Carnivorous

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.

 

Pitcher plants

Pitchers are specially-adapted leaves that use tricks and traps to catch and digest insects or small animals. Feed the beast.

Nepenthes gracilis 

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.

 


Nepenthes rafflesiana

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.

 


Nepenthes ampullaria

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.

 


Nepenthes albomarginata

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. 

 


Sundew

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.

Drosera spathulata

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.

 


Bladderwort

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. 

Utricularia racemosa 

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). 

 

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Love letter to Earth

Dear Earth,

I grew up in a place we humans call Woy Woy Bay. It means ‘deep water’ in the language of the Darkinjung people, the traditional custodians of that land. Here, the scrubby Eucalyptus-Acacia woodlands of Brisbane Water National Park tumble across sandstone ridge and down; down to meet the serpentine backwaters of the Central Coast, New South Wales, Australia.

Growing up, that snake and lizard-ridden bushland was our backyard. The mangrove mudflats–with kookaburras and yellow-crested cockatoos careening overhead–our playground. On a sunny day, the water glittering like diamonds, this place is a kind of godly heaven incarnate (mind the sharp oysters hiding in the mud).

“When I needed love, I turned my tummy to the beach sand…”

On holidays, my father pioneered long drives in search of humble, grassy campgrounds, coral reef and surfing waves. These places–the collective product of more than a billion years of tectonics smashing volcanic island chains into the east coast of the Australian continent–came to feel as much like home as the towns I went to school in.

Through this our parents instilled in my sister and I a profound respect for you; our natural environment. We grew with you. We learned to tread lightly. We were taught to be inquisitive and learn the language of the land. In part out of respect, in part for survival.

When I was lonely, I would wander into your arms, stepping barefoot into the bush and climbing onto sun-soaked boulders that could comfort me. When I felt unsure, I sat with you and listened to your council, by way of intonations in the wind amongst the eucalyptus leaves. When I wanted strength, I sat in dusk-light and let fat raindrops crash on me as coastal thunder rolled into the scrubby hills, rocking all of us. When I needed love, I turned my tummy to the beach sand and felt the humming heart of your Pacific Ocean sooth and settle me. A constant, earthly drone in backdrop to the scratchings of some tiny creatures burrowed in the sand.

Home planet, for all that you have given me and those I love, I fear that I will never truly understand you. Never know you in your complex, beautiful entirety, as a good lover should. Never be certain of our future together. Love note in transit, I am your Juliet, gulping poison and not knowing if my words will reach your heart in time.

Across your surface there are countless ‘other worlds’ that I have never even seen, and so many that I sadly never will. Some need help and many are sick and troubled. One human life is such a short amount of time.

For all my efforts, I simply cannot get enough of you. Dear Earth, I am infatuated, through and through.

Yours until the end of time,

Hannah

Written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the ‘Earthrise‘ photograph, taken by astronauts aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft on a flyby of the Moon. Submit your own Love letter to Earth via the Museums Victoria website.

Apollo 8 Earthrise
On looking back to Earth from the Apollo 8 spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

 

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