Carnivorous plants are the psycho killers of the plant world… kaskasé. They consume at least part of their nutrients by trapping and digesting insects or small animals using elaborate traps, tricks and sticky business.
This year I spent precious time traipsing through lush forests that make Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, so iconic. In Bako National Park–a rugged coastal rainforest accessible only by boat–the lowland, forested valley is fringed at beachfront by dense mangroves and pandanas trees, and rises steeply inland to a high plateau mounted by clinging kerangas.
Kerangas (“land that cannot grow rice”) is a kind of tropical heath. It typically grows on acidic, sandy soils that are very poor in essential plant nutrients. Since deporporate soils favour organisms that can supplement this poor supply, Kerangas is ripe habitat for carnivorous plants.
Bako is famous for its’ teaming wildlife. Troops of Proboscis monkeys are easily spotted lounging in the treetops and charismatic Bearded Bornean Pigs range across the forest floor. But Bako is equally spectacular for the range of vegetation represented there, and the diversity of plants within each.
Of all the trails stretching out from Park Headquarters, the Lintang trail is an unparalleled botanists delight. Herein find the carnivorous beasts of Bako.
Pitchers are specially-adapted leaves that use tricks and traps to catch and digest insects or small animals. Feed the beast.
Smooth-walled, modest beasties, N. gracilis wraps its way around branches and climbs high, ladening trees and shrubs with immoderate aerial pitchers. Below these towering masses of wrapping vine, the ground-dwelling lower pitchers are found in camouflaged clusters, nestling amongst dry leaves that have been cast off by the host tree overhead.
Deceptively handsome, both ground and aerial pitchers of N. rafflesiana are striking for their size, monstrous patterning and shiny, striped peristomes (the botanical term for the rim around the opening of the pitcher). Most seductive are the flesh-pink lower pitchers that sport hairy, widely-flanked wings. “Come in,” they taunt precociously.
Found nestled on well-shaded patches of the forest floor amongst dingy, soggy leaf debris, these pot-shaped shorties appear to cuddle in somewhat less-than-ominous clusters. Although their aerial pitchers are very few and far between, N. ampullaria are by no means downtrodden. With thin lids flung wide open and curt wings leading to a smooth, skirting peristome… tread carefully.
Whether aerial or on the ground, pitchers of N. albomarginata are unmistakable. Each one of these sleek killing machines is rimmed with a distinctive white band below the peristome–that mimics a halo. Images can be deceiving.
High on the Bako plateau along muddy, sunburnt creek banks, the stellate whorls of a sundew are easily stepped on or over. Measuring less than 3 cm in diameter, use the sunlight as your guide. Sundews sticky deathtrap droplets glisten in the light, giving rise to their common name and giving them away to the eager human eye.
The spatula-shaped leaves of this sundew species (hence the name D. spathulata) are covered with tiny hairs, each dripping with sticky fluid that is secreted by the plant. Once a crawling victim becomes trapped in this gloopy goop, the tentacular hairs of a sundew bend over to enmesh it’s prey. Trapped in this hairy grave, the insect is dissolved for digestion by this beastly little plant.
The leaves of this inconspicuous hunter live beneath the soil–out of sight–where they have adapted to support bladder-like insect traps that suck in prey at a tremendous speed. Microscopic animals that enter… cannot leave.
They appear as a delicate, slender stalk–no taller than a few centimetres–mounted by a single, modest flower. The flowers of U. racemosa are a soft blue-violet, aptly compensating for the terror waiting below ground. U. nummularia can also be found in Bako, sporting flowers in bright yellow (but they did not grace me with their presence on this visit).