Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Rhinoceros Hornbills of Ampang Forest Reserve

There is a place around KL where you can see Rhinoceros Hornbills flying free, and no, I am NOT talking about the KL Bird Park. This place is the little known Ampang Forest Reserve or better known locally as Taman Rimba Ampang. Located about 10km from KLCC, the Ampang Forest Reserve is popular with locals who go for a dip in the shallow river that runs along the road that leads to a water treatment plant.
Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) at Ampang Forest Reserve. The dark eyes (reddish in colour) tells me it is a boy. His partner flew to another portion of the canopy that was obscured from my view. The upturned, yellow-red casque, black neck and face and a horizontal black stripe in the mid-section of the tail is diagnostic of this species. This bird was going after the two orange-red fruits dangling above.

Rhinoceros Hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros) is one of the largest Asiatic hornbills, with a body approximately the size of a swan and have the usual pied body color i.e. black and white. They are found from the south of Thailand down through to the Malay Peninsula, in Sumatra and also in Borneo. Many would have heard their calls before, but fail to realise that it was a hornbill for they sound more like the noise a mammal would make.

Hence, when you visit this forest reserve, do keep an ear out for the calls of the hornbills. You can, for most of the time, hear their calls from the forest to the left of the river (after the river passes under the road, the same side as a small surau).
The beautiful stream/shallow river at the forest reserve. I heard the hornbills calling, but as I was doing long exposures, I wouldn't have enough time to reposition and shoot the hornbills.

At the end of the road is a water treatment plant, that has been operational since the British colonial rule. This water treatment plant draws water from the catchment area in the surrounding hills. The trees around the entrance of this water treatment plant are good spots to catch a glimpse of the Rhinoceros hornbill.

They can be clearly seen when they drop by the tree tops by the road to feed on the climbing figs that grow there, which appear to be Ficus punctata, another root climbing fig of the subgenus Synoecia (like Ficus pumila and Ficus villosa), with golf-ball sized fruits. So do familiarise yourself with their calls and 'barks' that can help you pinpoint their location.
Peekaboo, I see you. The male Rhinoceros Hornbill browsing for figs. He is very good at picking the fruits and sort of flipping it down its beak.
The black, horizontal band on the tail of the Rhinoceros Hornbill. The orange ball to the right of the bird is the fruit of a climbing fig, most likely Ficus punctata syn. Ficus aurantiaca. Ficus aurantiaca is an illegitimate name for this fig.

The Ampang Forest Reserve is however, doomed to suffer future degradation. Middle of 2013, the KL Outer Ring Road (KLORR) project was approved after the EIA was passed (it was rejected twice), and the highway will cut and fragment the forest reserve. Worst still, the Ampang exit for the KLORR highway will run by the side of the river, the area where I could hear the hornbills calling from! Sadly, we seemed to have a strange concept of solving problems and an even stranger government where water shortage is an issue and yet catchment area forests are allowed to be encroached upon. Then come up with strange water transfer projects that disturbs the environment further.
The guardian of the forest reserve. Long-tailed macaques were feeding on wild figs (Ficus hispida) growing along the side of the road.
A Tree Nymph butterfly (not to sure which one - the wingspan is pretty large and hind wings rather pointed as seen in the picture). It was taking short flights around a small patch of undergrowth. They are pretty interesting to watch, especially when flying/gliding down the a clearing. The Malay name for the tree nymph butterflies is surat, meaning letter.

There has been attempts to highlight the issue of the forest reserve and to stop the highway, which was supposed to be part of the Taman Warisan Negeri Selangor. Hopefully something good comes out of it. If that fails, do go and have a look at Ampang Forest Reserve and the magnificent Rhinoceros Hornbills before its too late. They might not hang around so close to the city once the highway construction starts. 

To get to the forest reserve, drive along Jalan Ampang towards the hills and keep on driving (keep going past Ampang Point and past Ampang Waterfront) until you reach the end of the road. There is an arch with the name of the forest reserve and a public parking spot on your right. You can park here or drive further in where there are smaller car parks. My advice is to park outside and walk in. This will help cut down the noise and air pollution.

My list of plants and animals seen in Ampang Forest Reserve that I will continuously update:

Ficus hispida
Ficus fistulosa
Ficus villosa
Ficus punctata
Ficus sp. (strangler fig, broad-leafed)
Ficus sp. (tree with slender trunk)
Ficus sp. (white fruits)

Bulbophyllum sp.
Thecostele/Thecopus sp.
A few Aeridinae orchids

Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros)
Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis)

Tree Nymph (?Idea sp.)
Grass Yellow - most likely Common Grass Yellow (Eurema sp.)

Spectacled Leaf Monkey/Dusky Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus)
Long-talied Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ficus pumila - Wonder Creeper or Creeping Horror

Since everyone is crazy about planting edible figs in Malaysia at this moment and as a continuation of my Long Figgy Tale, I would like to highlight the large diversity of figs, especially native ones that are around us or are easy to cultivate. Since figs are divided into six subgenera, I would cover at least one from each of the following 4 subgenera:

  1. Synoecia
  2. Sycamorus
  3. Urostigma
  4. Ficus

To start of the list, I will begin with the subgenus Synoecia, with a common fig that is probably very much overlooked and is also edible and has medicinal value: Ficus pumila

Ficus pumila
Synonyms: F. repens, F. hanceana, F. scandens, F. stipulata, F. longipedicellata
English name: Creeping fig, Climbing fig
Malay name: Ara jalar
Chinese name: 薜荔 (bi li), 石壁莲 (shi bi lian)

Subgenus: Synoecia
Section: Rhizocladus
Subsection: Plagiostigma

Ficus pumila is a fig plant under the subgenus Synoecia. Members of this subgenus are usually root climbers and have two distinct leaf types. Typical of this subgenus, Ficus pumila is dioecious and have functional female (only long style ovary for seed production) and hermaphrodite male with short-style ovary for wasp production. The synconia are light green with white spots and ripen to a dark purplish colour (those that drop green are most likely unfertilised synconia).
The mature stems of Ficus pumila. You can see the juvenile leaves that covers a brick wall on the lower portion of the picture.

The general appearance of this fig is a woody climber, with vines closely appressed to the substrate. They produce two different kind of leaves, a small and thinner one when they are juvenile and larger, more leathery leaves on the mature branches. Unlike the juvenile climbing stems, the mature branches do not climb but instead hang out from the supporting substrate. The Latin name pumila, meaning small, refers to the small juvenile leaves.
Here's another picture of Ficus pumila var. pumila climbing up a wall. This wall gets very hot in the afternoon, but it doesn't deter this tenacious fig from climbing up. The figs have just put out mature stems that have bigger leaves and juts out from the wall. They are so vigorous and tenacious that I am tempted to say that if your grandmother sat by the wall on the garden long enough, she would probably be smothered to death by Ficus pumila!
The synconia of Ficus pumila var. pumila. Note the white spots on the ostiole end of the synconia. This is taken at 1-Utama's Secret Garden.

On the climbing stems, roots that can arise from every node and they secrete a gum-like substance when they come in contact with suitable substrate to ensure that the plant gets a good firm grip on the supporting substrate. Hence it will destroy paintwork and wood surfaces wherever they are allowed to climb on. The overall appearance of the plant covering a wall is that of an ivy-covered wall. If the climbing/creeping branches reaches a tree, it will quickly smother the stem and then put out mature branches that bears fruit.

A climbing, juvenile shoot of Ficus pumila. After taking this shot, I gently teased the shoot off the wall...
The shoot from above after being pulled off the wall. Blue arrows shows the clasping roots at the internodes that had pieces of paint stuck to it. The yellow arrows indicate a node with clasping root primordia that had not begun secreting the gummy substance that adheres to the paint on the wall. These clasping roots that enable this fig to climb and stick to seemingly impossible surfaces are the reason why they are grouped into Section Rhizocladus.

Besides the horticultural variants like the variegated, oak-leafed (var. quercifolia) and curly-leafed that are just leaf variations of the common var. pumila, there is also another, more economically important variety, the var. awkeotsang.

The typical F. pumila var. pumila is distributed in Southern China and down to Malaysia and widely used worldwide for landscaping whilst the F. pumila var. awkeotsang is found in Taiwan, Fujian and South-eastern Zhejiang regions. In Taiwan, they are found at higher elevations whilst the var. pumila commonly grows on the lowlands. Recent studies also points to genetic difference in the wasps that pollinate F. pumila var. pumila and var. awkeotsang, hinting to a coevolutionary differentiation with this variety.

The leaves, and also the fruit of F. pumila is considered medicinal and edible, but not in the sense as a table fruit. The fruits are used to make a type of jelly that is very popular in the East. Whilst both variety (var. pumila and var. awkeotsang) can be used to make the jelly, it is the var. awkeotsang that gave rise to the name and fame of this jelly. The varietal name awkeotsang is the Hokkien romanization of Ai Yu Bing ( 爱玉冰 - ai guek seng, literally love jade ice) in which Ai Yu is supposedly the name of the daughter of the man who first started this dish in Taiwan.

The 'seeds' (actually drupes) of var. awkeotsang looks like little dots of dust, and is sometimes called wen zi tou (文字头 - top of the chinese character wen, NOT 蚊子头 - mosquito head, lol). Hence another name for this jelly is wen tou xue (文头雪 - wen character top snow) since it is quite commonly eaten with shaved ice.

So how does this jelly come about? A little biochemistry is involved in this jelly making process, which is sometimes called washing Ai Yu seed (in water). Pectin from the drupes (so called seeds) of F. pumila var. awkeotsang has quite high methyl side chains and will dissolve in water. High methyl pectin will only gel if the pH is low as low pH prevents the repulsion of the pectin chains. Thus this pectin remains in the sol (liquid) state when leached from the fruits/seeds. The seeds also have an enzyme, pectin methylesterase, which can break the ester bond between the methyl group and the pectin's carboxylate group: 

Pectin-COO-CH3 + PME = CH3OH + Pectin-COOH
(yes, methanol is released in the process. The amount is minuscule and would also have evaporated by the time the jelly is ready)
PME - pectin methylesterase
CH3OH - methanol

The demethylated pectin, in the presence of a divalent ion e.g. Ca2+ begins to interact with another chain, causing it to gel. That gives you the jelly that is Ai Yu jelly, wobbly and all. Some add slices of banana and lime juice, which not only provides flavour, but also increases the pectin content and lowers the pH, ensuring a nicely set gel. 
Side view of an immature synconia of Ficus pumila. It looks like a flattened pear-shaped fruit. The fruit will ripen to a purplish green colour that makes the fruit look like it was badly bruised.

To use F. pumila var. pumila, the ripe fruits need to be squeezed for the juices in it and then boiled to trigger the gelation process whereas in var. awkeotsang you only need to 'wash' the stuff from the 'seeds' in tepid water. Hence Ai Yu Jelly is usually made from var. awkeotsang  Because the presence of divalent cations are required for the gelling process, the mixture will not gel if you attempt to do this in ultrapure, mineral-free water.

In conclusion, whether one is growing Ficus pumila as as a decorative plant or for medicinal use, one should be aware that this fig can be a wonder creeper for covering up walls and ugly partitions or turn into a creeping horror for you that swallows up your wall or house in a swathe of green and refuses to die unless you pick off every little bits and pieces of its stem.
They will grow wherever there is light. moisture and nutrients. Here they are taking on a drain embankment by a golf course.
Ficus pumila can climb things that you think are impossible to climb. Here they have taken on and climbed up a metal post for the chain-link fence by a golf course. From the mature stems that flay out in all directions at the top of this metal post, the fig must be pretty pleased with its perch and the view from the top.

Note: For those that do not have a wall or a surface suitable for F. pumila var pumila or does not want to face off with the creeping horror, the variegated version (F. pumila Variegata) can be considered as a hanging pot plant since they are more 'well-behaved' and looks good in a pot. F. pumila Variegata are sold in many nurseries over here (and even in Tesco). Most people would not even think it is a fig tree as the leaves looks very much like a small variegated mint. On closer inspection, one can see and feel the root bumps at the nodes that will spring into action if allowed to come in contact with a suitable surface.

Note: Rønsted et al. (2006) indicate that placement of Ficus pumila in Rhizocladus is erroneous and inconsistent with molecular studies conducted.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Long Figgy Tale

My fig cuttings are doing well so far. B got six cuttings 12 to 14 inches long which were two year wood cuttings (stem that were from previous two growth seasons) from a friend in Adelaide, taken off a tree that produces Brown Turkey-like fruits. The cuttings were then soaked in water, which resulted in them quickly putting out root primodia and also the breba crop that was promptly removed to prevent exhausting the cuttings.
Four of my fig cuttings. The plastic container allows me to observe the root growth.
Fig cutting putting out breba crop (blue arrows) before the leaves emerge when they were first soaked in water.

Four were potted up whilst two more were ‘neglected’ and left in the water. The first four went on to produce leaves and more breba fruit that needs to be removed. The two neglected cuttings were finally planted two weeks ago and has been doing very well. In fact it produces more growth points than the first four cuttings.
The leaves are bigger than my palm.
Roots from the fig cuttings.

After pulling most of the breba off, I finally decided to leave one on just to see if it will develop and to determine the breba fruit shape since the cuttings have a lot of roots and I have been feeding it frequently.
A breba fig that I didn't cull. Notice that it comes from the older, woody section of the stem.
Blue arrow: a breba fig that I decided to let it be. Green arrow: bumps that can develop into current season figs (I am hoping it does not do so).

Since fig has become a hot item over here, below is a short explanation of fig types and pollination requirements.
Four of my fig cuttings. Now to give them a proper home.

A fig is not a proper fruit, but the ‘fruit’ that we eat is a synconium, which is an enlarged, fleshy, hollow peduncle that bears closely massed, tiny flowers on its inner wall.

Ficus carica (the common, edible fig) are gynodioecious, meaning that there are male trees with functional female flowers and female trees that only produce female flowers. The male trees are the caprifigs, and they have short-style female flowers that are fully functioning. The fruit (or rather the synconia) are usually not fleshy and rather dry, thus are only eaten by goats, hence the name caprifigs. The female trees, on the other hand, produces synconia that can develop into a sweet, juicy fruit that is highly sought. Hence caprifigs (MF plants) are considered inedible and female (F) plants are called edible figs.

Male or caprifigs produces three crops of synconia in a year in Mediterranean/temperate climate whilst the female (or edible) fig produces two crops of synconia. The first one is called breba, and is produced on the previous year’s growth (old wood) in Spring. The main crop comes later and arises from the new wood of the current year’s growth.

Now, putting sex and crop cycles aside, fig trees are also classified into another set of characteristics, based on the need (or the lack of) for actual pollination to occur to allow the synconia to mature. Thus we have the caducous (or Smyrna), persistent or San Pedro type figs.

The caducous type requires pollination to allow the synconia to develop and mature. There are caducous caprifigs and caducous edible figs. The Smyrna (and Calimyrna) figs are female caducous figs that require pollination/caprification to allow the synconia to develop into mature ‘fruit’ that we eat. Caprified edible figs have better taste partly due to the presence of mature fruit and seed inside the synconia.

Persistent type figs on the other hand, do not require pollination for the maturation of the synconia. The synconia will parthenocarpically mature despite having no pollinated flowers inside. There are also persistent caprifigs (male+female) but they are much rarer in nature.

A third type has characteristics of both the above. They are usually called San Pedro type. The first crop (breba) is persistent whilst the main crop is caducous. Thus the main crop synconia requires caprification for it to mature.

In a country where the specific symbiotic wasp (Blastophaga psenes) are not native, the planting of caducous/Smyrna type figs are avoided as it will result in the dropping of the synconia due to the lack of pollination that is required for the maturation of the synconia. Instead, persistent type and San Pedro type should be grown as it will offer large fruit crop production. A lot of Turkish sounding fig cultivars are the caducous type such as Sari Lop/Lob Injir, Bardajic and Gök Lop.

Another trend that is going around in this region is the large numbers of nurserymen selling seed-sown figs. Well, there are a few things that one needs to know about figs, especially when growing/buying seedlings (and not cuttings):

1) SEX (as in gender, not the act of…)
2) Persistent characteristic (parthenocarpic development of synconia)

Figs (as said earlier) have either 
a) female flowers with long style (eg. the edible fig is female only, whether caducous or persistant) or 
b) flowers of both sexes (caprifigs, having short-style pistillate and also staminate flowers)

Persistent characteristics
Whether it is a caprifig (male + female) or edible (female only), they either require 
i) pollination to allow for the synconia to mature (caducous/non-persistent) or 
ii) they can mature without pollination (persistent)

Persistent synconia is governed by the allele P/p. The dominant allele P (for persistence) is lethal for the ovum, and hence can only be carried by the pollen/sperm. 

So when you plant a fig seed, the following scenario comes to play

In terms of gender:
a x b [edible female fig x caprifig] = 1a : 1b [1F:1MF]
b x b [caprifig x caprifig] = 1a : 3b [1F:3MF]

So you have a 50:50 chance that the seedlings of edible figs are caprifig-type that is not considered palatable.

2) Persistent (making figs without caprification) and caducous types (figs that require caprification or pollination from a caprifig)

a) caducous fig (female) x caducous caprifig (male+female) = all caducous (not persistent). Caducous caprifigs are the common caprifig and are home to the fig wasp. These are the caprifig types used to pollinate caducous female figs, aka Smyrna types such as the Sari Lop aka Turkish dried figs.

b) caducous fig (female) x persistent caprifig (male+female) = half caducous and half persistent   (persistent caprifigs are rare in nature but have been found and are used for breeding programs).

c) Persistent fig (female) x caducous caprifig (male+female) = all caducous

d) Persistent fig x persistent caprifig = half caducous and half persistent

So only if the pollen comes from a persistent caprifig, will you have a 50:50 chance of the offspring being persistent and not require pollination. Taken with the fact that persistent caprifigs are rare and mostly found in breeding stations, hence seedlings from commercially caprified (pollinated) figs will most likely be made with caducous caprifig, thus the seedling will all be caducous, which is bad news for fruit production in a place where the wasp are not native.

Having said that, Ficus carica can also form viable seeds when pollinated by pollen from other members of the family such as Ficus pumila (the creeping fig), Ficus pseudo-carica and Ficus palmata. Hence ‘accidental pollination’ by ‘stray’ wasps that are not native to them with compatible Ficus sp. pollen that allows development of seeds will result in fruitful caprification of the synconia. Also, research has shown that pollen from other members of Moraceae, e.g. pollen from mulberry will also trigger the development of the synconia when artificially introduced, albeit no development of viable seeds. 

Consequently, the adventurous gardener here may still get a small percentage of fruit set from caducous figs despite the absence of the Blastophaga psenes wasps. One other advantage of seed grown figs is that they will be free from mosaic virus infection.

So one should not be paying high prices for seed-sown fig plants, and also do not place high hopes that the tree would be fruitful or even produce good tasting fruits since the odds are ½ female x ½ non-caducous (at best scenario where persistent caprifigs were used) x a small, small number that gives good fruit characteristics = very very very very small odds of getting a good plant. By all means do so if you have the space and time to keep them (or you are very lucky), but don’t pay high prices for the seedlings. You might as well sow your own seeds from dried figs (they are caducous female x caprifig) and hope that the farm uses persistent caprifig instead of caducous caprifig.

A long listing of older fig varieties (Condit’s paper)‎

Discussion on the sex and persistency of figs were extracted and summarised from this forum thread: