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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 08 February 2009 by John Richards

Rhododendrons and other plants on Kinabalu. Entry 103.

Leave of absence

Our webmaster has kindly dubbed this a weekly diary, but regular readers may have noticed that a gap in these proceedings in late winter is now established as an annual event. In their retirement, your diarist (and Mrs Diarist) have taken to escaping the worst of the British winter, chasing wildlife, even alpines, where it is summer 'down below'. Certainly, this year, we have escaped a ferocious winter of the kind many of us remember from our youth, but have not seen for a quarter of a century.

As usual, up here in Northumberland it has not been as bad as in much of the rest of the country. Once again, our moderate climate has escaped the worst of the gales, blizzards anddeep snow that has affected many districts. Not for us the stranded motorists (in South Devon!!), the electricity blackouts, cancelled trains and flights, shortage of gritting salt, or closed schools (well, only a few remote rural establishments). Nevertheless, it has been jolly cold and we hear that snow has now lain for nearly two weeks. We have experienced no new snow since our return on Thursday, but it has got even colder. It was -10C last night, and it is still -4C as I write in mid-morning.

So where have we been? Borneo, Sabah (East Malaysia) to be precise, and we have just experienced a wonderful trip, the holiday of a lifetime, and fantastically good value. If you can, go, and use a Sabah company called 'Wildlife Expeditions' who take extremely good care of you.

No alpines, I hear you say? The world is indeed a small place, and when I spotted the unmistakeable visage of Malcolm McGregor (and his wife) at the Sepilok Resort hotel (fantastic, world-class garden), I could not resist creeping up on him and saying 'no saxifrages here Malcolm!'.

Mt. Kinabalu

In fact, Sabah boasts the highest mountain in south-east Asia, Kinabalu, which tops out at over 4000 m, and very accessible it is. There is an excellent road to the Park Headquarters at 1500 m, where you can stay, inside or outside (less expensive) the Park. The big deal is to climb the mountain. This trail involves at least one night in a primitive mountain hut and a night time climb, to reach the summit at dawn.

Although the trail is good, and you have to take an experienced guide, 2500m altitude is a big climb, the alpine vegetation above the tree-line is not very rich (although extremely interesting), and in any case well beyond our capabilities these days. In any case, many of the more interesting plants occur between 1500 m and 2500 m on the tops of rocky ridges in 'Elfin Forest', and we spent a fascinating day climbing this far up.

To start with, here is a view of the mountain. It is a World Heritage site, and the forest in its various altitudinal zones is still almost completely intact.

Mt. Kinabalu

Rafflesia keithii

The Kinabalu Park includes not only the mountain, but extensive stretches of submontane forest around Poring hot springs. This is a well-known site for the world's largest flower, Rafflesia keithii. This is a parasite that spends its existence inside the tissue of large tropical vines (Vitaceae), only emerging to flower at ground level. One reference I have says that the largest species is R. arnoldii of Sumatra, at 80 cm diameter, but I measured 'our' flower at 1.22 m, and it can reach an amazing 1.5 m.

The vines are stream-side plants of rather impenetrable forest. The landowner tends host plants carefully, and watches over and guards the buds which can persist for more than a year before opening. The flowering lasts only 10 days. He cuts a path to the road, and advertises the flowering event with a large sign. For our plant, we were charged 10 ringgit (about 2), which I thought reasonable value. As we were proceded by a bus-full, it must be a useful source of income!

Rafflesia keithii

Rhodos galore!

However, my main reason for wanting to visit Kinabalu was to see some of the rhododendrons. No less than 25 species occur on the mountain, which must be as rhodo-rich as the best Chinese and Tibetan mountains. Of course these Vireya rhodos are not hardy, although they are very popular with specialist growers in California, Australia and elsewhere. You can see a good collection in the Temperate House at the Edinburgh Botanics where George Argent specialised on these beautiful plants for many years.

We managed to see 10 species, eight in flower, in one day, of about 15 that we could have found in the altitudinal zone were were in, so were quite pleased with outselves. Here first is Rh. crassifolium, in red and pink forms. This species is usually epiphytic.

Rhodos galore!

Next is Rh. polyanthemum, best known by the long narrow leaf petioles. This species is also usually epihytic, often high in the crowns of trees.

Another 'red' is Rh. fallacinum, with dark, scaly foliage, dark brown beneath and with golden young growth. This grows mostly above 2000 m. It is close to Rh. acuminatum, which grows still higher, above 2500 m. We may have seen this, but not in flower.

We saw two 'yellows', largely separated by altitude. Lower down, Rh. retivenium is locally frequent.

Unfortunately I could not get a clear view of the gorgeous Rh. maxwellii from higher up, so this was my best shot.

We only saw the white-flowered Rh. suaveolens low down, near the Park Headquarters. It seems close to Rh. jasminiflorum I saw years ago in Peninsular Malaya.

There are several dwarf species with small flowers on the exposed ridges. We probably saw Rh. bagabonum and Rh. borneense, but not in flower. However, over about 2200 m, Rh. cuneifolium was locally abundant.

Finally for the rhodos, here is the ubiquitous and variable Rh. javanicum, which was mostly out of flower during our visit.

Of course we saw many other wonderful plants, impatiens, begonias, buddlejas, gaultherias, nepenthes, and if it doesn't thaw here I may have to show some more! But the orchids were outstanding, and I shall finish with the most dazzling of all. The wonderful Paphilopedium rothschildianum is endemic to the mountain, but has been overcollected and has become vanishingly rare in the wild. Fortunately it remains in cultivation and this plant was growing in natural habitat, but protected within the Park Botanic Garden.

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