Borneo plants

Vegetation gone wild

Carnivorous plants, the world’s largest flower and trees that can reach 60 metres are all part of Borneo’s extraordinary tropical vegetation.

Borneo is conservatively estimated to contain 15,000 plant species – a diversity that rivals the African continent’s – and may well have the highest plant diversity of any region on Earth.
 
Rafflesia pricei just opened to full flower. / ©: WWF-Canon / Gerald S. CUBITT
Rafflesia pricei just opened to full flower.
© WWF-Canon / Gerald S. CUBITT
Borneo has about 3,000 species of trees, more than 1,700 species of orchids (some of the most beautiful being the rarest and most endangered) and more than 50 carnivorous pitcher plant species.
This diversity dwarfs the number of species in Europe – it is estimated that Borneo has 10 times the plant diversity of the Netherlands. 

Peaks of plant diversity can occur in very small areas in Borneo. In Lambir Hills National Park, Sarawak, 1,175 tree species were recorded in a 52-ha plot (the size of about 52 football fields), the highest documented tree diversity in Borneo.

Many of Borneo’s plants are endemic, and are found nowhere else in the world - some 5,000 species (or 34%) of flowering plants found on the island fall in this category, far ahead of neighbouring Sumatra’s 12% of plant endemism.

Plants to challenge the senses

Several of Borneo’s plants challenge the senses - Rafflesia arnoldii, a parasitic species, produces the largest flower in the world, while the titan arum (Amorphophallustitanum) sporadically blooms into the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. The latter also produces a characteristic fragrance when it flowers, similar to the smell of a decomposing body.

On average, 3 new species are discovered each month in the Heart of Borneo

Between 1995 and 2010 more than 600 species have been discovered - that is 3 species each and every month.

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The treacherous habits of Borneo’s carnivorous plants

Some of the most amazing plants to grace the Borneo rainforests are the pitchers (Nepenthes species), which have evolved a liquid-filled receptacle that attracts insects.

Visual and olfactory cues lure prey into the receptacle cavity, where they drown and dissolve into the liquid. Like all carnivorous plants, pitchers are found in places where soils are too poor in minerals and/or too acidic for most plants to be able to grow.
 / ©: Michel Terrettaz / WWF-Canon
Nepenthes sp. Pitcher plant Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia
© Michel Terrettaz / WWF-Canon

Borneo’s plants contributing to medical research

For centuries, Borneo’s inhabitants have been using and trading the island’s plants as food, medicine, building materials and countless other uses. 

Now, pharmacological research is bringing to light new compounds that could achieve medical successes at a global scale. One example is a Sarawak shrub that produces a substance which could kill human cancer cells.

This compound is reportedly effective against 57 of 60 kinds of human cancer cells, and is proving just as effective as the leading anticancer drug, paclitaxel.

Other breakthroughs include compounds found in tree latex which can cure a wide range of HIV strains, and antimalarial substances found in the bark of the langsat tree (Lansium domesticum).
 / ©: Alain Compost
Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia
© Alain Compost

The wild orchids of Borneo

Experts say that nowhere else on earth nurtures such an extensive and diverse collection of orchids as Borneo.

Approximately 3,000 magnificent species of orchid can be found here, more than anywhere else in the world.

The past three years have been very fruitful when it comes to new orchid discoveries. Around 37 new orchids have been discovered in the Heart of Borneo, accounting for the lion’s shares of the 51 new orchids discovered on the entire island since the beginning of 2007.
 
 / ©: Peter O'Byrne
The Thrixspermum erythrolomum is one of 51 orchid species discovered on the island of Borneo since 2007, 37 of which were found in the Heart of Borneo. This wild endemic orchid has been found at the Gunung Trus Madi, Malaysia’s second highest mountain at 2,642m, close to Gunung Kinabalu.
© Peter O'Byrne

Plant discoveries in the Heart of Borneo

  • Mitrephora vittata, described from Sabah and Sarawak. Borneo represents the major centre of diversity for Mitrephora species.

  • Two beautiful orchids, Podochilus marsupialis and Trichoglottis tinekereae described from Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan, and Sabah and Sarawak respectively.

  • A species of miniature palm tree, Licuala, that is "possibly new to Brunei, if not to science" was one of a number of new discoveries scientists made during a two-year expedition into Brunei's Sungai Ingei forests.  
 / ©: WWF/Amos Tan
The Dendrobium lohokii is one of 51 orchid species discovered on the island of Borneo since 2007, 37 of which were found in the Heart of Borneo.
© WWF/Amos Tan

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