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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 06 February 2011 by John Richards

Flowers of the Cameron Highland. Entry 171.


 Yes, yes, it has been a long time, and yes, the Richards have once again fled a Northumberland January (not half so bad as the preceding two months, as it turned out) for warmer climes. We returned last Tuesday to find the garden had made quite a lot of progress, with many snowdrops, some aconites and crocus and a few primulas in flower already. Things will undoubtedly be further advanced next week, despite the torrential rain over the last few days, and I shall put in a local report then. 

So where have we been? Malaysia again (we went to Sabah, Borneo two years ago, as I reported in issue 103), but this time to the mainland, so-called Peninsular Malaya. Twenty-three years ago, in 1988, I worked there on a three-month sabbatical (researching their delicious fruit, the mangosteen), and I have wanted to return ever since, particularly to the mountains which I had been able to reconnoitre on a couple of hastily snatched weekends during my previous stay. So it was that this year we spent the first four days of our holiday (mid-January) at Strawberry Park Resort in the Cameron Highland. This hotel, high above the highest town, Brinchang, is at nearly 1800 m and lies below the highest accessible peak, Gunung Brinchang (about 2050 m). It is possible to drive to the summit, but it is a long way round. However, there are many interesting montane plants in the vicinity of the hotel too. 

It is no accident that there are many plants of temperate affinity here, Rhododendron, Vaccinium, Gaultheria, Ranunculus, Viola and so on. Although frosts are unknown, it is not particularly warm, and the hotel which has no supplementary heating, was really chilly at night. We went to bed wearing woolly jumpers under four blankets! 

In fact we nearly didn't make the trip at all. Two days before we left the UK I received an email from ATOL to say that our company, Oriental Panorama (encompassing Simply Malaysia) had gone into receivership. The helpful girl said that our aeroplane tickets were valid, but she could not vouch for what had been paid for in Malaysia. However, if we paid again, these funds would (in time!) be refundable. In the end we decided to risk it, reconfirmed the hotels by phone, and in fact we enjoyed an excellent holiday. It transpired that two of the hotels had been paid for, but the two more expensive ones hadn't, and that the short transfers were arranged, but we had to rearrange two long transfers by taxi (amazingly a four hour journey of about 250 km cost 400 ringit or about £80!). So we are £1500 or so in hock, but we will get in back some time. Well done ATOL!








 Although many of the following plants could be found around the hotel, most of these photos were taken on a trip into the mossy forest on the summit ridge of Gunung Brinchang. Here a 800 m walkway has been constructed into the mossy forest, where it is possible to see many lovely things (it was the dry season, so orchids were not flowering). Here is a photo of the walkway, followed by one of a mossy tree-trunk, showing epiphytic begonias (left) and argostemmas (right).

 I like Argostemmas. This Rubiaceous genus is unfamiliar to most northern botanists, but it is typical of montane forest in the old world tropics, and some of the species have a distinct class. I think we saw four species. I don't have a name for what is arguably the most attractive.

 Rather more commonly met with, and less exciting is what may be Argostemma stellaris. I think we also saw A. boraginea.

 There are lots of different begonias. I don't have Ruth Kiew's book yet, so I have few names (there are 52 species in Malaysia!). Here are two species growing together just outside the town of Brinchang, followed by one in which the female flowers are three-petalled.

 BY far the most exciting begonia grew down by Robinson Falls. The leaves are iridescent and catch the light to reflect vivid peacock blues, hence the name Begonia pavonina.


 Perhaps the most iconic group in the Malay uplands is the Gesneriaceae, the plant family which includes familiar alpines such as Ramonda, Haberlea and Petrocosmea. When I was there 23 years ago, the most important genus was called Didymocarpus and there was also Diddisandra. Since then, these have been rebranded as Henckelia.

The most attractive of the henckelias we encountered this time grew not far from Strawberry Park in steep mossy banks by the road, overhund with ferns. I think this may be H. curtisii, although the name is far from certain (there is no popular flora for the flowers of the Malayan Highlands and anyone who can provide or correct names for these pictures, please do so in the discussion section).


 The most widespread Henckelia in this area is H. hispida. This is a variable plant, and flowers varied so much from one locality to another that I did wonder whether more than one taxon was involved, although vegetative characters seemed much more constant.

 I think the next species, which we found near Robinson Falls, is H. platypus.

 Also gesneriads, but very different in character, are the Aeschynanthus. These follow a tradition of scarlet-flowered epiphytes in this family which have provided alpine gardeners with some attractive hardy subjects (Sarmienta, Mitraria), although the Latin American genus Columnea will be more familiar to those of a tender disposition. In the Americas, scarlet gesneriads are pollinated by hummingbirds, but in the Old World this role is taken by sunbirds, four or five species of which were very common at Strawberry Park.

We found three species of Aeschynanthus. The most spectacular is probably A. longicalyx.

 Ae. radicans has smaller flowers and a purple, not red, calyx.

 I think this might have been Ae. pulcher. Sadly, the flowers were nearly over.

 Bird pollination leads to classic examples of parallel evolution. At first sight the Agapetes look similar to Aeschynanthus, but of course they are Ericaceae. I don't have a sure name for this species although it might be A. hosseana.

 Growing close to the agapetes on Gunung Brinchang, and another classic example of bird pollination is perhaps the most widespread rhododendron in the Malay peninsula, Rh. malayanum.

 Nearer the hotel we found a similar rhodo, but with a different shaped flower. This looks to be half-way to Rh. pauciflorum (which we did see, although nearly finished flowering) and may be a hybrid between this and Rh. malayanum.

 These are members of section Vireya, but G. Brinchang is home to two species with much more familiar, northern affinities. By far the most common is Rh. wrayi, a small tree which plays an important role on the summit ridge.

 The next plant featured is something of a mystery. With golden-furred capsules and dark narrow leaves it is not, I think, Rh. wrayi, but my hope that it was the widespread Rh. moulmainense (which ranges north as far as China) are dashed as that species has narrow tubes to the flower. Any ideas?

 There were several Vacciniums on the summit ridge too, some in flower, but the most attractive was in young leaf not far from the town of Brinchang.

 Now some 'odds and ends'. As a fan of Callicarpa x bodnierii 'Profusion' (not the hardiest of shrubs, and now killed here two winters in succession), I was very surprised to encounter a lovely species not far from Strawberry Park which may be C. australis.

 Nothing more familiar than a violet. This funny little plant is quite widespread in Cameron Highland. It could be V. pilosa?

 I would have been surprised to find a Streptopus had I not seen one on my previous visit. It looks tremendously like the familar and widespread S. simplex?

 There were several busy-lizzies, but some were I think garden escapes. Not so the spectacular Impatiens oncidioides as this is an endemic to the Malaysian mountains.

 Gingers are important in these forests, but few were in flower during our visit. This pretty little Alpinia (what an inappropriate name for a subtropical genus!) grew near Robinson Falls.

 As I say, it was not orchid flowering season, particularly as the rather ephemeral dry season was very, even damagingly, marked during this El Nina year (we encountered almost no rain in 16 days). In any case, the roadsides and Gunung Brinchang have been (illegally) stripped by collectors over the years and in the wet season it is now necessary to suffer leech infested jungle treks to see many flowering orchids. However the two weedy Spathiglottis species and Spiranthes sinensis were flowering, and the noble flowers of Arundina graminifolia grew absolutely everywhere on waste ground.

 Nepenthes are not as diverse as in Borneo and the Highlands only have three species of which I am aware, of which we saw two. Here is N. macfarlanei.

 To finish with, a couple of 'lower' plants. Tree-ferns are very much a feature of the Malayan forest at all altitudes. In the hill forest there are at least three species, of which the most noble is undoubtedly Cyathea contaminans. At least one of the others is severely threatened as it is small enough to dig up (illegally again).

 It is a wonderful area for pteridophytes, and filmy ferns and clubmosses are conspicuous. Many of the latter are spectacular, none more so than Lycopodium flagellaris.

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