Borneo – An Orchid grower’s Perspective by Ian Dorman

Ian is a former member of SDOS, and currently Chair of Harrogate OS. He has been growing for over 30 years, and is now well travelled. This talk is from a 2016 trip to Borneo alongside some members of the OSGB.

Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world, and the largest in Asia. The name comes from Brunei, which is a sultanate on the island. The remainder is part Malay, and part Indonesian. It has been a rainforest for 140m years, and has developed into a diverse bio hotspot with over 15,000 species – including orchids. Over 400,000sq km is lowland forest, whilst the plateau up to Mt. Kinabalu is alpine meadow. Kinabalu is a major feature at over 4km tall. The environment is rapidly being destroyed to allow for major palm oil plantations which are a problem for animals (orang-utan etc.) as well as orchids. If it continues at the current rate then apart from serious slopes there won’t be any forest left. The island’s population is just under 20m (and growing), with provinces of Sarawak at 2.4m and Sabah at 3.1m.

The trip was for 16 days of hard climbing and leisure. Just prior to the trip a huge earthquake caused some damage to the top of Mt Kinabalu, making it impossible to summit – however, there aren’t any orchids right at the top. Kuching was the starting city which is described as being quite upmarket, and at sea level it was over 90F. This is close to the Bako national Park which is home to a huge array of Nepenthes (pitcher plants) of all sizes from miniatures to huge ones several metres tall. This is the area to find Paph. bullenianum, although sadly none were found. Lots of ‘out of flower’ Dendrobiums adorned the trees. Part of the park holds the local botanical gardens, and in here there were samples of Paph. victoria-regina as well as Phal. bellina, lots of Vandas and Paraphalaenopsis serpentilingua with it’s interesting lip.

The following day saw a 90 minutes flight to Kota Kinabalu (on a surprisingly decent ‘plane). From here it took several hours of tortuous logging roads to get to the start of Kinabalu itself. The road went by quite a lot of memorials to servicemen – British and Australians – who had been captured and held by the Japanese who used them as slaves. Many died during hard labour, and only a few survived to be rescued at the end of the war. They passed lots of local orchid nurseries with some interesting plants, but as these would be mainly jungle collected then CITES would be a major issue on the homebound journey. Coel. pandurata was very common as was Renanthera bella. Some Paph. rothschildianum in gardens had been in flower about a month earlier, but Paph. lowii was still in flower. Dendrobium parthenium was common in the foothills with its large single flowers. Dimorphorchis lowii can easily be seen when in flower, and is very attractive.

The slopes of Mt. Kinabalu offer rough terrain, often jagged. The yellow flowered Spathoglottis gracilis is quite abundant, as are several Coelogyne species. Bulbophyllum lobbii is adaptable, and very common. The foothills contain several protected zones that rare species get transplanted into. These are fenced off and closed out of hours to prevent theft. As a result, these are now generally the best places to spot rarities such as Paph. rothschildianum – are these wild, or now cultivated…

After a rest day the group ventured into the low lying Klias wetlands, quite a different habitat, and they saw proboscis monkeys and lots of fireflies. The hot temperatures are supplemented by hot springs. The locals are often keen to show off their local treasures for a small fee, and these are the world’s largest flowers – Rafflesia pricei. The flowers are deep maroon, and about 1m across. Coelogynes and Corybas species abound, which are very interesting plants growing in deep leaf litter and heavy shade. Den. lambii is unusual and is rarely found in cultivation. Den. alabense is another rarity.

Coelogyne radioferens is different in that it has flowers of almost orange, and is hard to grow away from its natural habitat. Arundina graminifolia is a terrestrial that pops up all over the place, and is in flower for a period of time with its sequential flowering habit. Phal. cornu-cervi is a small flowered species that is almost always in flower in mature plants. A great rarity is Paph. ooii, a recent discovery which gets to 5′ tall spike of well spaces flowers a bit smaller than roths, and not as well shaped. This was a real treat for a slipper fanatic. Paph. dayanum is another local plant now rare in the wild. It is being replanted into gardens around 2km rather than at elevations of 2.5-2.7km. Paph. lawrenceanum is also here but out of flower, so difficult to separate from dayanum, as well as hard to photograph due to the very steep slopes. It is interesting to note that plain leaved species grow alongside the mottled ones – where once up on a time it was thought the mottled ones needed warmer conditions. The final slipper in the area is virens, which is fairly closely related to javanicum.

The next day saw the group transfer from Sarawak to Bakalan. This was followed by another 5 hours bone shaking travel on logging roads towards the foothills of Mt Murud. This is different terrain altogether, with a sandstone mountain at 2.4km. The foothills have become paddy fields, with premium prices paid for this special product. The top of the mountain was reached after a 6 hour climb, but was worth it with more Coelogynes and Dendrobiums along the way. Right at the top they saw Den. piranha which is believed to be the highest growing Dendrobe. It is named for a curious jaw like lip with a projecting tooth. At this height it was still 20C, and very humid. The descent followed a different route, and they encountered Phal. amabilis, and further Rafflesias. Towards the base they came into a wildlife park with rescued Orang-utans, Elephants and the Rhino Hawkbill (bird).

The final trip was up Mt. Trusmadi, close to Kinabalu. This is a steep sided mountain with a further 6 hour climb in an area still forested. Lots of orchids were at the top.

A good trip and an eye opening experience. The island has around 12 hour’s daylight all year round, together with being very hot and having high humidity makes it all quite tiring. There is regular severe weather with storms and cloud. It isn’t always sunny as it creates its own high cloud level, which creates its own humidity. Certain vegetation favours certain orchids.

Thank you Ian.