Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Boo !

A Mongolian Tsam mask. 
Happy Halloween ....

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Crimson blood

..... every drip sends you further away from me.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Polygala venenosa

This is a giant and more horticultural interesting member of this large cosmopolitan genus with a common name of milkwort. In Malaysia, members of this genus are mostly inconspicuous small ground herbs  ....

but this species is up about 2 metre tall and bears many pendant inflorescence with few flowers opening only at the tip. As the flower drops, the bract elongate and show signs of scars where the pedicels were attached. The flowers, each about 2 cm long, change hue from white, yellow to purple as they mature. 
As you can see, the inflorescence can be quite long, up to 30cm although usually shorter.
It is supposedly a montane plant but I found this population in Pahang lowland. Its distribution extend north to Thailand and south to Borneo and Java. Many Polygala species are used in folk medicine but as its latin name suggests, this species is said to be toxic, and can cause nausea and giddiness just by touching (as per Philibert Commerçon,  a renown medical doctor / botanist in 1700s and the collector of the type specimen in Java). More recently however, M.R. Henderson mentioned in "Malayan Wild Flowers" that local population was not known to be poisonous, and having handled the plants myself, I can attest to that.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

Mass flowering of Argostemma

Cold swirling clouds shrouded us as we slid out of the dark undergrowth at a highland trail. On one side we were protected from a possibly limb-breaking drop by stunted trees and shrubs ; at the other side was a mossy slope full of white stars ...... 

..... this floriferous population of Argostemma (elatostemma ?) would be one of the justifications of our folly. Argostemma is large genus consisting of about 100 species, most of them in Asia but there are a couple of anamolous species in Africa also.Not all of them are highland type of course but the lowland varieties tend to be less eye catching. The genus as a whole are not commonly grown, which is a pity.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

By the mountain stream

Just 15 minutes detour from the main road, we reached this pristine mountain stream in South Thailand. The cool caressing creek, the ceaseless cries of the cicadas .... and I am a child again.

The fast flowing and highly oxygenated water is an ideal habitat for some lively loaches. We netted Schistura robertsi and this lizard fish Homaloptera smithi.....
Homaloptera smithi
.... and frightened this juvenile stream toad to jump out from its perch onto a boulder ....
Bufo asper
 ..... then a bold crab strutted by and was promptly my Olympus.
We were lucky to find some yellow blooming Habenaria rhodocheila here and there, even though the flowering season was almost over.
Actually Habenaria rhodocheila is supposed to be pink flowering and some taxonomists have a new name for this yellow form - H. xanthocheila This is the first time I have seen the yellow form which is more uncommon than the pink ones. Both of them are seasonal and will go dormant for a few months each year, leaving behind a smallish tuber in the ground.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Farewell my porcupine - horsing around in Northern Vietnam

Northern Vietnam is a hinterland for traditional medicine, much of which, unfortunately, is plucked from the wild. While making a brief visit there, I found myself drifting in and out of  medical shops, some of them being just holes in the wall, checking out what they have to offer....

The first shocker for me is the ready availability of these kidney-shaped organs, which are actually  stomach of the Himalayan porcupine Hystrix brachyura subcristatum. These animals are quite commonly kept by villagers since all its parts are valuable - the meat can be consumed,  the stomach is used to treat intestinal diseases and the quill for malaria. By law only the farmed animal parts can be sold - but realistically there is no way of verifying.

The photo below, as you may have guess, is a phallus of some beast, and despite the language barrier I later found out to be the poor horse.  Ever since motorbikes and tractors have been introduced to this region the status of the horse as a beast of burden has reduced significantly. In fact, I did not recall seeing a live horse at the country side but horse meat and its parts were offered in restaurants and shops.

These are not firewood. They are the trunks of a woody shrub Mahonia neplensis which is found in the highland provinces of Northern Vietnam, spreading all the way north to the Himalayas. The bitter yellow trunk contains a high concentration of alkaloids which, according to  traditional doctors, is similar in function to the bear bile. With bear hunting now out-lawed and a widespread backlash on bile farm practices, this plant will see increased economic value over the years, at least in this part of the world.

Supposedly, faeces of flying squirrels can invigorate blood circulation - the catch is that it must be eaten uncooked. I would like to see Andrew Zimmern (of Bizarre food fame) tackle this one. Several shops displayed the mummies of the giant flying squirrels Petaurista  sp although I do not know of its use. Having seen the adorable creature alive and kicking at the Singapore Night Safari, I was actually sorry to see its village cousin ending this way.  
A threesome of the less aerially gifted, though no-less mummified, members of the squirrel family. 

Mythical powers of the Linzhi (Ganoderma lucidum) mushroom is well known amongst Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese - the earliest record of its use being in the late Han period more than two thousand years ago. These specimens from a local shop looked rather spindly but the shop owner assured they were the real deal.

And now for some local wine, perhaps to go down with your prime ribs ?

The ubiquitous cobra wine - sometimes with a scorpion thrown in for added measure, can be found in every self-respecting medical shops in Vietnam.....

.... but I was totally unprepared for this large jar of alcohol containing a pickled monitor lizard....

....likewise the ones with multiple carcasses of the Towkay gecko.
This is how one makes a lizard wine - the specimen chosen must have its tail intact as this is the most potent anatomy. Its eyes must be removed, otherwise the eyesight of the drinker will be harmed. Sometimes, the internal organs are removed but not necessary so. In place of the eyes, each hollow socket is sometimes stuffed with a single wolf berry. The whole reptile is then soaked in white wine for 6 months at least before consumption. By then the wine would darken to a brownish hue. And what is it supposed to do for you ? Other than boosting men's libido, it is said to strengthen the lungs and aids concentration.

Hornet wine .... now I suspect you can put any critter in that vial of alcohol and they will find a medical use for it. Maybe its just a man's excuse to his missus to get tipsy .....

After rummaging through the dark and dusty medical shops, I took to the road and arrived at a tribal market, which was a much more cheerful affair. There were many tribes in this single congregation, and they can be identified by the clothes worn by the woman folks.

The bright colourful  ones are the Flower Hmong....

..... those donning black solemn clothes with red head dress are the Dzaos.

a pot bellied piglet with a limited worldly outlook .....


 .... and this will go to the pet shop .... kidding.

 .... and whatever remained of a well fed python - the lumpy bits being actually the fat storage organs.

Most of the peddlers from the hill tribes are women. This is a place for them to meet up and chat with each other....and shop.

A man displayed some roots of wild Panax notoginseng, a relative of ginseng and a major ingredient in the famous proprietary Chinese medicine 云南白药 (Yunnan Bai Yao) that was said to be carried by the Viet Cong to treat wounds during the Vietnam war. The local name for this is San Qi (literally means three, seven) which are the years in which the root is most potent. Roots of the cultivated plants can be commonly found in shops in the city.

The spiny fruits may have come from a palm but I do not have a clue what the rest were. I did find the fern rather attractive and bought a bunch back for the garden.   

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