Botanical Secrets in the Rainforest - Part One 

Memories of a Borneo Expedition Highlight Giant Orchidantha and Exotic Fruit

by Sandy Ross Sykes

WILDFLOWER WATCH A series of columns highlighting the work of members pursuing and promoting an educational awareness of native plants through individual initiatives and projects.

Here, Sandy Ross Sykes, in the first of two parts, relates her experiences collecting specimens and painting on location in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. In this first part, we learn about Sandy’s adventures in Borneo. An Irish native who studied Fine Art in London and is now based in Hong Kong, Sandy completed a two year study of gingers (Zingiberaceae)as part of her MA at the Royal College of Art. She discovered little is known about the 1500 species of Zingiberaceae and she has continued to search for and paint them. Many botanical species are fast disappearing from the Far East. Sandy has travelled to several countries in Southeast Asia, sometimes revisiting areas only to find the rainforest replaced by miles of palm oil or rubber trees.

It’s not often that a botanical artist holds a hand drawn map from thirty years before and reads it to reach a secret place where giant Orchidantha, in the family Lowiaceae, grow. The ancient forest has been lightly felled here and there allowing light to penetrate the leafy gloom where huge 'bushes' of a giant Orchidantha species have slowly matured. The longest leaf is 2.5 meters long and 23 cm wide. The inflorescence is the size of a fist. Before this, we had never seen a bush more than a meter tall and Jana said later she half expected to see a dinosaur saunter by. 'We' refers to the Czech botanist and taxonomist Dr. Jana Leong-Skornickova of the Singapore Botanic Gardens and Tony Lamb who has spent fifty years in Sabah studying its flora. A Malaysian state situated on the northeast of the island of Borneo, Sabah is the "Land Below The Wind," a phrase used by seafarers of bygone times to depict lands south of the typhoon belt.

Our little expedition had made its way in a well used Land Rover expertly driven by the 75 year old Tony while Jana and I interpreted the map’s twists, turns, and tiny bridges, on the unmade road leading into the foothills of the Crocker Range. The exact site must remain a secret.

After the initial awe at the huge size of the species, we set about seeking fresh flowers for Jana to describe and me to paint. Three fresh ones hid amongst the leaves at the bases of the many clumps. Jana has been bitten in the past by a snake as she reached into the undergrowth to collect species. We gathered our stinking specimens with care.

Orchidantha release a powerful stench of manure to attract little dung beetles which in turn act as pollinators. While searching for the flowers, we disturbed some animal traps set by local hunters. They were delicately made of twigs and string hidden in the leaves. Tony later wondered whether the trapping of animals had meant fewer droppings for the dung beetle and so led to a decline in their numbers. This thought was prompted by the observation that we had seen no new fruits or clumps of seedlings spreading in the forest. Perhaps we were in what will be the last giant Orchidantha forest.

Between trips into the rainforest, I stay in Tenom, the final stop on the North Borneo Railway. It has the air of a place buried alive; a center for palm oil and rubber tappers - a frontier town. I reflect how I came to be here. What a strange dance the trail of gingers (Zingiberaceae) has led me on. What started in London as a college project has led me into a dual world beyond family and friends. I listen to reams of Latin names all day long and journeys by four wheel drive are filled with stories of Murut headhunters dividing skulls on an ancient stone slab. The scene is set against a backdrop formed by huge shifts and clashing plates in early times that have pushed up mountain ranges like the Crocker Range and cleaved valleys such as Tenom.

Every sense is challenged, from the malodorous durian fruit to Willoughbeia – locally called Serapit, a climber with white latex – which was the first source of rubber shipped back to Britain. It bears a delicious orange colored fruit that one has to find before the monkeys eat it. The inner flesh has a raspberryish/ strawberryish flavor, unlike the small brown chiku fruit that tastes like caramel pudding.

Tenom is gaining a reputation as a fruit growing area. Rollinia deliciosa is brought to my porch which overlooks the ornamental lake in Sabah Agricultural Park. The yellow fruit is about half the size of a rugby ball and covered in yellow fleshy spikes. The creamy flesh has a smooth texture and tastes like soursop. I've been living on pili nuts, rambutans, and fresh papaya, which if liquidated with ten of its seeds is said to protect against cancer. Tuhau is made from the inner stem of Etlingera coccinea and concocted into a spicy relish. The young green leaf shoots of Orchidantha species also make a refreshing snack in the jungle.

Of the nine species of Orchidantha that we have found, flowering O. holttumii releases a powerful stench of rotting baby's diapers. The odor seems to cling to the nostrils, but is complete heaven to dung beetles. The flowers grow between two and six inches high under clumps of narrow shaped green leaves varying from four to seven feet long but not much more than eight inches wide. There is little more exciting than being in jungle filled with huge clumps of Orchidantha where one hacks the way from one clump to another; dropping on all fours to search for the small flowers that last such a brief, smelly time. All fear of scorpions and snakes is pushed aside while parting the forest’s leafy floor to search for the shining, creamy pale green arcs of nodding flower heads.

Sandy would like to thank Dr. Jana Leong-Skornickova and Tony Lamb for their help and support with her botanical expeditions to Borneo and for checking the botanical accuracy of this article. 

  • Orchidantha maxillanioides, Orchidantha, Watercolour, 12” x 11”, (C) 2010 Sandy Ross Sykes
  • Mist and fog are commonly found on the high mountain passes throughout the Crocker mountain range and on the road leading to Mt. Kinabalu. The roads are narrow and twisting and prone to landslides.
  • Etlingera elatior 'Jack', Watercolor on paper, 12” x 11”, (C) 2010 Sandy Ross Sykes Etlingera species are commonly found throughout Borneo. The young inflorescence of the torch ginger is cooked in spicy dishes.
  • It is important to be well wrapped up in the rainforest to protect against illness carried by mosquitoes and ticks, scorpions and snakes. Gaiters are also worn to deter leeches which are abundant in the rainy season.
  • Orchidantha frimbriata, Sketchbook page by Sandy Ross Sykes
  • Orchidantha sabahensis
  • At 12,000 feet high, Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South East Asia. It is a protected area of rich biodiversity.
  • Snacking on an Orchidantha leaf shoot