A plant that blooms underground is new to science, but not to Borneo

A plant that blooms underground is new to science, but not to Borneo

As a group of European botanists prepared to travel across Borneo on motorboats and four-wheel-drive vehicles, they heard about a species of palm with an extremely rare feature.

It blooms underground.

The Penanga subterranean palm is one of 74 plants described by scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London as new to science last year, surprising some in the botanical world. Botanists who went plant hunting in Southeast Asia six years ago did not expect to find them.

But the plant It’s not hard to find: it grows abundantly on Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, which includes parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. It is also not “new” because local indigenous groups are aware of it, two representatives of those groups said in interviews.

In this sense, the “discovery” of the Penanga subterranean area is an example of traditional science catching up with indigenous knowledge.

“We described this as new to science,” said William J. Baker, the flight’s senior scientist. “But the pre-existing knowledge about this palm is multi-layered, and was already there before we approached it.”

Over the past 30 years, non-Indigenous scholars have turned more to indigenous knowledge to expand or test their research, with varying degrees of sensitivity.

In some cases it was seen as cultural appropriation, said George Nicholas, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who has written about the issue. He said indigenous peoples have raised complaints of scientific colonialism, especially when researchers seek to develop medicines that rely on untapped sources of traditional knowledge.

There have been a number of collaborative studies that credit indigenous communities with possessing generations of wisdom on topics including shellfish productivity, grizzly bear management, and raptor behavior. In some cases, communities lead or participate in the research.

Such collaborations are partly the result of non-Indigenous scientists recognizing gaps in their knowledge, but there is often a reluctance within Indigenous communities to share information with outsiders, says Lynette Russell, a historian of anthropology at Monash University in Australia.

“In order to get involved, you really have to get to know the researchers,” she added. “This is not something you can necessarily do with an inbound or outbound air visit.”

In the case of the underground palm tree, Kew scientists learned about it not directly from indigenous groups, but from Paul Chai, a Malaysian scientist from Borneo who had first discovered it about 20 years earlier. In October 2018, over laksa and tea in Kuching, Dr. Chai told them about the plant as they prepared to visit a wildlife reserve on an unrelated botanical expedition.

Dr Chai, now 82, has learned that members of the local indigenous group, the Kenyah, sometimes chew the fruit of the plant with betel leaves. The Kenyans are a subgroup of the indigenous Borneo tribe known as the Dayak. Their livelihood revolves around harvesting forest products, including agarwood, a valuable ingredient in perfumes.

Dayak people typically learn about plants from their parents, and the forest is so important to them that indigenous language likens it to mother’s milk, said Siting Biran, a member of the Dayak tribe and regional chair of the Archipelago’s Indigenous Alliance. , an Indonesian non-profit organization representing several groups.

“When we went to the forests as children, our parents would say: ‘Don’t eat that, it might make you sick’ or ‘This can cure a fever’, or we can eat the fruit right away,” she said.

As for the subterranean penanga, Kew researchers weren’t the only scientists to find it. At about the same time, Indonesian botanist Agusti Randi was learning local indigenous names and planting his seeds in his garden in another part of Borneo.

Professor Baker said that when the Kew scientists later told Mr Agosti about their research in Borneo, he said he had seen it too. So the Q crew, along with Dr. Zhai, collaborated with Mr. Agusti to write a paper on the plant that was published last year in the scientific journal Palms.

Penanga’s subterranean region, said Scott Zona, a North Carolina botanist and co-editor of Palms magazine It was the “palm discovery of 2023, if not the decade.” He added that further research into this could help explain the evolutionary pressures that push some plants underground.

Mr Agosti, who was the lead author of the study, said he believed the plant might thrive underground, where there are fewer predators, to protect its flowers. The only other known plant species that flowers and fruits underground belongs to an obscure genus of orchids in Australia.

Professor Baker said the factory’s underground activity made it almost impossible to study. How does one analyze the vaccination process without disrupting it or deciding which sample to target in the first place?

He added: “Maybe its underground presence is what prevented botanists from discovering it correctly, between the inverted commas.” In general, when we go collecting, we do not collect things that do not flower or bear fruit.

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