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Friday, January 16, 2009

Amorphophallus Prainii a.k.a Voodoo lily / Devil’s tonque

As one who likes to unwind by going into the fringes of the Malaysian jungles with its huge variety of plants growing wild to observe nature and its work of miracle, it was a matter of time before I end up bumping into something not often seen.

The privilege encounter this time is to see a specimen of the Amorphophallus Prainii, a rare tuberous herbaceous plant from the Arum family.
If you ever come across a wild specimen, it will be easy to spot as the flower is rather large and unusual in appearance, it will stand out from the rest of the vegetation surrounding it. The sole specimen I encounter (see photo) measures about a foot and a half in height and 8 inches in width.

For those who have the perception that the botanist fraternity is a rather boring lot that lacks imagination, let me dispel that myth. The Amorphophallus name is in Greek, meaning “shapeless penis”, and with common names like Voodoo lily and Devil’s tonque, it further reinforce that botanist do have wild imaginations and humor from time to time.

The life cycle of the plant seem simple enough, flower than it withers off after which its rhizome stays dormant underground for a period of time. Rhizome is the part of the plant that remains underground similar to the part of the common ginger plant in which we consume.
It also share similar insect attracting characteristic of the better known Rafflesia flower, emitting a stench of decaying flesh during the final stages of withering to attract insects to help in its pollination process.

The following are two press reports on sightings of the Amorphophallus Prainii reported in a local daily.
Please note that the reported specimen found on Penang hill has its uses wrongly described to be that of Amorphophallus Konjac used to make konnyaku, an edible Japanese jelly like substance rich in fiber content basically used as a food thickerner. This type of Amorphophallus is not known to be endemic to Malaysia. It is cultivated in China and Japan and grows wild in parts of Indonesia.

Rare ‘Olympic torch’ plant found in Kedah
Tuesday April 29, 2008 – The Star
ALOR STAR: A rare tuberous herbaceous plant, believed to be amorphophallus prainii, which resembles an Olympic torch, was found at Bukit Wang recreational park, 32km from here recently.

The state’s Malaysia Nature Society (MNS) chairman Phang Fatt Khow said the plant was uncommon in this country and that it was odd to be growing next to a car park at the recreational park as it was normally found in lowlands and secondary forests.

“This plant is in the last growing season. Its leaf or flower will die and fall off but the rhizome will stay in the underground and enter a dormant period,” he said, adding that it was also uncommon to find two plants growing next to each other. Amorphophallus is a large genus of some 170 tropical and subtropical tuberous herbaceous plants from the Arum family. The largest, amorphophallus titanium, was reported to be able to grow and reach over three metres tall.
‘Devil’s Tongue’ found on hill
Saturday April 16, 2005 – The Star
News about the sighting of the world’s biggest flower, the Rafflesia, on Penang Hill prompted nature lover Hooi Peng Kwan and his two friends to hike up the hill to look at the bloom. Their hopes were dashed when the flower turned out to be the “Devil’s Tongue” (Amorphophallus prainii) flower from the yam family. Hooi, 54, a chef, said a group of friends who climbed up to the hill’s Station 84 on Wednesday thought they had stumbled upon the Rafflesia when they saw several giant flowers.

They said the flowers emitted a very bad stench, like that of a dead rat, which is quite similar to what the Rafflesia does. “But looking at it, I knew it was the Devil’s Tongue, which can be found in secondary forests in Asia,” he said. His friend Ang Sek Chuan, 50, said the Devil’s Tongue was very popular in Japan as an ingredient for soups and stews. “The Japanese cook the tuber until it turns into a gelatine-like substance that is pressed into blocks and sold like tofu in the markets,” he said.

His other friend, Leong Wai Seng, 58, said the Rafflesia usually grew in the highlands, while the Devil’s Tongue grows in low-lying areas.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Malaysia’s Butterfly - The Common Birdwing (Troides Helana Cerberus)

The Common Birdwing is a big butterfly with a wing span of up to 15 cm, with such a big wing span it can fly at great heights and distances to match. From a distance it would appear to fly like a bird where I supposed is where it got its common name.
Belonging to the Papilionidae species, it has a typical fluttering movement with its forewings whilst its hind wings are kept almost stationary common to the species when feeding on flowers, its favorites are the Pagoda Flower (Cleredendron). Very rarely seen in cities, it is basically a jungle butterfly.
As with most insects, there is a high likely hood that it will be sighted near its host plant, Aristolochia acuminata and Aristolochia tagala, both are jungle vines where as a caterpillar it was feeding on. This type of vine contains toxin and the birdwing has evolved to use it to its advantage as a defense mechanism, using the toxin present in the vine and storing them in the fleshy orange-red spines on their backs without harmful effects to itself. Bright color markings on the wings and the orange-red spines on the back serves as a warning to predators that they are toxic and distasteful. If by mistake or ignorance it is attacked, the predator will learn not to make the same mistake twice.
From what I have read, the female can locate the correct plants with chemical receptors on her forelegs to differentiate various leaves, giving them the ability to “taste” the leaves with her legs.

With its majestic size and brightly colored wing markings, it is highly sought after by collectors, fortunately it is listed as an endangered butterfly species under CITES - The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and are protected in Malaysia.

Meaning, in real life you can most probably buy them from souvenir shops locally but are not allowed to take it out of the country due to the law prohibiting export of endangered species.