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                 CLONING THE PITCHER PLANT

N. Aristolochioides – Named after the beautiful Aristolochia flowers which it resembles. It is endemic to West Sumatra.

Conserving and protecting endangered and extinct plant species through tissue culture offers the only hope for long term survival.

The word Malesia may seem somewhat strange to people who are not of a botanical persuasion, but actually it’s quite a simple scientific term that is used to describe the  floristic region covered by the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, the Philippines, and the archipelago of islands stretching from Sumatra to New Guinea.
It is actually one of the most botanically diverse regions on earth, with over 25,000 species of flowering plants, about 10% of the world’s flora. Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore alone contain five times as many seed plant genera as the continent of Africa. The region contains some of the most ancient forests on earth and this is probably because its equatorial location meant that it avoided the depradations of the many huge glaciers and icesheets that covered the northern and southern hemispheres during the Pleistocene times.

The climate throughout much of the region is consistently hot and humid with very high rainfall. Charles Darwin, on a visit to Borneo, described it as, “One great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by nature for herself”. To my mind, one of nicest descriptions of our climate is that we have two seasons – a wet season and an even wetter season – quite appropriate for a region that can get up to 5 metres of rain per annum!

Malesia has a very high proportion (14%) of endemic plants (found nowhere else in the world) whilst 27% have their centers of distribution primarily in Malesia. One of the explanations for the high number of endemic plants in this area is that the region is composed of so many islands numbering well over 20,000 and this is very important for the evolution of new species. In such a large group of islands many plants became isolated from their parent stock and evolved into new forms. New Guinea, the largest island in the group (and second largest in the world, after Greenland), shares some plants with nearby Australia, but also contains an amazing 124 endemic genera. Borneo, only slightly smaller, has 59.

                N. Jacquelineae – A rare species found only in the cool mossy forests of the mountains of West Sumatra.

Plant Species:
The largest, and arguably the most famous plant group in the region is the family Orchidaceae, with over 4,000 described species and undoubtedly more as yet undiscovered. There are many beautiful (and sometimes bizarre) plants that are highly valued as ornamentals including the tropical pitcher plants (Nepenthes), as well as plants with medicinal properties, many of which, undoubtedly, are so far undiscovered by scientists.

N. Inermis – This unusual species is native to the mountains of West Sumatra. It traps insects by means of the sticky surface on the inside of the pitcher.

Threats and Regulations
Due to the very high ornamental value of the Pitcher Plants (particularly amongst international collectors), the illegal collection of such species in the wild has become very serious indeed. In some cases this has led to the virtual extinction of some species in the wild. Habitat destruction has also contributed to the decline of populations.

Whilst some  regulatory measures have been put in place to protect wild plants and animals, it is unlikely that these methods will, on their own, protect such endangered species from eventual total extinction from their wild and native habitats. The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)  has made considerable contributions to the protection of plants and animals in their native habitats and all of the Pitcher Plants are listed within the Convention with varying degrees of importance and protection. In general, the Convention bans the export or movement of listed species and can carry very heavy penalties.

Tissue Culture
One very important and critical provision within CITES regulations is that plants which have been produced by artificial propagation techniques may be traded across International borders. This paves the way for companies or individuals who actually take measures to artificially produce endangered species of plants, by responsible cloning techniques, to sell their products to collectors.
Such methods of artificial propagation, of which tissue culture is probably the most common, can be seen as very valuable tools in assisting with the conservation and protection of wild and endangered species of plants worldwide. Tissue culture was originally developed to assist in the bulk production of planting material for mostly agricultural crops such as potatoes, soft fruits and bananas (of which more later) but it also very rapidly found favour in the ornamental plant business which required large numbers of identical plants to satisfy a burgeoning market in Europe and the Americas.

N. Villosa – Growing only the upper slopes of Mount Kinabalu and neighboring Mount Tambuyukon in Sabah, the pitchers of this species are exceptionally resilient and can last for over a year.

N. Attenboroughii – Found only on a single mountain on Palawan Island (Philippines), this species is named after the famed television presenter and naturalist, Sir David Attenborough.

Pitcher Plants:
Here in Sarawak the tissue culture of Pitcher Plants started in the late 1990s and has since produced a wide variety of Pitcher Plant and other Bornean ornamentals for sale to the world market. This has been done under the auspices of the Department of Forestry, Sarawak and the Sarawak Forestry Corporation and has undoubtedly made great contributions to reducing the illegal collection of endangered species from the wild. Regrettably there are still illegal collectors who place a greater value on wild collected plants than they do identical plants produced by tissue culture.

The tissue culture of Pitcher Plants normally starts with the collection, from the wild, of a few seeds which in no way threatens the viability of the wild populations. And from these few seeds, many tens or even hundreds of thousands of cloned plants can be relatively cheaply produced, on an almost indefinite basis, without ever needing to again take seeds from wild populations.

It seems likely that for some very sought-after and endangered species of Pitcher Plants, tissue culture offers the only hope for long term survival together with the ability to re-introduce them into the wild after they have become totally extinct. This practice of re-introduction has already been done in Sarawak.

 Tim Hatch has lived in Sarawak since 1977, working in the natural sciences and agriculture. He is now Research Director of Malesiana Tropicals, a large biotechnology company.

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