Some plants and animals of Sarawak

urbane horticulture

I have just returned from ten days in Sarawak, Borneo. As jet-lag befuddles my brain and words come up short, here are a few photographs.

Alocasia robusta (2)Alocasia robusta

Ficus rosulataFicus rosulata 1 (2)Nepenthes veitchiiIMG_6043 (2)Licuala orbicularis 2 (2)Licuala orbiculata

Nepenthes albomarginata (2)Nepenthes albomarginata

Flying lemur (2)

Flying lemur

Bako 1 (2)

Bako National Park.

Kerangas 2 (2)

Kerangas (Heath Forest)

Bornean Keeled Pit Viper

Bornean keeled pit viper 2 (2)Octomeles sumatrana 3 (2)Octomeles sumatrana in Mulu National Park.

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Nepenthes reinwardtiana2 (2).jpgNepenthes reinwardtiana

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Fishtail Palm (Caryotano) outside the Deer Cave, Mulu National Park.

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Twelve ( possibly thirteen) species of bats live in the cave.

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The bats come out in waves.

My thanks to Chien Lee

for helping me with my itinerary.

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Three years and several thousand miles later,my book will be published on September 18, 2018. In the beginning I assembled a list of about 100 gardens. When practicality took over from imagination, the list dropped to 65. Then to 55. I wrote 55 pieces but then my editor, may she be blessed, excised some of the weaker pieces and now it is a book about 50 contemporary gardens around the world. There were very few misadventures. An earthquake in New Zealand woke me up and scared me. The earth trembled and so did I.

Woods_Gardenlust_jacket_5_2_18[1997] - Copy

But aside from a few excessive taxi fares, a little too much food, and too many awful movies on long-haul flights all went remarkably well. I traveled everywhere I could think of, connecting with brothers and sisters in the plant-loving world. I was treated kindly everywhere.

Here is a link to pre-order the book, should you be interested. 

My best to you,

Chris Woods


There ain’t nuthin’ like a good swamp.

 The Green Swamp Preserve, 17,424 acres (7051.24 hectares) in Brunswick County, North Carolina is owned by the Nature Conservancy. It is an area of pocosins, Algonquin meaning “swamp-on-a hill”. Pocosins are dense with shrubs such as black titi (Cliftonia monophylla), gallberry (Ilex coriacea) and sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana). Thousands of years of muck have produced acidic, nutrient deficient soils where a carnival of carnivorous plants grow, notably the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula), a member of the sundew family which opens and closes its hinged leaves in response to an insect brushing against tiny trigger hairs on the leaf’s inner surface. In half a second, the trap shuts and the plant secretes digestive juices, taking about a week to fully absorb the insect.  Charles Darwin called the flytrap “one of the most wonderful plants in the world”.

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  There are fourteen known species of carnivorous plants in the preserve. The yellow pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava) is perhaps the most dramatic with 20 to 36 inch (50.5-91.5 cm) yellow tubes veined red and a red-purple throat at the base of its hood. They are modified leaves, curled to make a tube.The flowers come up in spring and are angled or pendulous and a vibrant green-yellow.

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Sarracenia purpurea is also present in great numbers.

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Surrounding the pocosins are long-leaf pine savannas. The pine (Pinus palustris) grows from southeastern Virginia, all the way to the Florida panhandle and west to the Piney Woods of Texas. “A magnificent grove of stately pines, succeeding to the expansive plains we had long time traversed, had a pleasant effect, rousing the faculties of the mind, awakening the imagination by its sublimity, and arresting every active, inquisitive idea, by the variety of scenery”, wrote William Bartram in 1791.

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Now, longleaf pine savanna is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States with only about 12,000 acres (4,856 hectares) of fragmented old growth remaining of a pre-colonial population of 90 million acres (364,21,707 hectares). The pine’s demise is due to its usefulness to humans and to human greed. Tar, pitch, rosin and turpentine, four products derived from pines that protect wood and rope from rotting, caulk planks, and deter wood-boring insects and mollusks. Perfect for ship and house building. The high resin content of Pinus palustris, made it especially useful to the expanding colonies. Business boomed, especially with the cheap labor of slaves. But within sixty years of the end of the “war between the states” (1861-1865), the once great forests were gone, chopped down, sawn up and boiled.

Nearby are wetter areas, home to the occasional alligator and surrounded by one of America’s finest trees, the swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum).

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There ain’t nuthin’ like a good swamp.


Swamp things

The island of Palawan, part of the Philippines, surrounded by the Sulu and South China Seas and 1,780 or so islets, is long and narrow. It is a mountainous island averaging 3,500 feet (1,066 meters) in altitude with Mount Matalingahan, the highest peak, rising to 6,800 feet (2,072 meters). Palawan still contains more than 50 percent of its original forest cover, much of it old growth forest on its mountains. The forest is thick with huge Ficus species, dipterocarps, palms, the tall conifer Almaciga (Agathis philippinensis), philodendrons and the clinging shingle plant (Rhaphiodora sp.)

I went for a week, curious to learn about mangroves. It is a long way to go to look at things growing out of mud. I thought it worth it.

I stayed at the Mangrove Resort, a place of eccentricity next to the Langogan River.

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My host, a quebecois conversationalist of the highest order  was enthused that I was interested in mangroves. He lead me down a path to the river and bid me look at a large tree. A very large mangrove (Rhizophora mangle),recently dated to be 350 years old, twisted and turned over the river.

350 Mangrove 2 (2)

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The Philippines are home to 39 species of mangrove. There are about 110 species worldwide. The most widespread belong to the genus Rhizophora.Mangroves are extraordinary biomes. They grow in salty water, managing to filter the salt and exude it through their leaves. Some grow breathing tubes (pneumatophores), that act like snorkels, as well as aerial roots and stilt roots. Aerial roots obtain oxygen from the air and stilt roots helps stabilize the tree in the soft mud. They also have an unusual way of propagating, forming germinated seed pods while on the tree, that fall spear-like into the mud and then grow up 2 feet (.6 meters) in a year.

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Mangroves are breeding grounds for much of the world’s fish, shrimp, and shellfish. They are nesting sites for millions of birds. They stabilize the shoreline and protect against extreme coastal weather. They are of great importance to the environmental stability of the world but are amongst the most threatened habitats in the world. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature more than one in six mangrove species is in danger of extinction. Over half of the world’s mangrove forests have been lost during the last 50 years largely due to shrimp farming and intrusive development. Governments and conservation organizations are working hard to save what is left but it may well be a case of too little too late.

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It is a rare pleasure to paddle a bangka – an outrigger canoe – up the Langogan river, through rolling forested hills dotted with coconut groves and small plantations of bananas. On the edge of the water grow mangrove palms (Nypa fruticans), a palm common to coastlines and riverine habitats of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Only the leaves and the flower stalk are above the surface, the trunk grows beneath the surface of the mud. 56 to 33.9 million years ago (Eocene period) the genus had worldwide distribution, now it is confined to a single tropical species.

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Borneo is only 2.4 miles (4 kilometers) from Palawan but is separated by a deep channel, the Balabac Strait.  I think I will go there soon.


Garden designer Cevan Forristt serves dinner on fifteenth-century Chinese pottery. He makes clothes of silk from Sri Lanka. All thirty-seven Burmese nats—spirits or gods with a human shape that guard objects—are scattered throughout his property in San Jose, California. Monumental remnants, architectural salvage of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906  are piled alongside stacks of Mexican roof tiles and fragments from the rectory of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.


Protruding from large granite columns clumped together, oil cloth sunshades, brought from Thailand, make a corner of his garden glow amber. Tree bamboo actively thrusts its way through pilings of distressed concrete, granite gravestones, and chunks of stone rescued from abandoned quarries in the Sierra Mountains of California.IMG_1703_1429.CR2

 Forristt is a collector of experiences, objects and plants. He believes in using and reusing, and he likes stuff—lots of stuff. The term eclectic might have been invented just to describe the way he brings the world, ancient and modern, East and West, local and far-flung, to his own garden as well as his clients. While many contemporary garden designs have moved sharply toward minimalism, his have evolved in the opposite direction. He purposely overpopulates his gardens with objects and plants, relics of the sacred as well as the secular.


His work can be seen as continuing in the tradition of artists and thinkers who assembled in the 1950s and 1960s under the auspices of the American Academy of Asian Studies  at the California Institute of Integral Studies. The luminaries of this period include philosopher Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri, Zen Buddhist teacher and writer Allan Watts, artist Gordon Onslow Ford, sculptor Ruth Asawa, and Rudolph Schaffer, the founder of the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Rhythmo-Chromatic Design. “I first visited Burma in 1982, and I keep going back. I like to go where the rules are different. I have traveled extensively in China, Thailand, Burma, and India. I have studied the ceramic tiles of Iran. I go to ancient places. I travel back in time—that’s where new ideas come from.”


His background as a stage and set designer helps him use earth, water, stone, light, and plants as elements to create a theater on which to play or meditate, entertain or muse.


In Cevan’s gardens, every element can be both set and actor. At times the plants take the lead, but more often than not, the stone, water, and light lead the chorus.




Wandering around – looking at stuff.

It’s what I do best, I think. It’s not too difficult. I’ve written a book about it. It will be out in late August, 2018.

It is Spring in California. Time to wander around and look at stuff. And on a fine day, I popped down to Point Lobos Natural Reserve near Monterey. It is one of my favorite places on earth. (Point Lobos )  and it’s just two hours from where I live.

The first thing I saw was Fremont’s star lily which has had its name changed from Zigadenus fremontii to Toxicoscordion fremontii. An apt change given that this bulb is more poisonous than strychnine.

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Point Lobos is famous for its relict stand of Monterey Cypress – now Hesperocyparis macrocarpa. 

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Algae – noticeable on trees and rocks of the shadowed north-facing trees is green algae named Trentophilia. Its orange color comes from carotene.

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The California State lichen -Lace lichen  (Ramalina menziesii). Its name describes it as it hangs down in ghostly strands like pieces of Miss Haversham’s wedding dress.

Up the coast I wandered. To the UC Santa Cruz and its collection of Australian plants.

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Banksia spinulosa


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Banksia grandis


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Eucalyptus preissiana


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Banksia victoriae

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It was a fine, fine day.