1985, Sophieke Piebenga, Study And Work Visit To Indonesia And West Java

Study and work visit to Java, Kew Guild Award, 1984

By Sophieke Piebenga

Java is one of the largest of theca. 14,000 islands which make up the Indonesian Archipelago in S.E. Asia. It lies just south of the equator, roughly 1 ,000 km (600 miles) S.E. of Singapore. Java is about the same size as England but almost double its population. A chain of volcanic mountains run west-east across the island, dominating the landscape in many places. The average annual rainfall ranges from ca. 4,000 mm in the west to ca. 2,500 mm in the east of the island.

One day in July last year I found myself pedalling away through the sugar plantations of Central Java. Every now and then I would pass the colourful entrances to small villages which layoff the narrow and dusty road, quiet and shaded, hidden by huge bamboos and trees.

Suddenly I came across a field which was the scene of much activity, children were playing about, chewing on short sticks of sugar cane, whilst their elder relatives were busy cutting the cane and loading it onto small trolleys which, when full, would be transported on special rails to the nearby sugar factory.

Upon the sight of a foreigner the children stopped their play and ran towards me, shouting: “Hello mister, hello mister, dari mana (where do you come from)?”

I got off my bike and a simple conversation developed. After explaining that in England we didn’t have sugar cane, but yes, lots of potatoes, one bright little lad didn’t hesitate and offered me his stick of sugar, whereupon all his friends did the same. And so, after having handed out various postcards (of the Palm House of Kew, covered in snow) I cycled off, chewing my bit of cane – another experience, and several delightful pictures richer.

The above is only one of the many enjoyable and enriching moments I encountered during my stay on Java from May until September 1985. Whilst still in my second year at Kew I had already developed the idea of going to the Botanic Garden in Indonesia on a ‘student-exchange’ basis, to gain a better understanding and wider experience of tropical plants, their diversity, their environment, their uses and their conservation.

Various technical problems prevented me from going there straight after I had finished the Kew Diploma Course in September 1984 – but finally in May the following year I set off, under the banner of Kew and supported by a Kew Guild Award, to the Bogar Botanic Garden on West Java.

The Botanic Garden(87 ha) was started in 1817 by the Dutch, and as such it became responsible for the introduction and distribution in Indonesia of many economic crops like oil palm (1848), cinchona (1852) and rubber (1876). At the beginning of this century the garden was a well-known, flourishing institute where much botanical research was carried out. Unfortunately World War II, the (successful) struggle for independence (1945) and the period of economic and political instability that followed, meant that the garden got into a state of neglect.

Forty years on though, the situation is different. Since 1968 the Bogar Botanic Garden and its three satellite gardens (Cibodas, Purwodadi and Eka Karya) are part of the National Biological institute which comes under the Government controlled Institute of Science. Active research is carried out once more, mainly in ethnobotany and the conservation of genetic plant material.

Expeditions are undertaken to the far corners of the archipelago to rescue plants which are threatened by the pressures of development and exploitation of natural resources, and by the ever increasing population.

The Botanic Gardens in Indonesia are thus becoming important in the ex-situ conservation of genetic plant material, and their collections are growing rapidly.

The collection of palms at Bogar is one of the largest and best-known in the world. One of the most famous specimens is the huge oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) which is the original plant that came from Africa via Kew to Indonesia in 1848. It subsequently became the mother of all oil palms in S. E. Asia. Today it measures well over25 metres and towers above all the surrounding vegetation.

The collection of native orchids is impressive too. Many of the 920 species are epiphytic like the chocolate scented Dendrobium leonis. I was as much attracted to the terrestrial ones though, such as Calanthe triplicata with its length wise folded leaf, and the beautiful Paphiopedilum spp. like P. javanicum and P. glaucophyllum, with their fat, purple and green lady-slipper flowers.

The giant orchid Gramatophyllum speciosum, with stems up to 2.5 metres long dangling from trees and branches, is quite a sight too.

Of the other 5,000 species in the garden some of the plants which particularly caught my interest were the massive Dipterocarpus and Shorea spp. (single straight stemmed trees up t040 metres); the many Ficaceae of which the ‘waringin’ (F. benghalensis) is a well-known village tree; the beautiful specimens of Victoria regia; and a tree called Gnetum gnemon. The last one is botanically very interesting as it is regarded as the most highly specialised of the gymnosperms (compare Welwitschia and Ephedra), although its flat, green oval leaves are easily mistaken for a broad leaved tree like any other. The flattened and fried seeds are quite a delicacy in Indonesia.

A remarkable though common sight are young, often brightly coloured leaves hanging limp at the end of a branch. Their light colour contrasts strongly with the darker green of the mature leaves, and they thus give the appearance of handkerchiefs. Especially leguminous trees such as Amherstia nobilis, Cynometra ramiflora subsp. bijuga and Maniltoa spp. have these conspicuous leaf tassels.

One thing I thought I ought to suggest to Mr. Simmons is the ‘weekly work-out: every Friday at 7 a.m. all garden staff gather on one of the main lawns, and, accompanied by loud Government-composed music, a series of routine exercises start. The curator up in front, everybody jumps, stretches, bends and twists. This communal aerobic activity goes on for half an hour and is followed by glasses of warm orange squash. That’s what I call truly caring for the well-being and welfare of the staff!

I made various visits to the satellite botanic garden in Cibodas (80 ha). Only20 km from Bogor (260 m), this garden at 1 ,400 metres enjoys a much cooler climate with a temperature range from 15.0_C (min.) to 20.7C (max.). It can therefore support a collection of plants from tropical mountain areas (such as the native Rhododendron javanicum and Clerodendron spp.) and from subtropical regions (like Eucalyptus spp. from Australia).

Bordering on to the garden is a National Park of more than 1 ,200 ha. extending up to the summit of Mt. Pangrango (3,000 m) and the crater of Mt. Gede (2,950 m). Both volcanoes are covered by (sub) montane cloud forest, with trees like the coniferous Podocarpus imbricatus, and Schima wallichii (Theaceae) which in places ‘littered’ the forest floor with its white flowers.

The undergrowth is rich in Begonia spp. and among others the striking Arisaema filiforme (Araceae – recently described in the Kew Bulletin). Near a waterfall at ca. 1,675 metres on a rocky vertical wall overgrown with Sphagnum moss I saw Nepenthes gymnamphora growing healthily and abundantly.

Above 2,500 metres the vegetation becomes more sub-alpine with Vaccinium varingiaefolium as the dominant species. Parasitising on its roots, at ca. 2,800 metres, was the rare Balanophora elongata.

Near the top of Mt. Gede I saw the ‘Javanese Edelweiss’, Anaphalis javanicum, in abundance. Having been to the top (2,950 metres) three times, on two occasions in thick cloud, I can confidently say that it can be very cold, wet and miserable in the tropics!

High volcano tops like the above are unfortunately the only pockets of original vegetation left on the island of Java, which is almost completely cultivated by man.

Another National Park which comprises a range of relatively ‘untouched’ volcanoes (Bromo, Tengger, Semeru) is in East Java. These volcanoes are all still active to some extent and their poisonous fumes strongly influence the (absence in certain places, of) plant growth. The top of Mt. Semeru, at3,675 metres the highest volcano on Java, is completely bare.

Lower down there are still areas of Casuarina junghuhniana, a tree with scale-like leaves like Equisetum. This tree used to be the dominant species in the dry, semi-deciduous forest which once covered Java.

Not far from this National Park in East Java is another satellite botanic garden in Purwodadi (85 ha.). It has a much lower rainfall than the other two gardens (2,500 mm as opposed to 4,000 mm), and most of this falls between November and March.

The period from April to October is normally very dry and Purwodadi Botanic Garden has therefore been designated, relatively recently, as a garden for plants from semi-arid tropical regions. The collections are still in their first stages of development but they are taking shape gradually. The third satellite botanic garden, Eka Karya, is on Bali (an island east of Java), but unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to visit that.

Space won’t allow me to continue telling about all the other things I saw, experienced and visited – the tea plantations, the cassava fields, the sugar factories; the exotic fruit crops and spices; the flourishing orchid trade in Jakarta and Bandung; the magnificent newly laid-out landscape around the famous Borobudur temple in Central Java; and the many, many attractive and interesting tropical plants I came across.

There is no doubt that my stay on Java has given me a tremendous insight into the tropical plant world, and additionally into the functioning of another major botanic garden – it was a most enjoyable, but above all invaluable experience!


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.