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. 

Monday, January 08, 2018

Avocado FNAv1 suitable for Peninsular Malaysia

Avocado FNAv1 is  the code name I have chosen for a specific clone of grafted avocado with a pedigree resulting from 30 years of research. Its good points are
1. Good flavour, uniform cream texture and uniform clean colour of the flesh.
2. Handy pear shape and size.
3, Flowering and fruiting in 3 years and thereafter on average once a year.
4. Self-pollinating i,e. does not need a partner tree, hence suitable as a single tree in a small area as in the mini garden of a terrace house
5. Non seasonal
The fifth point is significant. Seasonal fruits like durian and rambutan produce a glut each time they fruit because they all fruit together. With FNAv1, the individual plants although all genetically identical, somehow become independent and unpredictable in their times of flowering and fruiting. A tree may have a break of 12 months between crops or sometimes one crop may follow another almost without a break. A plantation could be producing all year round with different trees producing at different times. 

Propagation of the plants is slow and difficult. It takes about 9 months to produce a grafted plant. Only about 50% of seeds produce graftable stock plants and only about 50% of  plants survive grafting. The genetic identity of the stock plants is fixed to avoid complications from unknown stock-scions interactions, hence I am limited by the number of seeds available. This year I may be able to produce 20 plants out of 100 seeds that I planted last year from a crop of fruits from a 30 year old tree. There  will be a small crop of seeds in 5 months time from a 3 year old tree that is flowering now.

I propose to establish an email group of all those who obtain these plants from me so that we can track their behaviour in different places in Peninsular Malaysia and thereby build up the knowledge base necessary to support a local avocado industry.  I will not patent the plant so all those who buy it will be free to repropagate the plants themselves.