara, in the legendary account of the founding of Malacca, actually had no idea what the tree was. He had just seen a mouse deer kick one of his hunting dogs and, inspired by the fighting spirit of the mouse deer, he asked his followers “What is the name of the tree under which I am standing?” His followers replied “It is called melaka, your Highness”. Nobody said “Wait, let us check this out.”

I would like to present evidence that Parameswara was wrongly advised. Before anybody questions whether I am qualified to change history, let me explain that my comments are based on botany, and I am, after all, a qualified taxonomic botanist—one who deals with the naming and classification of plants.

The melaka tree, known in Sanskrit as ‘amalaka’, has an ancient and venerable history in Sanskrit culture and medicine. When the Swedish founder of modern plant classification, Carolus Linnaeus, gave this tree its scientific name in 1753, he Latinised ‘amalaka’ to ‘emblica’ and placed it within the genus Phyllanthus. Hence the melaka tree became known in science as Phyllanthus emblica. Phyllanthus emblica is now planted all over Malacca as the state’s iconic foundation tree. Its fruits are sour but edible.

However, what Parameswara saw must have been another species, Phyllanthus pectinatus, which has a superficial resemblance to Phyllanthus emblica.

Phyllanthus pectinatus was first described and named by Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1890, based on specimens collected in Perak, Malacca and Singapore. I first became aware of the possible misidentification when I planted ‘melaka’ trees in FRIM (Forest Research Institute Malaysia), some from seeds collected in a forest, and some from seeds collected from a garden. When the trees grew up and produced flowers and fruits I found that they represented two utterly different species. These differences are obvious when specimens of the two species are placed side by side for comparison. In Phyllanthus emblica, the fruits are clustered at the base of rather robust leafy shoots whereas in Phyllanthus pectinatus they sway in the wind at the ends of the finely feathery leafy shoots. Inside the fruit is a hard stony structure containing the seeds. This stony structure is sharply 3-angled in Phyllanthus pectinatus but rounded in Phyllanthus emblica. There are also differences in flower structure and in the appearance of the bark.

In trying to figure out the relationship between the two species, I checked the specimens of ‘melaka’ preserved at the herbarium of FRIM. A herbarium is a place in which specimens collected by plant explorers are permanently preserved for scientific study and reference. The FRIM herbarium serves as the national herbarium for Malaysia and it has specimens from all over the country, collected by botanists and foresters during the past 100 years of forest exploration. All the specimens of ‘melaka’ in FRIM, collected in forests, were of Phyllanthus pectinatus,

When I had the opportunity to visit the world herbarium at Kew, I examined the collections from all over Asia, including the specimens seen by Joseph Dalton Hooker. I also went to the Botanic Gardens Singapore to check the specimens in its herbarium, which is a regional herbarium for South East Asia. Putting all the information together, the picture that emerged was that Phyllanthus emblica has its natural range across India, Burma, Thailand, Indo-china and South China. In contrast, Phyllanthus pectinatus has its natural range within the Malay Archipelago, especially in Sumatra, Malay Peninsula and Borneo. In their natural state, there is no geographical overlap between the two species.

In brief, Phyllanthus pectinatus is a true forest tree of the Malay Archipelago and it is particularly common in the forests of Malacca state. In contrast, Phyllanthus emblica occurs only as a planted garden tree in the Malay Peninsula and Malay Archipelago. It has never been able to escape and establish itself in our forests.

The best place to see Phyllanthus pectinatus is in the recreational forest of Ayer Keroh just outside the city. This area is now designated as a botanical garden, but its core area is maintained as natural forest. In this forest, there are many natural trees of Phyllanthus pectinatus, mislabeled as Phyllanthus emblica. Just outside the forest, the true Phyllanthus emblica has been planted in various prominent locations for the benefit of visitors. Nobody has noticed that the planted trees are a different species from the natural trees in the forest. What Malacca needs is a botanist, ideally a taxonomist cum horticulturist, to manage its botanical garden.

Malacca may have to accept that it has two iconic foundation trees: the tree that Parameswara saw and misidentified, and the tree it got mistaken for. To me, the native tree is the more attractive of the two.

(An earlier version of this article was published in the Biz Week of the Star newspaper on 5 Nov 2011.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What are PhDs good for?

I wrote this piece for the Star Newspaper's BizWeek supplement on September 3. In a remote sort of way, it is related to horticulture and gardening, because my PhD thesis happened to be on the classification of a group of plants called Diospyros, which includes persimmon fruits, ebony timbers and various species now used in bonsai horticulture in Thailand. Since then, I have resisted all attempts to nail me down as a Diospyros expert. It is like Sean Connery refusing to play James Bond so that he could be accepted as a versatile performer. For me, to work for a PhD in order to be nailed down as a narrow expert would be a disaster.

I am now a budding newspaper columnist but since newspaper articles have the shortest life of any publication, I thought I would republish this piece as a blog, which seems to have a better life expectancy.

The piece reflects my role as consulting editor to a scientific journal. I have to tell scientists in Malaysian universities and institutions that they have to publish to stay relevant. They like to claim that they are too busy in 'teaching' or 'administration'.

What are PhDs good for?

Universities award bachelors and masters degrees in different areas of learning, but regardless of the starting point, the apex of academic training is the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. So when I am asked what my doctorate is in, I would say “philosophy”. This would be followed by an awkward silence before we change to a more comfortable topic of conversation.

It is awfully difficult to talk about philosophy, and the modern degree of PhD is not about classical philosophy. While watching an old movie The Wizard of Oz with my granddaughter, it dawned on me that The Wizard of Oz had the answer. In the movie, the Wizard reacts to the scarecrow’s desire for a brain by explaining that the brain is actually a very mediocre commodity—every living creature has one. What the scarecrow really needed, and which the Wizard grants, is the degree of ThD or Doctor of Thinkology. Voila! Thinkology—the art and science of thinking—that is surely what the PhD degree is all about.

Ordinary thinking is what every creature does, each in its own way. But the thinking that goes into becoming a Doctor of Philosophy is very different. What a PhD candidate does is to select a topic for research, and proceed to work on it in an organised and disciplined way. The end product will be a thesis, which would be a new book on the topic. Up to the level of Bachelors, or even Masters, one acquires knowledge from books written by other people, but in a PhD programme, the candidate writes a book for others to use. To emerge from a lifetime of reading books to writing one’s own book requires a metamorphosis, like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly, but it would be an intellectually traumatic experience. Many candidates burn out in the process.

The candidate cannot simply copy what is in other books. That would be plagiarism and a plagiarist faces total disgrace if found out. The PhD candidate has to become totally familiar with the present state of knowledge of the topic by immersing himself or herself in what has been published about it, but in a critical way—questioning previous interpretations and assumptions and re-evaluating the evidence. At the same time, the candidate looks for new evidence or generates new data by experiment. Finally the candidate has to write a book to make all previous books on the topic obsolete.

The topic of a PhD thesis is not as important as the critical thinking skill that is acquired. Its aim is to generate more knowledge about the topic. Whether this results in solving a problem is secondary. It is assumed that by generating more knowledge on a topic, other benefits will follow.

Now and then, an Einstein produces a thesis that revolutionises the state of knowledge of an entire topic, but in most cases, a successful thesis is merely the starting point of a career in disciplined thinking, provided that the new Doctor of Philosophy is employed in a university, a research organization or a think-tank, where he or she can continue to do disciplined thinking.

It is not necessary to have a PhD degree to be a disciplined thinker but for employment in an intellectual or academic position, the PhD has become the normal requirement. But how do we know if PhDs are doing what they are paid to do? The only way is to enforce a publication rule. Under this mechanism, people employed to think have to show proof by publishing their work as ‘papers’ in peer-reviewed journals. Peer-review means that the editor of the journal will send each submitted paper to at least two persons known to be knowledgeable in the topic, for review. The submitted paper is examined like a mini-thesis: it has to be original (not a rehash of previous work), and it must significantly contribute to new understanding of its topic. Only papers that pass peer review get published. A productive average rate of publication for a serious researcher is two papers a year.

Once a paper is published, the title of the paper and its contents, together with the names of the authors and their institutional affiliations (institute and country) are captured in global databases. The papers that attract attention would be referred to ‘in citation’ by other scientists, and all such citations are captured in global databases. This has made it possible to keep track of the number of times each paper is cited after its publication, to provide a measure of the impact that each and every paper makes on the global intellectual community.

By tracking the number of times an author is cited, one can get a measure of the impact that the author has made. Such information is used to analyse the performance of authors. It is often used in making decisions on appointments, salary increments, promotions and terminations.

Scholarly journals are themselves ranked every year by the frequency of citation of the papers they publish. The ranking of journals, usually announced in June, is anxiously awaited by editors to see how they have performed from year to year. Editors strive to improve their journal ratings by imposing higher standards on the papers they publish. It is the editors who enforce and manage the peer-review process.

The body of data on publications and citations, sometimes in combination with other indicators, is also used to rank universities, and such ranking has become an annual global affair.

In 2004, in an interesting and innovative use of publication databases, Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor to the British Government ranked countries according to their output of scientific papers. He found that 31 countries produced over 97% of the worlds’ output of scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. These are the developed western countries, with USA in the lead. Of the non-western countries, Japan and Russia are prominent in the list. Of developing countries, China, Brazil and India moved into the top 31 recently. China is showing the fastest rate of growth in number of papers published, but in quality, as measured by citation rate, it is still far below USA. Nevertheless, the rise of China, Brazil and India confirms the close linkage between economic growth and scientific performance, first observed in the rise of Western Europe during the Industrial Revolution, followed by the rise of USA, Japan and Russia. The remaining 162 countries—including Malaysia—contributed a combined total of only 2.5% to the growth of scientific activity in the world.

Through the global tracking of publications, made possible by powerful computers, intellectual activity has become open, measurable, and thereby manageable. The main tool of management is the application of the rule “Publish or Perish”. An academic community that has never been subjected to this rule will strongly resist attempts to apply it. This is the challenge that Malaysian institutions face.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Pruning of avocado

This grafted avocado tree grows in front of my house in Kuala Lumpur. It was planted in June 1997 and first flowered in Mar 2002 but did not produce fruits. It next flowered in May 2003 and produced 55 fruits. Since then it has fruited at unpredictable intervals, roughly once a year, the last time producing 156 fruits. This picture was taken today, 9 Oct 2011. The tree has been kept small by pruning. It is about 12 ft tall and 12 ft in diameter. Without pruning it would have grown to over 30 ft tall and the fruits would have been out of reach. By keeping the tree small, I was able to harvest all the fruits by hand or with a long-handled fruit-picker.

The flowering month varies from year to year: in this case the sequence was Mar 02, Dec 02, Mar 04, Aug 06, Mar 07, Nov 07, Jan 09, Jan 10, Feb 11.

In modern fruit orchards, trees are kept small by pruning so that fruits can be harvested carefully. Any fruit that hits the ground is effectively damaged because the tissues will be bruised at the point of impact.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How a leper settlement, Sungei Buloh, became the horticultural hub of Malaysia

Gardeners all over Malaysia know of Sungei Buloh as the hub of horticulture in Malaysia. Centred on the grounds of the old Leprosy Hospital and Settlement, Sungei Buloh has, during the past 50 years, become the place to see what is new and available in garden plants.

In the early years of the 20th Century, lepers were sent into exile in islands such as Pangkor Laut and Pulau Jerejak. In 1930, the Hospital and Settlement in Sungei Buloh were established by the Government of British Malaya to serve as a central facility to treat and house leprosy patients, and the island settlements were gradually closed. Sungei Buloh became one of the largest leper settlements in the world and a centre for research on the treatment of leprosy. The patients lived in simple one-room duplex houses with a bit of land around each house on which they could grow vegetable and keep chickens. The patients and their families had practically no prospects of getting out and reintegrating with society at large.

By the 1950s the doctors were confident that leprosy was treatable and not as infectious as previously thought, but social acceptance of patients posed a huge problem. Then John Wyatt-Smith of the Forest Research Institute (FRI) at Kepong a few miles down the road decided to do something about it. He arranged for about 30 able-bodied men from the settlement to be employed at the Institute. This was no small undertaking. No other organization was willing to offer employment. FRI was able to take the lead because John Wyatt-Smith was such a respected and towering figure at the Institute.

When I joined FRI in 1964, Wyatt-Smith had just retired, but the men from Sungei Buloh had become indispensable. They did all the toughest jobs, moving heavy loads, felling trees, clearing land, and looking after the plant nursery. In the process they earned the respect of their co-workers.

Meanwhile, others in the Settlement were encouraged by the Hospital to take up the growing of ornamental plants, to sell by the roadside in front of their houses. Slowly overcoming their fears, people in Kuala Lumpur began to go to Sungai Buloh to buy plants, because such plants were cheap compared to elsewhere. In the 1960s, the Hospital organised a garden show, in which Lam Peng Sam and I were the judges.

My nurseryman at FRI was Mat Isa bin Bulat. He died a few months ago, by then a highly successful businessman and living in a big bungalow at Sungei Buloh. As a youth in Langkawi, Mat Isa’s world crashed when he was diagnosed with leprosy. Sent to Sungei Buloh for treatment, he was one of those selected to work in FRI. I was at that time making an encyclopedic survey of fruits, seeds and seedling of forest trees. This work would eventually be published in two thick volumes and to become the reference textbook for those in the business of raising forest trees for urban planting. At that time no such business existed.

Mat Isa looked after the hundreds of species of forest trees that I was raising, learning to recognise all the plants and their names. He learnt not only their Malay names but also their scientific names (Greek and Latin to most people) from the labels I attached to the plants. Then one day, he shocked everybody by announcing his resignation, to go into business. Kuala Lumpur was taking up urban greening in a big way and there was a willingness to try new species of trees from the forests. Mat Isa saw his opportunity. He could recognise and name hundreds of species of forest trees by their local as well as their scientific names. He rented land from his neighbours to set up nurseries in Sungei Buloh, and was able to supply the growing demand. I did not know how he was progressing until some years later, when he overtook me on the on road to FRI and waved cheerily. He was driving a Mercedes while I driving my Datsun. On another day, while having a drink with him in a coffee shop he told me how he had just lost a large sum of money. It was stolen from his car when he had stopped for lunch after withdrawing the money to pay salaries. It was something like RM 20,000. ‘Did you report to the police?’ He merely shrugged, ‘What’s the point?’.

Over the years, Sungei Buloh has become the centre of a highly innovative network of self-made men and women engaged in the horticultural business in Malaysia. This network keeps thousands of people employed, not only in Sungei Buloh but also in feeder nurseries outside KL, and as far distant as Cameron Highlands and Muar. New flower varieties are usually first offered in Sungei Buloh before they appear elsewhere.

From its original hub at the hospital area, flower nurseries have been established in the surrounding area. Sungei Buloh provides a good example how the best commercial or industrial hubs come into existence ‘organically’ through time. It requires the interaction of many individuals, in unique ways, in some unique place. Such a hub can be easily destroyed but not easily duplicated elsewhere. As an example of how planned hubs can fall short, we have the so-called ‘green lane’ on the road from the Sungei Buloh junction to the Rubber Research Institute. All along one side of the road, the land has been divided and let out to nurseries, but such nurseries are strung out for several miles, and the road has become a noisy, busy highway. It is unpleasant to walk from one nursery to the next and dangerous to park and re-park on the roadside. It is also impossible to make a U turn. At the historic hospital hub, one can visit a large number of different nurseries within a small area, in peace and quiet.

Now that leprosy and been beaten and its hospital relegated to history, the horticultural hub and its historical buildings, especially the one-room duplex houses, survive as a monument to an ancient and terrifying scourge finally overcome by medical science. There are those eying the hospital land for redevelopment, who have no interest in history nor in the role of Sungei Buloh as the hub of the Malaysian horticulture industry—an industry that, unlike other industries, has been developed by gutsy individuals with little or no political support.

(An earlier version of this article was published in the Star Newspaper on 2 July 2011)

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Putrajaya Floria 2011

I have just come back from Putrajaya after spending the day at this year's Flower Show or Floria 2011. This is the best flower show I have yet seen in Malaysia. It is certainly full of colourful flowers and some designs are finally reaching international standards.

In the evening, at 8 to 10 pm there was a splendid parade of decorated floats on Putrajaya Lake -- a first for Malaysia -- accompanied by fireworks and music. The concept and technology were copied from Soochow, China, and there was a team from Soochow in attendance to see how Malaysia was doing. Pretty good for a first attempt! Fourteen gaily decorated barges took part, sponsored by various states and corporations, including one from Brunei. We were told that one barge tipped over and sank during preparation.

The best time to go is morning when the plants are fresh. In the afternoon many plants are visibly drooping. They perk up again in the evening when it is cooler. Those going in the evening will not regret staying on for the float parade.

The show is for 9 days, which I think is far too ambitious. The plants are all in pots and many of them will have to be replaced from day to day. By the fifth day some of the exhibitors may run out of replacement plants.

The political protests in Kuala Lumpur today may have reduced the number of people at Floria 2011 but even so the car parks were full, and the evening crowd was dense.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rooftop Secret Garden of 1 Utama under renovation

The Secret Garden is being renovated part by part so as not to inconvenience visitors. The pathways are being re-surfaced to make them less slippery. At the same time the drainage is being improved for storm water to drain out faster. The big palms are being removed because we are afraid they are getting too heavy for the floor, which is the roof of the shopping mall.

A new free brochure is being designed that will be more informative than the present one.

A new visitor's book will soon be introduced in which visitors will record the time they come to the garden. This will enable us to plan better. Flowers have their times too. Some are morning flowers that fade in the afternoon and several are late afternoon flowers. So far we have favored whole-day flowers. We also prefer plants that flower year round, to give us SPRINGTIME ALL THE TIME. We do not grow night flowers because the garden is not open at night. We are also giving up on plants like petunias that that are quickly destroyed by snails.

The number of visitors average 300 to 400 every weekend. Most visitors are locals. We have just been included in the Ministry of Tourism's new brochure entitled 'Parks and Gardens Trails of Malaysia', which should bring us to the attention of foreign tourists.

If one googles under 'Secret Garden of 1 Utama' one can read about 100 blogs on it. These, together with comments in the visitor's book have provided us with useful guidance.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Canna virus in Malaysia

Cannas in Malaysia are susceptible to what looks like a viral disease. The symptoms in Malaysia are stunting of plants, patches of dead tissue on young leaves, reduction of flower-size to half the normal size, and progressive stunting and weakening of the clump or bed until no more shoots appear. Separating out the rhizomes and cleaning them before transplanting does not help unless the disease is detected before it has spread to all the rhizomes.

At the early stage of infection, the bed should be dug out and the pieces of rhizome bearing swollen buds separated out for replanting. When new shoots emerge, the plants that are infected can be recognized by dead patches of tissue on their leaves. Such plants should be eliminated immediately, leaving healthy plants for starting new colonies. The virus takes several weeks to spread through a bed of cannas so there is time for such corrective action if one is alert to the symptoms of infection.

The virus does not travel in the air or soil. Plants in the next bed a short distance away may remain free of infection. I think the best way to prevent infection is to remove all canna shoots as soon as they have finished flowering. Such spent shoots should be cut off at their base. A regular once-a-week pruning programme will improve ventilation of the canna bed and deter white flies from settling on the leaves. White flies suck sap and are probably the agents spreading the virus in Malaysia.

In temperate countries, where cannas are sold as rhizomes, the canna virus has been disastrous for the canna trade because it is impossible to tell whether a rhizome is infected until it is grown out. In Malaysia and elsewhere in SE Asia, cannas are sold as full-grown plants, usually flowering, so it is immediately apparent from the condition of the plant whether it is infected.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Availability of the book Tropical Horticulture and Gardening

The hardcover edition of Tropical Horticulture and Gardening, published by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and listed at RM260, is no longer available. I understand that the stocks were stored in a room that was too hot and humid for book storage. The pages got stuck together, making the books unusable.

I was provided with a number of hardcover copies of the book instead of royalties. Of these, 30 copies are still available. In response to requests, I have arranged to place autographed copies at the Hort Park Nursery in 1 Utama (next to Mamak Corner) to sell at RM 100 each. Hort Park Nursery does not have a place to display books so one may have to ask the shopkeeper, Nizam, where he keeps them.

The manuscript was originally offered to Times Publications to publish but it was politely rejected. I also made approaches to Oxford University Press and Timber Press but they declined.

I then worked with a designer to obtain the tightest possible integration of pictures with text. My aim was to provide maximum useful information in the minimum number of pages, while making every page a visual treat. Normally a designer works to a fixed template and leaves the text alone. By working side by side, the designer and I were able to arrive at a nice design solution for every page, sometimes by adjusting the pictures and sometimes by adjusting the text, making full use of the flexibility and power of modern publishing software to resize and move things around instantly. When everything was ready, I had a complete full colour sample hand-printed and bound, which I took to the Academy of Sciences Malaysia.

The Academy had received a grant from Government for publishing scholarly books. It published the book, but it had no marketing experience. The books stayed in its store room during the two years when it had the marketing rights. When that period was over, I searched for a new publisher. A friend took it to the boss of MPH and that is how the book finally made it to the MPH bookshops as an inexpensive soft-cover edition. All set up costs had already been absorbed by me and the Academy.

Thank you, John and Jacq and Autumnbelle for reviews of the book in your gardening blogs.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Avocados for Kuala Lumpur

After my blog about avocados in 2007, I have been getting requests for avocado plants that I have found difficult to respond to on a case-by-case basis. Yesterday I made a deal with a retail outlet at the 1 Utama Shopping Mall. This is a small place called Hortpark Nursery on the Lower Ground Floor, next to the Mamak Corner. I have placed two plants there, which are all that I have to spare at present. Hortpark Nursery will take care of them and sell at RM25 per plant to cover their expenses. Hortpark also sells horticarbon in 5 and 10 kg bags. Shoppers should bring bring their own strong bag for big items. Hortpark is open from 10am to about 6pm.

The avocado plants being made available are seedlings from the best plant of about 20 selected clones that I have tested. The clones were acquired by MARDI (Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Centre) through international collaboration many years ago. The Research Assistant in charge of the collection offered me a duplicate set of this collection. I was at that time establishing the Fruit Tree Arboretum at FRIM (Forest Research Institute Malaysia). He brought me a set of bud-grafted plants all the way from MARDI to FRIM, a considerable distance to cover on his motorcycle, at his own expense. This person was about to retire and felt that his many years of effort would disappear without a trace unless he could pass it on. He was right! Avocados have disappeared from MARDI’s agenda.

I planted most of the clones at FRIM, and a few around my house. Over the next 20 years, some of the trees failed to flower and fruit under our conditions. One flowered but never fruited. One remained stunted at about 3 ft tall. One fruited only after 10 years. One produced oversized fruits, but only in small numbers. The collection in FRIM gradually died out after I retired, but I had already identified and propagated the best tree.

This tree fruited at 6 years old and has been fruiting every year. The fruits are smooth-skinned, green in colour, and medium sized (supermarket size), with smooth pulp. It is self-fertile, which means a single tree is enough to produce fruits. This is the tree that I have been propagating and giving away, but I can only produce a small number at a time.

At about the same time as the avocados were offered to me, another scientist, working at an oil palm research centre, Bakasawit, was about to retire to England. He offered me an international collection of coconut varieties that he feared would be lost upon his retirement. Sadly, I had no place for coconuts in FRIM.

Those were times when scientists collaborated across institutions and did what they thought was best in the public interest. That spirit no longer exists.

There are extensive ‘germplasm’ collections of rubber, oil palm, bananas, sweet potatoes, etc in our research institutes, many acquired through exploration and exchange at great cost and effort. All are in danger of being lost upon the retirement of the scientists who built them up, but it is almost impossible for outsiders to get anything out. They are treated like official secrets.

I am working with UTAR at its university campus in Kampar to set up an agricultural resource centre where we hope to establish our own collections for research, teaching, propagation, distribution and exchange. Avocados will be on the agenda, with other fruits and plants of agri-horticultural interest. We hope to establish an ethical model of trust and collaboration between scientists and the public, without which Malaysian agriculture will stagnate.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fakery versus reality in Malaysia

The Malaysian Press has been busy during the past few days covering the forthcoming Sarawak State Elections and the news of fake eggs being sold in a market in Penang.

The fake egg issue is the more immediate. A non-government expert on fake eggs, interviewed by the press, has warned that fake eggs are made with chemicals, which are dangerous to health. The Consumers Association of Penang has raised the issue with the government, which responded immediately by sending officers to raid the market and seize hundreds of eggs. After cracking open the eggs, the government experts declared the eggs to be real, but to be doubly sure, they decided to send some of the eggs to the Chemistry Department for DNA tests. The results have not yet been announced. Meanwhile the sale of eggs in Penang has plummeted. To ensure the safety of consumers, the government has declared that it will devise a system to ensure that only certified eggs will reach the market. The Consumers Association alleges that the Government officers confiscated and tested the wrong eggs.

The finger of suspicion has been pointed at the usual suspects--unscrupulous entrepreuners in China, who have already been implicated in faking milk powder, buns, music CDs, Omega watches, Gucci handbags, etc, etc. They seem to have now targeted Malaysia, capitalizing on the inability of Malaysians to distinguish real eggs from clever fakes. If they can fool people in Penang, they can fool people anywhere. The shop keeper from whom I buy eggs is a very worried man because he does not know how to tell a real egg from a clever fake although he has been selling eggs for 50 years. He is thinking of giving up the egg business because DNA sequencing is too high tech for him. It may be easier to sell cameras, but another friend, who sells cameras, says that one has only six months to sell a new model before it is obsoleted by the next model from the same manufacturer. The shelf life of cameras is approaching the shelf life of eggs.

Fake flowers have never been an issue with anybody. But real flowers have posed problems. There was a big scare last year with flowers that allegedly have the power to trigger cancer in people who come near them. Nobody was willing to test the allegation, and the furore seems to have died down.

On the back-burner is the issue of whether the video of an alleged political celebrity filmed in the act with an alleged prostitute is real or fake. The police have checked the video and found it to be real, but nobody is sure whether the celebrity is real. The celebrity in question refuses to cooperate with the police and hand over his DNA. The police are now looking for the alleged prostitute to confirm whether she is real.

To be continued...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Furadan or no furadan, and worm-free gardening

Furadan (trade name for carbofuran) is used as a contact and systemic poison. Furadan comes in small granules coloured purple or red. It kills earthworms, nematodes, ants, and other animals in the soil by contact. It is also absorbed by roots into the plant, and kills sap-sucking insects such as aphids and mealy bugs; probably leaf-eating caterpillars too.

I have applied furadan to soil to control ants and mealybugs; the ants by contact and the mealybugs by systemic action. The ants were eliminated but came back after one week. Mealybugs were back after two weeks. Hence the poison wears off fairly quickly. On plants growing on the ground, there is a danger of furadan being over-applied by frequent re-application. For plants in pots and containers the use of furadan is more ‘containable’. A light sprinkling of granules on the surface of the soil in the container is enough to rid the soil of earthworms and nematodes. Earthworms are especially lethal in containers used to nurse cuttings or young seedlings, and nematodes destroy the roots and tubers of dahlias. A treated container should be kept out of contact with the ground, so that once treated, the soil it contains will remain free of worms for a very long time. Against ants and sap-sucking insects associated with ants, repeated application may be necessary but in a pot, the furadan will be contained and not get into the ground.

I prefer gardening with soil that is sterile to begin with. Burnt soil (available in bags in Kuala Lumpur at RM1.50 per 3kg bag) is soil that has been baked over a wood fire for about a week. This can be used alone or mixed with biochar/ horticarbon (granulated charcoal, available at RM 10 per 5kg bag). I have no worms in my pots unless I get careless and allow my pots to come into contact with the ground. Worms can enter via the drainage holes at the bottom of the pots.

I do not do any mulching or composting. I find that mulch and compost promote the multiplication of snails, earthworms and termites. In the humid tropics mulch and compost also get soggy as they decompose, impede aeration of the soil, and compete with roots for oxygen. Visitors to the rooftop ‘Secret Garden of 1 Utama’ may have noticed that it is free of mulch and compost. All the garden trimmings are stuffed into big bags and sent down by lift for disposal elsewhere.

The role of earthworms in the humid tropics needs more investigation. Many years ago I assigned a young scientist to study earthworms in the Malaysia forests and guess what? He could not find any! It seems that earthworms are rare in tropical rain forests. I suspect the earthworms in our farms and gardens are of foreign origin. The breakdown of litter in the forests is done by insects, especially termites, not by worms.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Earthworms kill potted plants

For a long time, I have suspected that earthworms kill potted plants by feeding on their roots. Whenever I cleaned out such pots, I found earthworms in them.

Ever since Charles Darwin wrote of the earthworm in 1881, “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures”, few have dared to say anything nasty about earthworms, so I kept my suspicions to myself while trying to figure how I could prove my case.

As a scientist I am aware that to prove cause and effect, I would have to set up a comparison between two potted plants in which everything would have to be identical except that one pot would contain worms while the other would have no worms. However, with just two pots for comparison, the results could be muddled up by unknown variations despite efforts to ensure absolute uniformity. It would be better to enlarge the comparison to say 20 pots per treatment. Comparing 20 pots against 20 would be statistically more robust than 1 against 1. I still had to figure out how to measure plant performance and for how long to run the experiment. Things got so complicated in my mind that the experiment never got done.

Last year, I raised half a dozen seedlings of the rare endemic Malayan witch hazel, Maingaya malayana, in individual pots. The seedlings grew at different rates, which was to be expected since they were raised from seeds and could be expected to be genetically different from each other. I had also not taken the trouble to ensure that the soil was exactly the same in all the pots. Also the pots were in different parts of the garden, under different environments. However, one plant was particularly stunted. I thought this was a genetic dwarf because it did not respond to any of my efforts to get it to grow beyond its first few leaves. Finally when it was clear that the plant was about to die, I tipped the plant out of the pot and found earthworms wriggling in the soil. I threw out the earthworms and repotted the plant. It recovered immediately and produced new leaves. The recovery was so striking that I have no doubt the worms were the cause of the stunting and slow decline of the plant.

For those who still doubt, I can now suggest an easy test. Add earthworms to a pot containing a healthy plant. Watch the plant decline over the next few months, then repot the plant after removing the worms, and see if the plant recovers.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ministry of Tourism to upgrade Malaysia's Parks and Gardens

The Minister of Tourism, Ng Yen Yen, who is a very keen gardener, has decided to use tourism to drive the upgrading of parks and gardens in Malaysia. In August 2010 the Ministry appointed me as Consultant for Parks and Gardens. Since then I have been involved in many site visits and meetings.

My first task was a 'hot potato': to steer the redevelopment of the Water Mall at the Penang Botanic Gardens into a water garden. The grant money had been spend on poorly conceived structures, as a result of which public opinion had turned negative. The Ministry was stung and I had only six months to redevelop the area using the small amount of money left. I hope by June this year to have Victoria lilies and other water plants fully established, and to have a respectable water garden on show.

Next are public gardens in Malacca, Fraser's Hill, Cameron Highlands and Raub to be upgraded. I hear there still others in the pipeline.

I hope, during my tenure, to get botanists appointed to take charge of the botanic gardens. We now have public 'botanic gardens' in Penang, Malacca, and Kuala Lumpur that are only botanic in name. With no botanists in charge there are no programmes for research, conservation, interpretation or education.

I also want to establish apprentice training schemes for gardeners so as to upgrade gardening as a creative profession.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A touch of Guilin at The Haven in Ipoh

I grew up in Ipoh where the landscape is dominated by limestone hills known as karst. As a boy scout, I spent over 100 nights camping out in Tambun at the edge of Ipoh, close to an elongated karst formation that we named the ‘Marilyn Monroe’ because of its curvaceous reclining silhouette. According to geologist Barnard Pearson, the karst of Ipoh and the Kinta Valley are parts of a super limestone formation stretching from South China (Guilin) through Indochina and Thailand (Phuket) into Malaysia. The limestone was deposited at the bottom of the sea over 200 million years ago, as shells of marine animals. When the Indian landmass collided with and merged with Eurasia 45 million years ago,the Himalayas were pushed up by the frontal impact, while the sea floor to the south-east, with its limestone beds, was pushed up as collateral effects. The uplifted limestone then began to erode because of the mildly corrosive action of carbon dioxide dissolved in rainwater. As rainwater percolated through cracks in the limestone it formed caves that got bigger and bigger as their sides slowly dissolved away. Eventually the caves got so big that their roofs fell in, leaving the side walls as vertical cliffs. However, perhaps because of tropical weathering, the karst formations in Malaysia are more rounded than those at Guilin.

The karst formations have a unique flora. When I became a professional botanist,I returned to Ipoh to explore this flora. One of my treasured finds was Isonandra perakensis, a small tree with copper-coloured leaves, on the top of a hill that I had climbed as boy. This species was first discovered in the 19th Century and had not been seen again until I rediscovered it.

There is now at Tambun a classy new condominium development called The Haven, the central feature of which is a karst formation rising 140 ft high from a lake of crystal clear water. The water in the lake wells up from a natural spring. Three blocks of condominiums are being built on one side of the lake, on what was formerly a fruit and vegetable farm. On the other side of the lake is a massive karst formation rising up to 1400 ft. With binoculars, I could make out Cycas, orchids and other unique plants on the sheer cliffs. I stayed one night in the show house and enjoyed the cool night breeze on a balcony overlooking the lake. Early next morning I led a small group to the base of the limestone massif and we were soon in the middle of a large patch of flowering wild gingers. The developer, Superboom, has spared no effort to conserve the karst vegetation and the lake. The Haven is a first class development befitting a first class location.

I would like to see the karst formations in the Kinta Valley protected and cherished as in Guilin, but whereas Guilin is the centre of a booming tourist industry that ensures the protection of its superb scenery, Ipoh has failed to attract sustained investment interest. Indeed, the Kinta Valley has been suffering a severe and continuous drain of young and energetic people for the past 50 years. Of my own classmates only two went back to make careers in Ipoh. I think it is inevitable that youth and energy will move to where new opportunities are actively created. Developments such as the Haven will bring new people, new money and new ideas to Ipoh and the Kinta Valley. Already the development of The Haven has stirred intense debate in Ipoh about Ipoh. In Kuala Lumpur, where a new property development is launched every month, one hardly notices the continuous building and rebuilding. Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur are two hours apart by car but 50 years apart in other matters.