Vegetation gone wild
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 by far 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.1
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.2
Several of Borneo’s plants challenge the senses - Rafflesia arnoldii, a parasitic species, produces the largest flower in the world, while the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) sporadically blooms into the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. The latter also produces a characteristic fragrance when it flowers, evoking the smell of a decomposing body.
The treacherous habits of Borneo’s carnivorous plantsSome 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.3
More than 3 species discovered every month during the past 15 years
Borneo’s plants, saving lives
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).4
Plant wonders on Borneo’s poor soilsRhododendron species are the pearls in Borneo’s rainforest crown. Ornate and beautifully scented, these plants grow only on wet, nutrient-poor and acidic soils, and on peat, or as epiphytes. The roots of rhododendrons mingle with fungi (organisms that break down plant material and release nutrients), forming mycorrhizae. This helps rhododendrons to absorb scarce nutrients.
- 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 beautiful wild orchid
Approximately 3,000 magnificent species of orchid can be found here, more than anywhere else on Earth.
What’s more, the past three years have been very fruitful when it comes to new orchid discoveries. No less than 37 new orchids were discovered in the Heart of Borneo, accounting for the lion’s shares of the 51 new orchids discovered or described on the entire island since the beginning of 2007.
2 WWF. 2006. Biodiscoveries – Borneo’s unique plant life. 30 pp.
3 Wikipedia. Pitcher plants. Accessed April 9 2006.
4 WWF. 2006. Biodiscoveries – Borneo’s unique plant life. 30 pp.