As a medical herbalist I witness daily the health benefits that the plant kingdom provides. As such, a field trip into the Malaysian rain forest is particularly exciting when you consider the enormous biodiversity of plants species that exist. Of these, only a minute percentage has explored for their therapeutic, medicinal, culinary, aromatic or aesthetic potential. Few realize that Malaysia boasts the fourth most biodiversity rich country in the world behind only the much larger countries of China, India and Indonesia. As such, there is an almost unlimited opportunity for new useful plant discoveries if this invaluable resource is preserved wisely.
Our daily lives are filled with contact with rain forest products, whether it is the fruits we just ate or the vegetables we had for lunch, as well as the spices used in cooking them, little do we realize that these are all originally from tropical rain forest plants. Other products we use that have originated from the world’s rain forests include, of course, rubber and palm oil, Malaysia’s premier agricultural crops, as well as common staples such as coffee, sugar and cocoa.
Many modern prescription pharmaceutical drugs have also been developed from the world’s rain forest plants and scientists today consider the rain forests to be one of the last frontiers for new drug discovery to find cures for the growing number of chronic diseases that we are facing.
To understand what the rain forest offers we must appreciate its unique environment that allows for the complex diversity of plant and animal life to flourish. In every niche of the rain forest exists a sensitive balance, an ecosystem where each species is interdependent on the functioning of a myriad of other species. While the high rainfall and humidity allow for life to flourish, there is also a decomposition and renewal process that allows for the rapid flow cycle of nutrients through the whole system.
The balance of the sensitive ecosystem begins at a height of 100-250 feet (that’s as high as a 17-20 story building), where the forest canopy provides a cooling shade from the intense tropical sun and heavy rainfall is intercepted. The crown of trees in the canopy form an almost closed roof on the forest below, and is further divided into upper and lower canopy. Because the top of the canopy basks in almost constant sunlight and can absorb light more easily, trees tend to have smaller leaves than those at a lower level. The lower canopy is the richest layer in terms of animal and plant life. Most of the mammals that live in the canopy are nocturnal.
The understory extends from the forest floor up to about 80 feet. Leaves are often long and pointed, the ends of which form ‘drip tips’ allowing excess water to run off quickly. Little sunlight filters into the understory that makes it dark and humid. With intense competition for nutrients, understory plants have evolved to take advantage of every available space, from herbs, shrubs and trees to epiphytes, creepers and climbers. Where the only climatic changes between the seasons are from “hot” to “wet,” plants take advantage of this conducive environment for rapid growth. It is here where the majority of our medicinal herbs grow, in that area that is teeming with life of all kinds, insects, mammals, birds and so on. The variety of plant life all contribute to the characteristic leaf litter bed, which together with tree roots holds the thin layer of organic matter in place, so as not to be washed away in the tropical downpours. This nutrient-filled soil is around 4 inches deep with red clay or sandy soil beneath it.
Tropical rainforests occur in three major regions: Asia, Africa and in Central and South America. Most of the world’s rainforests fall either side of the Equator between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer, covering 7% of the Earth’s surface. Forests close to the Equator, as in Malaysia, receive year round rain are known as evergreen equatorial rainforests. Rain in these areas falls at a rate of between 100 and 400 inches a year; there is no winter, days and nights are equal in length and a consistently high temperature of around 21 – 32 degrees is maintained.
Rain forests represent the oldest forests on the planet (having escaped the ravages of the ice ages) with the Malaysian rain forest being incredibly old – essentially unchanged for 130 million years. As such the plants contained therein have had plenty of time to adapt and evolve to their surroundings. Typical features of the evergreen plants are their adaptations to the predatory effects of the abundant animal and insect kingdom such as thick fibrous leaves or bitter unappealing chemical content.
The tropical rainforests of Malaysia and Southeast Asia have provided countless edible fruits now cultivated globally as well as many of the world’s commodity spices, herbs and medicines. With only a fraction of the total plant species documented there exists a wealth of potential new discoveries that will only be realized through a sustainable approach to safeguarding the rain forest ecosystem, with the needs of the present met without compromising the needs of future generations. Considering the wealth of products that humanity has derived from the rain forests of the world, from drugs to foods and timber, it becomes increasingly evident that the tropical rain forests are an irreplaceable gift of immense importance to all humanity. While the rain forest provides us with the necessary requirements for our life, the balance must be met whereby profits are not at the expense of the environment. If used sustainably, it will continue to serve the needs of the world for many generations to come.
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.”