A chance encounter with the Borneo flower master

‘Are you finding everything you need?” The clipped British accent floated over shelves of books about headhunters and orangutans, ginger…

‘Are you finding everything you need?”

The clipped British accent floated over shelves of books about headhunters and orangutans, ginger plants and pygmy elephants.

The grey-haired proprietor of the bookstore, Dr. Stephen Sutton, introduced himself and proceeded to point out the new titles just in.

Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, is divided between three countries: Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia.

Malaysian Borneo consists of two states, Sarawak and Sabah. Kota Kinabalu, a hectic city of 350,000 on the shores of the South China Sea, is Sabah’s capital.

Sutton’s bookstore is located in the capital city.

Sutton picked up a large, heavy hardcover with a smooth, perfect cover. “Look at this one,” he said excitedly.

“This beautiful book documents the rhododendrons found in Borneo. In fact, one of the authors happens to be here right now.”

He stepped towards the common area, where book buyers were welcome to peruse titles of interest and make themselves a cup of tea.

“Allow me to introduce you to Anthony Lamb.”

Much of Borneo remains covered with dense rainforests said to be millions of years old, some of the oldest in the world.

There are thousands of types of flowering plants, plus innumerable mosses, ferns and fungi. New discoveries of rare and endemic plants are still being made.

Lamb appeared tired, having arrived home from Australia just that morning. Nevertheless, he simply couldn’t stop talking about rhododendrons.

He shifted from one leg to the other, turning pages. “I used to climb mountains, looking for new ones. Then I would find a photographer to come and take pictures of them.”

One of Lamb’s discoveries is named after him.

The lush rainforests are also home to the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia, which measures a metre in diameter.

This parasitic plant hides within its host, a vine that grows only in primary rainforest. Taking up to 15 months to bud, the flower then bursts forth, lasting only a few days.

Lamb frowned slightly. “These photographs don’t really show the differences in the shades of orange between these different rhododendron species.”

Casually flipping a few more pages, he pointed to a picture. “Oh, and this is my wife. See the size of the blooms in her hand?”

He was interested to learn about Lapland rosebay, a rhododendron that grows wild in the Yukon.

Another of Borneo’s exotic flowers is the carnivorous pitcher plant. Shaped like a bowl, the curved lid points upwards when open.

Unfortunate insects fall into a liquid mix of rainwater and enzymes contained in the bowl, and are then digested by the plant.

Borneo boasts the world’s largest of these, the Nepenthes rajah: The bowl measures 45 centimetres and holds up to four litres of water. These monster blooms have been discovered digesting frogs!

“Well, I really MUST be going,” Lamb said. “It was a pleasure chatting with you.” He handed us a business card; the long line of letters after his name threatened to run off one side. He stepped away to say farewell to Sutton. He stopped. He turned back.

“Oh, and the orchid book is due to be published in a week or so. There are 860 species of orchids documented in the book, and over 500 photographs.

“Many of them are endemic to Borneo. Oh yes, and 80 per cent of orchids are ephiphytes.” 

 Catherine Miller is a Whitehorse-based writer on a months-long tour of far-flung places. Her chronicle appears here every Monday.

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