Written by root. Posted in BEST OF BRUNEI


Published on November 01, 2015 with No Comments

Brunei’s beguiling and beautiful meat-eating plants.




They are popularly known as ‘monkey cups’, but there is no monkeying around when the pitcher plant’s cup lures its victim inside. It can be a deadly trap.

The pitcher plants, belonging to the genus Nepenthes, are some of the most extraordinary plants in the world. Its sweet-smelling nectar lures insects into the pitcher, where a deadly pool of highly acidic digestive enzymes break down insects and other small animals in its trap. Quite similar to how our stomach’s digestive enzymes break down food, really.

The plant’s “carnivorous syndrome”, a term coined by Darwin, is a natural predisposition of plants that live on nutrient-poor soil. They have taken up a carnivorous lifestyle to obtain nitrogen and minerals from their prey, a key ingredient to make plants proteins and DNA. While romanticised visions of monstrous Venus flytraps making meals from humans have been the inspiration for fiction and children’s storybooks, study on pitcher plants have revealed that there are more to them than their meat-eating tags.

Brunei Darussalam is home to some 15 Nepenthes species; of which four are endemic to the highlands of Temburong. Known locally as sumboi-sumboi, the pitcher that gives the plant its name are actually modified leaves. The rims become very wet when water touches it, giving new meaning to the term “slippery when wet”. While there are great variations in the structure of its pitchers between species, the trap comprises four basic units: the lid, the collar-shaped pitcher rim (peristome), the upper waxy zone and the lower glandular zone, both within the pitcher.

The lid forms the roof on top of the pitcher, assisting to attract insects and preventing too much rainwater from entering and diluting the digestive fluid within. The peristome attracts prey with its contrasting colouration and large quantities of sugary nectar, often emitting a sweet scent. When the peristome is dry, insects may rest on it safely; but when it’s wet with rain or dew, it turns extremely slippery. And this is when insects and other prey slip into the pitcher pool.

Pitcher plants can grow stems up to six metres long. Some species have flowers that grow one metre tall, hold two litres of flesh-digesting liquid and traps more than 40 centimetres deep. The Nepenthes rajah of Borneo, for instance, is large enough to drown a rodent.

While the fluid may be deadly for insects and small animals, locals in Brunei have turned to it for medicinal purposes. Fluid from young unopened pitchers is used to clean wounds or treat incontinence. The aerial parts of Nepenthes spp. (Tropical Pitcher Plant) are extracted for use in the treatment of kidney stones, hypertension, fever and cough. More recently, endophytic bacteria isolated from the plant have been found to have therapeutic properties and produces bioactive compounds with pharmaceutical implications.

The best places to see a wide variety of Nepenthes species in Brunei are the open white sand habitats along the coastal highway between Tutong and Telisai, and the kerangas and peat swamp forests of Belait. The sub-montane and montane forests of Temburong are the only places in Brunei where some of the spectacular highland species can be found, such as Nepenthes veitchii, Nepenthes lowii, Nepenthes stenophylla and Nepenthes tentacular.

Despite the century-long scientific interest, pitcher plants still hold many secrets today. Distinct varieties and species rely on different trap components and have evolved specific trap adaptations to target different prey. For example, few studies have found that the Nepenthes hemsleyana is a favourite daytime roost. The plants benefit from the bat’s nitrogen-rich faeces. Such a study helps scientists discover the mutualism aspect of pitcher plants which was undiscovered before.

In Brunei, all other Nepenthes except for the Nepenthes gracilis (common roadside pitcher plant) are regarded as high value as their occurrence is either very restricted (Nepenthes hispida, Nepenthes albomarginata, Nepenthes hemsleyana, Nepenthes mirabilis, and Nepenthes bicalcarata) and/or they are of interest to collectors; thus subject to over-collection.

Furthermore, all pitcher plants species in the genus Nepenthes are regarded as threatened and listed in Appendix II of CITES, thus are restricted from being moved across national borders. Sadly, the habitat of lowland Nepenthes species is under threat from coastal, industrial and urban development. It is time that we safeguard these natural habitats so that the plants can continue to flourish in the wild.

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