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The Rarest of The Rare | by Prof KMS
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The Rarest of The Rare

Helosis ruficeps (Ridl.) R.K. Eberwein


In Oct 2007, a group of bird watchers came accross this plants in Penang Island and one of them, Kayev Choong, took a photograph and GPS reading and marked it on the map. A month later, He sent the photo to his friends Peggy Tan, Alastair Bishop, and Hooi Peng Kwan, asking for the name of this plant, thinking that this is probably a ginger (it was indeed growing next to the ginger plant). Hooi and Peggy Tan then seek help from another friend, Dr Chan Ah Lak of Taiping whom was similarly clueless on the identity of the plant and forwarded the photo to me in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia for the ID. Unfortunately, the email on 20 Nov 2007 was sent to my Yahoo account, the seldom open junk filled old address. It was not until in April 2008 that I discovered and read the email, found by accident when I went looking for archives.


I decided to reply to Dr Chan Ah Lak on 7 May 2008 asking for more information on the plants that I thought was an unknown and strange Balanophora of Gerik, Perak. Dr Chan promptly replied and told me that he has to trace it back the owner of the photograph. Nearly a month later, he wrote back with detail information not only on the owner (Kayev Choong) but forwarded us a map on the locality and the GPS reading of the site in Penang Hill.


At the end of oral examination of Ng Suan Beng, one of my final year students who was working on the Balanophora of Cameron Highlands, I showed him the photograph of "Balanophora from Gerik" and commented that it was not Balanophora. He later confirmed that I was probably of Exorhopala Steen., a genus related to Balanophora based on illustration in Bertel Hansen's paper on Balanophoraceae in the Flora Malesiana.


Data minning then started at UKMB and soon it was discovered that the monotypic Exorhopala ruficeps (Ridley) Steen. was originally described as Rhopalocnemis ruficeps by H.N. Ridley based on the collection from Bukit Penara, Penang with notes that it is also to be found in Taiping's Maxwell Hill. The sspecies was later transfered in 1931 to a new genus, named Exorhopala by the late C.G.G.J. Van Steenis on the basis of the exogenous origin of its inflorescences.


In August 1986, Anton Weber came to Penang and photograph the plant (photos here) for the first time in the original locality and collected a specimen which later studied by Roland K. Eberwein in Vienna. They concluded that this rare root endo-parasite of Malaya is actually belong to South American Helosis, a genus then known only to occur in Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica and Belize. This was based on the fact that the inflorescences of this plant originate endogenously (as in all other Balanophoraceae) with "no volva and the tuber-tissue covering the emerging inflorescence crumbles into pieces" and the inflorescence and flower characters are "neither in full accordance with Rhopalocnemis nor do they justify a genus of its own (Exorhopala)". The species then was transfered to Helosis, which thus the genus becomes transpacific and no longer restricted to Latin America.


Our RRMT was despatch and finally managed to locate and inspect the area and came out witn a fisrt full set of photograph in 13 Aug 2008 and recently returned to site witn better equipment (but still without me who could not make it in both occasion due to severe back-pain). They kindly took home some specimen and I managed to photograph it in the lab.


Presented here is the set of photos taken from Penang. Slide and follow the stream

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Taken on September 14, 2008