Sunday, January 08, 2012

Antiaris toxicaria, Ipoh's terrible tree

I had this article published in the Star Newspaper yesterday and am placing it in my blog for those who do not read the Star.

Ipoh’s terrible tree

Ipoh is named after the ipoh tree, famous as the source of blowpipe poison. When the Portuguese attacked Malacca in 1511, the native weapon they most feared was the blowpipe with its poisoned darts. It was reported that every Portuguese soldier hit by darts died except one.

The Portuguese had cannons. Replicas of such cannons may be seen as decorative items in historic Malacca and elsewhere. These cannons could not be accurately aimed and they ran hot when fired, making reloading difficult between shots. Many early experiments in science by Galileo in the 1600s and Newton in the 1700s were driven by curiosity about how cannons worked—how the balls shot forward while the cannons themselves recoiled backward, how action and reaction were equal and opposite, and how far a cannonball would fly in relation to its angle of lift. All this is now elementary physics, but in 1511, physics was not yet a science. The Portuguese had learnt to use cannons in earlier battles in Europe, and had already used cannons with devastating effect in sea battles in India. Lack of accuracy was more than compensated by power to shock and awe. Each shot generated its own lightning and thunder, causing the earth to shake and hearts to tremble. The din of native war drums and gongs was totally outclassed by the thunder of cannons. Cannon smoke reduced visibility to near zero, interrupted only by blinding flashes of cannon-lightning. The acrid smell of exploding gunpowder became the smell of destruction and death. A native war boat could be sunk with a single hit, and the native war boats advancing in close formation presented easy targets.

After the fall of Malacca, it took the Europeans more than a century to track down the source of the terrible blowpipe poison. It was the latex of a tree growing in deep forests. The German botanist Georg Everard Rumph, better known by his Latinized name of Rumphius (1628-1702), never saw the tree himself though he was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) as an employee of the Dutch East India Company. From information given to him about ipoh trees in the interior of Celebes, he wrote “The tree grows there on bald mountains, and one will know it from afar in that no trees grow near it, and that the soil beneath it is barren and singed. “ Every living thing that got close to the tree would die. Each tree occupied a bald mountain, with feathers and skeletons scattered on the ground around it. To obtain the latex, the collectors covered their bodies and heads with cloth because one drop of latex on the skin was enough to cause the body to swell. The latex was obtained with a bamboo stake sharpened at one end. The sharp point would be used to pierce the bark from a safe distance and the sap would run into the hollow of the bamboo.

Rumphius named the tree Arbor Toxicaria (the poison tree) but the word ‘tree’ is not considered suitable as a plant name. It is actually not allowed under the International Rules for the naming of plants. Arbor Toxicaria was renamed Antiaris toxicaria (the poisonous Antiaris) by the French botanist Leschenault de la Tour in 1810, who Latinized its Javanese name antjar to antiaris. Leschenault’s specimen of the ipoh tree became the TYPE specimen of Antiaris toxicaria, and it is permanently preserved in the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

The scientific names of all plants and animals and even minerals are similarly anchored by TYPE specimens. Type specimens define their species and because they are real, they have more authority than any description, drawing or photograph. Most of the type specimens of the world are preserved in the great natural history museums of London, Paris, Leiden and Washington DC, which have consequently become the major centres of reference of the world’s biodiversity.

When plant explorers finally tracked down ipoh trees in their native habitats, such trees were found to be harmless, growing together with other plants and often festooned with epiphytes. Ipoh latex has been closely examined by chemists and physiologists and found to contain cardiac glycosides that interfere with the heart muscles and cause heart failure. However It has to be introduced into the blood stream to be effective. Even so, it is not strong enough and is often mixed with the latex of another plant, Strychnos, which contains strychnine, to make it more potent. The mixture is concentrated by heating over a fire. In the process, its colour changes from white to dark brown. The tips of blowpipe darts are armed by dipping them into the sticky concoction. Blowpipes are still used by the Orang Asli for hunting, but only for small game such as birds, squirrels and monkeys.

Botanists have gradually pieced together the global distribution of Antiaris toxicaria. It turns out to be amazingly widespread. In Asia, it is found from southern India to southern China and throughout South East Asia to Northern Australia, Fiji and Tonga. In Africa it occurs south of the Sahara from Congo to Madagascar. Curiously, the traditional knowledge and use of ipoh in hunting and warfare has always been confined to South East Asia.

An ipoh tree grows in front of Ipoh’s iconic railway station, but the label in front of the tree fails to do justice to its legend. A bald mountain topped by ipoh trees and littered with animal skulls and bones, as visualized by Rumphius, would convey a better idea of the terror that ipoh trees evoked. The city authorities should consider creating such an experience, perhaps in Old Town, close to Concubine Lane, where one can enjoy Ipoh White Coffee in pre-war kopitiams.

(Orang Asli are aboriginal peoples in Peninsular Malaysia; a kopitiam is a Malaysian coffee shop)