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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Heritage Trees of Penang - A Chat with the Authors

To coincide with the start of the Penang Festival, Areca Books of Penang published Heritage Trees of Penang. Shortly afterwards I went along to meet Simon Garner and Lai Ee May, two of the authors, at the Areca offices. The other author, Pindar Sidisunthorn, has also contributed a lovely set of botanical illustrations which accompany the colour photographs throughout the book. She has given the originals to the Penang Botanical Gardens.

The book came into being as a result of  a meeting between Lai, who had been attached to the Penang Botanical Gardens as well as to FRIM, the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia, and Gardner and Sidisunthorn, who had already jointly written A Field Guide to Forest Trees of Northern Thailand. They not only wanted to fill the gap in botanical and general literature about Malaysian trees, but also to highlight Penang's rich treasury of trees.

Penang's Botanical Gardens are the second oldest in Asia and is packed full of trees that it's difficult to find anywhere else in Asia. Despite what many residents may think,  the Municipal Council and State Government have also been making efforts to keep public trees flourishing. Most of the colonial roads still have a fine crop of impressive trees. Gardner also mentioned that some new industrial estates on the mainland of Penang State had also laid out a significant avenues of trees which will be impressive when they reach maturity.

The book, amongst other things, highlights various trends, for example the disappearance of fruit trees for domestic use. The only palm tree in the book, the Pinang Tree, after which the island gets its name, also falls into this category. The areca nut, a vital ingredient in the preparation of betel chewing, is the most notable product of this tree. However as betel chewing becomes less popular the pinang trees still standing become more onamental than anything else. The book covers over 200 species of trees, categorising them into chapters dedicated to their various uses. Penang, not only still has reasonable areas of indigenous forest on its hills, but also its Buddhist and Hindu communities venerate trees as can be seen by the many tree shrines dotted about the island.

I wondered which is the oldest tree known in Penang. Gardner said this a difficult question to answer since tropical trees are difficult to date. We don't have the such contrasts of seasons in the tropics, so trees don't have seasonal marks to help determine their age. However the earliest recorded tree is near the Western Road cemetery. It was a mature tree in 1817 when there is a record of a specimen being taken from it.

Given that I was having a chat on behalf of book fiends, I also wondered what other books and publications there were around. Of course the book itself has an extensive bibliography, but the authors said that EJH Corner's Wayside Trees of Malaya, although its two volumes don't allow it to be called a handbook, is still the bible. The original editions are fairly scarce and pricey, but the authors thought that the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) may well have published a reprint. (Unfortunately when I checked their site their 'Shop' page was blank as it was under construction.) There's also the Dictionary of Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula by I.H. Burkhill and others, but that too is pricey and rare. Slightly more accessible is Ivan Polunin's Plants and Flowers of Malaysia which is still in print and more of a handbook. He's also written a similar book about plants and flowers of Singapore which may not be much different! Otherwise FRIM and MNS do have a range of publications in English and Malay on various aspects of plant life in the country.

We ended up the interview by me asking both Gardner and Lai about whether there were any gaps in current literature. Ee May immediately said that, as a mother herself, she'd love to write something for children as she feels that they're "the generation who are going to lose out." We had earlier discussed how the trend, in Penang at least, is for many house owners to destroy whatever plants exist in their gardens in favour of concreting over the remains for more living and car parking space. It's a pity really since there used to be a time when most people chose their living accomodation because of the shelter given by neighbouring trees. Now people may feel they can retreat into their air conditioned pens which in turn results in a worsening environment and a strangling of community cohesiveness.

Gardner and Sidisunthorn are currently working on a companion book to his Field Guide to Forest Trees of Northern Thailand, i.e. A Field Guide to the Forest Trees of Southern Thailand. He said he would like to see a similar guide to trees in Malaysia, something that was more portable, more reasonably priced, while still being authoritative, than what's currently available. I did notice that, given his current publishing commitments, he didn't offer to take on such a project himelf!

Finally I was reminded that this edition of Heritage Trees of Penang, priced at RM100, is heavily subsidised by grants from various donors interested in the environment. The second edition is unlikely to get such sponsorship and may well be sold for at least RM150. So rush and get your copies now.

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