The Garden Guide

Book: History of Garden Design and Gardening
Chapter: Chapter 5: Gardens in Asia, America, Africa, Australia

History and design Borneo gardens

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775. In Borneo, a country which has lately become much better known from the establishment of Mr. Brooke as its rajah, a number of new and beautiful plants have been found. 'The climate of Borneo,' says Mr. Low in his History of Sarawak, as quoted in the Botanical Magazine, 'is distinguished by constant moisture and moderate warmth, which keep up a perennial vegetation. The refreshing showers and continual but gentle heat cause the plants and trees to grow during the whole year, the forests being decked with that perpetual verdure which confers on the Bornean islands, when viewed from the sea, an aspect of unexampled beauty. Shrubs of Hibiscus and flowering trees, belonging to the genus Barringtonia, overhang the margin of the ocean ; while the far inland mountains are clothed to their summits with dense and rich vegetation.' The thermometer averages from 70ᆭ to 72ᆭ of Fahr. in the mornings and evenings, and from 82ᆭ to 85ᆭ in the hottest part of the day. 'The soil of Sarawak is a rich yellow loam, covered with a surface of from six to twelve inches of very productive mould, formed by the decay of the forests.' It is admirably suited to the growth of the sugar-cane, which attains greater perfection in Borneo, without the slightest culture, than it exhibits in Ceylon under the care of Europeans. Nutmegs also grow here without the slightest care. The heat and moisture are, however, too great for European fruits and vegetables generally, though it is hoped that they may succeed on the mountains. Of all the native esculent vegetables, the heart or cabbage of the palm, called nibong, is the most distinguished. It consists of the whole unexpanded foliage, and is delicately white, with a sweet nutty flavour. Some kinds of ferns afford an excellent vegetable in their unopened fronds. The egg-plant, sweet potatoes, yams, and earth-nuts are also grown, and a large radish, which, when boiled, tastes like a turnip. The shoots of the bamboo are also cooked by the natives, and eaten by the Europeans when pickled. The larger kinds of bamboo are useful for a variety of purposes ; 'and the poor people, who cannot afford cooking-pots of earth or brass, even contrive to apply them to that use, in the following manner. The Malays and Dyaks cut the green bamboo in lengths of two or three feet, and fill the interior with rice or meat, chopped into little pieces, and mixed with water. To cook the food properly, the fire must come exactly in contact with the bamboo joint, which rests on the ground beyond ; while the green and hard part of the cane touched by the flame, resists it so long, that the provisions are sufficiently prepared before this singular pot ignites. A bundle of leaves, placed in the mouth, serves for a lid.' The cocoa-nut palm, the sago-palm, the betel-nut, and the Arenga saccharifera, which produces the intoxicating drink called toddy, are found in great abundance, as are various kinds of rattans and canes. 'The rattans of Borneo excel all the others, and are brought from the south and eastern parts of the island in vast quantities.' 'The natives employ them for baskets, mats, and cordage, and, where nails are unknown, they serve for the purpose of binding the frame of a house together. The drug called dragon's blood is procured from one of the larger rattans.' These rattans 'abound in old and damp jungles, and prove very annoying to the pedestrian, whose clothes are caught by their strong curved prickles, and who can only extricate himself by stepping backwards and carefully unhooking them.' 'The Nipa fruticans, though of humble growth among the palms, is as valuable to the people of Borneo as any of its congeners. It is found on river-banks wherever the salt water reaches, and it overspreads the salt marshes for thousands of acres. Its chief value is for covering houses, and the roofs made of its leaves last for two years. Salt is procured from the ashes of the burnt foliage, and syrup and sugar from its flower-stalk. The fruit is also eaten. The plant has no stem ; but its leaves, twenty feet long, spring from the centre.' Another valuable production of Borneo is the true camphor (Dryobalanops camphora). 'On Labuhan, the camphor tree grows abundantly, and is one of the noblest ornaments of the jungle: it has a fine straight stem, from which the bark separates in large flakes; the foliage is very dense, forming a well-shaped head; and the trunk is often ninety feet high, before giving off a single branch. It is alleged that the younger and smaller trees produce as much camphor as the old and larger individuals. This substance is found in a concrete state in the crevices of the wood ; and it can, unfortunately, only be extracted by felling the tree, which is afterwards cut into blocks and split with the wedges, when the camphor, which is white and transparent, can be easily removed. An essential oil, also, resides in the hollows of the wood, and the natives crystallise it artificially; but the drug so obtained is not equally prized with that which is found naturally crystallised.' Several species of Dipterocarpus produce a nut from which a fatty oil is expressed, known in England under the names of vegetable tallow and vegetable wax. 'The tree most valued for yielding it grows on the banks of the Sarawak river: it is about forty feet high, with large foliage, and branches drooping towards the water; its appearance is beautiful, and it bears fruit in great profusion, and as large as a walnut, with two long wings to the seed. The natives collect and press the nuts, which yield a large quantity of oil, which assumes the appearance and consistency of sperm.' Several other trees producing oil are found in the woods; but the most important product of the forest is the niato, or gutta percha tree. This tree is found in all the forests of Malacca, Borneo, Singapore, and the adjacent islands. Another substance resembling caoutchouc is obtained in large quantities in Borneo and many of the other islands. It is the produce of a climbing urceola, whose trunk grows to the size of a man's body. The bark, which is soft and thick, with a very rough appearance, emits, on being cut, an immense flow of sap, and the tree is uninjured by the process. There are three kinds of this plant in Borneo, all of them known by the name of Jintarvan. The fruit, which is large and of a fine apricot colour, contains twelve or more seeds, enveloped in a rich reddish pulp, which is very grateful to the palate of an European. The upas tree is found near Sarawak, but it is not common. The poisonous juice exudes freely when the bark, which is white, is tapped. Cinnamon, cotton, pepper, coffee, tobacco, cocoa, and turmeric, all grow in Borneo, the coffee and tobacco having been introduced, but the other plants are natives of the soil. Ebony grows in many places, and the lignum aloes, used for making incense : but this latter seems to be caused by the disease of particular trees, for this scented and resinous part of the trunk is only procurable after the trees have been cut down and are decayed. (Low's Sarawak, as quoted in the Botanical Magazine for 1848.) [Editor's Note: Borneo is the third largest island in the world. It is now politically divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.]