Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Raffles Hotel for Formicids

When modern Singapore's founding father Stamford Raffles returned to this tiny island in 1822, he found himself in a rough patch with William Farquhar, the deputy he empowered to govern this island before he sailed to Bencoolen to further his ambitions. Farquhar's apparent laissez faire style of governance was just not of his liking, although the local businesses were having a roaring good time, not just in mainstream commerce, mind you, but also in gambling, opium trade, slavery and other unmentionables that were part and parcel of the roaring good time.

Raffles would have none of it, and promptly outlawed all of these.... his strict moralistic upbringing clashing heads on with the old man and his pro-business ideas....

In between the reeling and dealing, Raffles took to exploring the woods with his botanist friend, Nathaniel Wallich, an activity he was known to enjoy very much. During one of their excursions in Singapore's wilds, they found this strange ant-harbouring Dischidia vine.
Each vine was observed to bear two types of leaf, one that looks like small flat tortoise shell hollowed out on the inside and the other that looks kind of like pitchers of Nepenthes with a very small opening. For wandering ants seeking a roof over their heads, these leaves would draw them like a pundit to a soapbox, a gambler to a casino or any man left standing, after the Decepticons' onslaught, to Megan Fox....

....in gratitude, the tenants would crap and leave whatever bodily leftovers inside the leaf, providing the malnourished vine a source of recycled energy. At times, the ants may even be called up to defend their abode from parasites or hungry herbivores...or curious botanists !
The ants' leftovers are much appreciated, as this cross section of one of the hollow leaves show. Roots extend hungrily deep into the ant nest to suck up whatever is available.

Many Dischidia species have modified leaves serving as ant hotels; this species, however, is the largest one. In 1831, Wallich described this plant in his book Plantae Asiatic Rariores and proceeded to name this plant Dischidia rafflesiana, in memory of his good friend who, by then, had passed. However, it was later found to be synonymous with a plant named Collyris major, described some twenty years earlier, so after a taxonomic revision and applying the strict nomenclature rule, this plant should now be correctly called Dischidia major.

The name had changed, but the plant's the same. The ants don't care a hoot. Even Sir Stamford, I suspect, might not be stirred - after all he already had the largest flower in the world named after him.

But I'd bet he would be reeling if he knew that this island nation he had founded just gave out its first gambling license to a casino, almost two hundred years after he out-lawed it.

7 comments:

Titania said...

It is fascinating to see this biological mutualism. I have seen Myrmecophyte plants with swollen stems, but I have never seen one so striking like the one growing on the tree. Very interesting and beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, but due to these pesky ants, I always clear them from my fruit trees. they have milky sap that makes you itch too. definitely a no no for me.

Lim

Hort Log said...

Hi Trudi,

yes Qlds has a great many myrmecophytes from Rubiaceae family, this one is related to Hoyas and i think its found in FNQ too.

Hi Lim,
the ants are tireless vigilantes of fruit pests and the best part is, they are absolutely organic ! So do invite them back .....

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Anonymous said...

interesting article, but its not one of my favourite plants la

Hon E.

antigonum cajan said...

You certainly have the strangest of ALL blogs.

I have visited probably two hundred in five years.

Never, ever, I found such an impressive,out of the common place blog, with plants,
flora, fauna observations. CONGRATULATIONS!

Torin of Turin said...

Bravo, what an interesting piece of botanical writing !

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