The Astounding Pitcher Plants of Peninsular Malaysia

By Gideon Lim

November 2022 FEATURE
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Growing amongst the garden of jewels is Penang’s own hidden gem – the ruby red N. albomarginata – a unique pitcher plant that specialises in capturing termites! Pest control, anybody?

MALAYSIA IS A wonderland for botanists, naturalists and nature lovers. Blessed with some of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world, the Peninsula itself boasts a plethora of rare flora and fauna endemic to the country. And nowhere else is this abundance of biodiversity more apparent than in its array of tropical pitcher plants.

Pitcher plants are known in Malay as “periuk kera” which translates to “monkey cup”. This could possibly be due to a belief that primates drink water from these pitchers.

Folklore aside, another species of primate has also taken a liking to these plants – Homo sapiens. During the Hari Raya season, cut pitcher plants can often be found at roadside stalls; these are used as vessels to hold sticky rice in a dish called lemang periuk kera.

Lemang periuk kera, a traditional delicacy showing the importance of pitcher plants in Malaysian culture.

Pitcher plants, or Nepenthes, are a genus of evergreen tropical plants. As the name suggests, these plants produce cup-shaped “pitchers” at the tip of every leaf. Although these ornate-looking appendages might resemble flowers, they are actually for attracting insects for a far more sinister purpose – food!

The carnivorous plant advertises the prospect of a beautiful flower by producing brightly coloured pitchers often speckled with batik-like patterns to bedazzle its prey. These pitchers are even decorated with a lid that serves as a “landing pad” for insects, and keeps rainwater out of the trap. To sweeten the deal, the plant oozes honey-sweet nectar that drips from the lid and lips of the pitcher.

Ants feasting on the sweet nectar at the rim of a pitcher plant’s trap.

When attempting to gorge on the irresistible offering, unwary insects often have to position themselves precariously over the maw of the pitcher, oblivious to the peril that awaits. All it takes is a gust of wind or a drop of rainwater to turn the surface of these traps into a slippery ordeal for the hapless insects. Inevitably, many lose their grip and fall into the abyss below. 

Once inside, the prey is doomed; they have plunged into a pool of viscous fluid. They can scramble all they like, but it is impossible to find a stable foothold on the infundibular inner surface of the pitcher. To make matters worse, the plant bares an arsenal of diabolically sharp downward-pointing teeth at its lips, or peristome, to make efforts to escape futile.

Eventually, the victims succumb to exhaustion, drown and are quickly broken down by digestive enzymes secreted by the plant. A whole host of symbiotic microorganisms that live in the fluid also help speed up the process. Finally, the plant slurps up the resulting nutritious soup.

Peninsular Malaysia is home to almost 20 species of pitcher plants, each thriving in different niche habitats. In general, pitcher plants love lots of sunlight and moisture. Starting with the least expected places, roadsides are a great place to begin your quest. Keep an eye out for belukar ferns (Dicranopteris linearis) which often cover slopes that run parallel to the road. It is in these patches of ferns that you might spot the four common species of lowland Nepenthes N. gracilis, N. mirabilis, N. ampullaria and N. rafflesiana.

N. gracilis and N. mirabilis growing amongst the belukar ferns along the Simpang Pulai road leading up to Cameron Highlands.
The best place to view the flamboyant N. rafflesiana and the cute N. ampullaria is in bush thickets along the roadsides of Mersing leading up to Kota Tinggi, Johor.

Perhaps the most common Nepenthes is the weedy N. gracilis, which can be found along fence lines next to housing developments or moist rocky slopes along the North-South Highway. They are pioneer plants, and so can often be found colonising disturbed secondary forest habitats. Being tough plants, N. gracilis dispels the myth that pitcher plants are delicate plants that require mollycoddling from human caretakers to survive. Along with its robust and larger cousin, N. mirabilis, both of these grow in harsh areas such as abandoned construction sites. These are the true “urban pitcher plants” if there was ever such a term.

Arguably the most striking of the lowland species is N. rafflesiana, named after Stamford Raffles. For starters, N. rafflesiana produces some of the largest traps among the lowland pitcher plants on the Peninsula – its lower pitchers can grow to almost as large as a human head! It further distinguishes itself by producing trumpet-like upper pitchers brandishing a fierce-looking peristome.

However, the title for the most bizarre lowland pitcher plant goes to N. ampullaria, for evolution has written a plot twist by turning this carnivore into now mostly a vegetarian. Its round egg-shaped traps form a “carpet” on the forest floor, catching falling dead leaves and twigs from the canopy with its wide, open mouth and almost non-existent lid. Studies have shown that this species gets most of its nutrients from the remains of plants and not from animals.

The most showy pitcher plants grow in the mountains and hill stations of Malaysia. The cooler temperatures, high humidity and often brightly exposed summits provide a perfect habitat for these plants.

Penang Hill is a beginner botanist’s favourite spot. Many enthusiasts board the funicular train, followed by a short buggy ride up to “Monkey Cup Garden” near the summit of Penang Hill. This nicely pedicured display features some of the most amazing carnivorous plants.

Genting Highlands is also a highly recommended place for observing these majestic plants. Three of the most beautiful highland species grow together on Gunung Ulu Kali and its surrounding peaks – from the giant N. Nepenthes sanguinea to the dark and elusive N. Nepenthes ramispina, to the broad and boldly speckled N. Nepenthes macfarlanei, along with a whole kaleidoscope of hybrids in between. Genting Highlands happily offers a chance to learn more about these plants through the expertly guided tours, nature walks and nature-themed team-building activities found there.

Giant forms of N. sanguinea grow in the protected zones of Genting Highlands. Some are so huge you can put your whole hand into them!

For the adventure-ready, an expedition to some of Malaysia’s mountain peaks will yield some of the most beautiful Nepenthes.

One of the most challenging of these hikes is Gunung Tahan. Here, be prepared to trudge through four to six days of hard terrain, omnipresent leeches, river crossings and the occasional torrential thunderstorm.

Jet-black pitchers of N. ramispina allure enthusiasts and unsuspecting insects alike.
N. macfarlanei, basking in the diaphanous mists of the Mossy Forest in Cameron Highlands.

After being thoroughly tested by the mountain, you will be rewarded with two enigmatic species of pitcher plants – N. gracilima, a seldom photographed rarity even among seasoned enthusiasts; and for good reason, as its green and black speckled aerial pitchers camouflage well against the dense forest.

The other species, N. alba (alba meaning “white” in Latin) is known for its ghostly pitchers which dot the bald summit of Gunung Tahan. Their luminescent pitchers stand in stark contrast to an otherwise foreboding landscape.

Other noteworthy mountains for viewing various forms of N. macfarlanei include Gunung Yong Belar, Gunung Korbu, Gunung Bubu and Gunung Brinchang.

N. alba growing on the stunted and exposed vegetation on the summit of Gunung Tahan. Photo by: Kenneth Hiew.
N. gracilima growing in the thick vegetation before the summit. Photo by: Kenneth Hiew.
To make the harvesting more sustainable, researchers and enthusiasts are working together to conserve these plants for the future. One of these conservation sites is right in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, at Rimba Ilmu Botanical Gardens at University Malaya.

Gideon Lim

is an agronomist and amateur conservationist involved in many projects linking plants and people together. He hopes to protect Malaysia’s natural heritage with the motto “Conservation. Cultivation. Community.”