01 September 2009

Assoc. Prof. Hugh Tan on "Cultivating the Native Plants of Singapore"

Today I attended another fascinating talk in the series in celebration of the Department of Biological Sciences' 60th anniversary.
Prof Hugh Tan shared about our 'Cultivating the Native Plants of Singapore'. I didn't realise that so many of our rarey native plants are now restricted to our shores and offshore islands!

After sharing about the massive losses we have already suffered in our native habitats, Prof Tan shared his thoughts about why native plants are better than exotics.
In particular, he shared these gruesome photos of Water hyacinth gone crazy. This pretty plant has become a plague in many countries where it was accidentally or purposely introduced. They also infested our waterways.
Exotics can grow uncontrollably because their natural predators are not present in their new home. This can result in expensive and long-term remedial measure to keep them in check.
Native plants are much better behaved and just as pretty and useful. Planting them will also help conserve our natural heritage. Prof Tan shared some alarming facts about what we have already lost, and what we are in danger of losing: more than 80% are already lost or threatened! That's not good.
Cultivating our native plants also ensures that those with very small populations are not wiped out due to disasters or neglect. He shared how this pretty plant, called the Silver bush, went extinct when the only patch found on Lazarus Island got overgrown by other plants. How sad.
With land being scarce and natural wild places very limited, it makes sense to cultivate more of our native plants in our parks and public places, instead of exotics. This also ensures other native plants don't suffer the fate of the Silver bush.
But why should we even bother to save our native plants? Prof Tan shares some ethical reasons. It's good to have these outlined. Often, those of us who care have an instinct for why we should conserve, but can't really explain it very well to others who don't understand the issues.
Another reason of course is simply that our native plants are beautiful! The pretty pink flower that Prof Tan chose to illustrate this point with is of the Cicada Tree (Ploiarium alternifolium) a native freshwater swamp plant. This tree has been adopted by the group Cicada Tree Eco-Place, volunteers dedicated to introducing our kids to nature!
Of course plants are very useful. But often we don't find out until it is almost too late. Prof Tan shared how the Pacific yew was originally thought to be worthless as a timber tree, but later found to be the source of taxol, a powerful cure for ovarian and breast cancer! By that time, it was already almost extinct.
And all nature guides with groan in sympathy with Prof Tan's point that most Singaporeans simply want to know whether the plant "Can eat or not?"
Prof Tan then shared stories about many native plants, but I'll just include those that are seen on the shores.

The Gelam tree (Melaleuca cajuputi) naturally grows in swampy coastal areas. Oil from the leaves is an ingredient in the famous Tiger Balm. I didn't know that. Kampong Glam may also have taken its name from trees formely growing in the area.
Another native medicinal plant is the notorious Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia). With reputed aphrodisiac properties, Prof Tan shared that the plant has roots as long as its stem. And it is believed that to obtain the full potency, the plant has to be uprooted in one go. Wah!
Besides reputedly improving the stamina of men, it is also said to cure headaches, thus removing a ready excuse among women. I really found one of his inserts quite amusing. A before and after ad for the efficacy of this plant as demonstrated by the state of a bed. Haha.
Prof Tan also shared about many charismatic plants to consider growing at home. Among them the magnificent Raffles' pitcher plant (Nepenthes rafflesiana), which we have seen growing in profusion on our natural cliffs on various sites. He points out that the pitchers growing at the bottom look more squat, while those at the top are more slender and vase-like. One potential problem with growing pitcher plants at home is that mosquitos will breed in the pitchers. Easily overcome by poking a hole at the base of the pitcher to drain it.
Prof Tan also shared about the curious Pelir musang (Fragraea auriculata) which was thought to be extinct until a plant was discovered on a remote offshore island. He says it has flowers bigger than your face. Wow, that seems like a spectacular plant to look out for in our exploration of the islands.
He also shared about the plant that was given free to participants at the talk. It is the nationally extinct Trailing watermelon begonia (Pellonia repens) which is a shade plant and will do well as a houseplant. It sure looks pretty with lovely variegated leaves and nice flowers too. The gift came with instructions on how to look after it.
During Q&A, Prof Tan shared that his long-term efforts to get native plants cultivated more widely is gaining traction. Particularly since Minister Mah mooted the concept of the City Biodiversity Index. This is fabulous!

If we want to see MORE native plants, Prof Tan invites us to visit the Native Plant Garden at NUS (near the Marine Bio Lab betwen Blocks S1 and S2 at Science Drive 4). The plants there are all labelled too!
He also shared the books and resources that we can use to find out more:
  • 65 species covered in Tan, Hugh T.W. and T. Morgany. 2001. Growing the Native Plants of Singapore. BP Science Centre Guidebook. 168pp.
  • 35 species covered in Tan, H.T.W. and K.S. Chua. 2003. Growing at Your Doorstep: 35 Native Plants of Singapore. Times Publishing, Singapore. 99 pp.
  • NParks FloraWeb with online photos of our native plants (and exotics too). The site is no longer available via the NParks homepage, you need to enter the url http://floraweb.nparks.gov.sg/
Prof Tan also shared that an online checklist of the vascular plants of Singapore will be online by the end of the year. Yay!

I'm glad I stayed on for the next speaker. Dr. Chew Fook Tim spoke on 'Your Sweat: Wound Healer, Virus Inhibitor and Bacteria Killer' which at first didn't sound very savoury, or perhaps too savoury.
But Dr Chew not only shared some ground breaking research into something as ubiquitous as our sweat, but also inspired students with stories about the scientific method and inquiry. It appears, no one bothered to study our sweat because it was thought to be mostly just water. But when his student took a closer look, she found lots of interesting stuff. It got very sciencey here so I shall stop while I'm ahead.
Turns out the stuff in our sweat helps protect us from the daily onslaught of bad bugs. They were found not only to inhibit the growth of some bacteria, but also kill some of them dead (see circle with zero bugs). Wow!
In addition, a sweaty battle with bugs on the skin will also alert cells deeper down to get ready for action.
AND, the stuff in our sweat was even found to inhibit viruses! AND, an experiment showed that damaged cells healed faster in sweat! The columns show healing at 0hr, 8hrs, 16hrs and 24hrs. The pictures in the top row above the red line had no sweat.
Wow, I don't want to ever bathe now. I don't know about other people, but generally I feel better when I sweat. Hmmm. In addition to all these delightful sweaty facts, Dr Chew also shared many inspiring anecdotes about doing science and learning about the many mysteries that are in plain sight around us.

Earlier on, I caught up with Siti, who was at the talk with her trusty thermos. Like me, she didn't take the free plant, as we do better looking at plants in the wild than trying to keep them alive at home. I haven't seen her for yonks since she moved out of NParks to do her PhD, on seagrasses of course. I also caught up with Angie briefly and we chatted mangroves.
Much earlier on, bumped into Siyang as he and his colleagues handed out the special native plant gifts to participants at the talk.
And much much earlier on, I had a quick dinner with Peter Todd, who valiantly put together these very interesting and inspiring talks. Thanks Peter!

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