A Strange Search
for an Amorphophallus
The Anthurium is one of the most popular garden plants in Sarawak, a plant which my grandmother endearingly nicknamed ‘the naughty boy’. The Anthurium, beloved in a bouquet, is instantly recognisable for its brightly coloured spathe, unfurling in a dazzling array of plastic shades, and, of course, its erect spadix, jutting proudly out of the enclosing folds. Male and female combined, it is a showy, naughty boy indeed. But this variety is not indigenous to Sarawak, imported from the Americas like many of our best-loved ornamentals.
Sarawak, however, does have its own examples from the Arum family and, just like any family, this one contains a broad range of members, some rarely seen as a result of their weird behavioural quirks or extreme appearance. Meet Uncle Amorphophallus, the naughtiest boy of them all. The first fact that everyone immediately appreciates is that the name translates from Latin to ‘misshapen penis’, straight to the point and sure to raise a smirk. The big brother of the species is the Titan Arum, the common name preferred by the god of nature broadcasting, Sir David Attenborough, who decided that the literal translation was ‘too rude’ for a TV audience. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to go down in history as the presenter who repeated the word penis more times on screen than anyone outside porn.
The Amorphophallus Titanum is a big boy indeed. It holds the record of the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. Standing up to 3 metres tall, it is immense. Equally famous for its nauseating odour, it emits the scent of rotting flesh across great distances to lure its pollinators, believed to be beetles and blowflies, into its cavernous interior. Similar to Sarawak’s Rafflesia, it is a carrion plant, known in Malay as Bunga Bangkai – the corpse flower. But, native to Sumatra, Sarawak is not the natural home of this species either.
There is, however, a sideways Sarawak connection. The Titan Arum was first described by Odoardo Beccari, the well-known Italian naturalist, who visited Sumatra after a stop in Sarawak at the invitation of the Rajah in 1865. Beccari spent three years ‘wandering in the great forests of Borneo’, the title of his seminal book on his stay. During his three year sojourn on our island, he collected and documented over 4,000 specimens, predominantly palms but also all kinds of insects, birds and animals, including orangutan, and is now the subject of a historical trail on Mount Matang, initiated by the Friends of Sarawak Museum and the Ministry of Tourism, to mark the centenary of his death.
In 1878, a decade after he left Sarawak’s shores, he encountered the Titan Arum species in Sumatra and sent back seeds to his patron in Italy. A young plant from this crop was then sent on to Kew Gardens where it first flowered in 1889. The bloom was not to be seen again in England until several decades later in 1926, when the crowds which gathered to witness this giant opening were so large that the police had to be called in to keep the peace. Not so in Sarawak, where other species of Amorphophallus appear and disappear entirely unseen.
So, when we heard that there was one at Wind Cave Nature Reserve, we simply had to go. Wind Cave sits in limestone, which is a unique and unusual biome. In that strange network of connections that is Sarawak, it too was visited by Beccari who uncovered a cache of archaeological artefacts. The Amorphophallus in this area is the Eburneus, locally endemic and restricted to a limestone environment, just one of the reasons why this nature reserve needs protecting from the predatory quarries that eye its precious resources. But, just like its Titan brother, it can be a long wait for an Eburneus to bloom.
The Amorphophallus has two distinct lifecycles. It is born of a corm, a tuber that develops underground. First, it bursts out of its subterranean home in an umbrella of foliage, held up by a straight stem, diamond dazzled like snakeskin. The sun feeds the leaves and the leaves feed the corm for about a year before it dies and becomes dormant once again, maybe multiple times over as the corm develops. In fact, in many parts of Asia, Amorphophallus corm is cultivated for Konjac, an edible jelly that can feed humans, in the form of Shirataki noodles, for example. But if you leave the corm to its own devices, it will be reborn, bursting out of the ground like a lance, unfurling its malodourous insides into a flower, before withering a day later and then dying. When it comes, you better get there quick.
The bloom in question was not easily accessible. It was butted up against the boundary fence, away from the plank walk and at the end of an unsightly scramble through the jungle, muddy after torrential rain. But, suddenly, there it was – tall, erect, proud. We puffed our way up the tiny rise where it stood, on the edge of an outcrop of limestone, outstanding and upstanding. Until, just seconds after our arrival, the phallus flopped. Performance anxiety, perhaps? Oddly disappointing, its odour had also dissipated after three days of downpours. Regardless, the experience was unmissable. Peering into the interior of this bizarre waxy world, magenta in the jungle, rising up out of the ground like a missile already exploded, was awesome.
Inspired, not by disappointment, more by elation, and determined to get a good shot of this strange inflorescence, we decided to try again. As it often the case, Sarawak seldom disappoints and, by bizarre coincidence, social media informed us of a second set of Amorphophallus somewhere nearby. So off we went to Kampung Haji Baki, just on the outskirts of Kuching, to the equally strange Semaba Bamboo forest. It was mid-afternoon on an average Friday and yet there was a clutch of cars parked on the roadside. This tiny hillock, right on the edge of one of Sarawak’s most populous suburban kampungs, had clearly once been part of a rubber plantation. Tall trees with evidence of tapping lined the path and exploded seeds were strewn over the ground. Everywhere we looked were stands of old growth bamboo, the source of the name. All entirely natural, maybe, but this place has a decidedly strange story.
It seems to be something of a community concern, apparently popularised by a couple of Hakka Chinese who so enjoyed walking in this urban enclave of nature that they took it upon themselves to maintain the paths. Partly patched together by tangled tree roots, the paths are also peppered with carefully placed boulders and even broken paving slabs for ease of walking. A short trail around the perimeter of a hill, it is a leisurely stroll of around 25 minutes all the way round, back to the tarmac road, but in an environment that feels like deeper jungle. Apparently, it has become a firm favourite. We passed a parade of people, families with children still in school uniform, middle-aged friends out for their exercise and several lone older strollers out for the air. One gentleman told us he had been coming for more than a year on the advice of a friend, a trip he made every day without fail even though he lives nowhere near.
But, on this occasion, there was another reason for us to be here. About 10 minutes down the track, taped off behind a plastic perimeter, were two further Amorphophallus. These were not Eburneus, but an entirely different species. To our untrained, Google-wise eyes, these looked like Amorphophallus Hewitii, also endemic to East Malaysia, even though the sign plainly but erroneously declared them as Titans. Once again, we had missed them in their morning glory, already shrivelled and collapsing in on themselves. Just a few days previously, the Facebook feeds had seen them in full salute, purple and proud. But their time had already passed. The flies had made their pilgrimage and left their lord to fade away into the underworld. In spite of all this, it still felt like the greatest kind of chance encounter. Nature, in the end, accepts all imperfection.