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The Australian Nepenthes Discovery of the Century Â…..

N.rowanaeIn August of 2001 I was fortunate enough to accompany a fellow Nepenthes enthusiast and friend, Rod Kruger to the remote and infamous Cape York region of Far North Queensland, which was home to only N.mirabilis, so we believed! Rod had made a previous trip and had discovered some ‘weird’ forms of N.mirabilis that peaked my interest, so the subsequent trip was planned.

We left RodÂ’s home in Cairns in the evening and drove about 1000 kilometres or so it  seemed, until we could not drive any more and camped for a few hours sleep. We camped next to a lagoon south of the Cape in the Lakefield area and this had me a bit concerned with regards to the infamous crocodiles of the region. Rod assured me it was safe. With little sleep in the hammock I had bought, which I later discarded, we were on our way again, further north. The countryside and surrounding bush did not give me the impression that we were anywhere near Nepenthes country, based on my previous expeditions in Indonesia. I was expecting to come into some rainforest like areas before we would see any. This was not the case. The temperature at night was rather cool which I did not expect in Northern Australia. I would say that here lies another difference with these plants and may be a hint to their cultivation. Rod who knew the area well turned off the road and drove into the bush. I thought that this was still a road when we came to a dead end and Rod exclaimed that this is where we started. I was quite surprised. We were in the Australian bush with no rainforest to be seen!N.rowanae in cultivation

After a walk through the bush though we came upon damp ground that led into a swamp. Eyes wary for crocodiles, we continued through long grass further into it. As the ground became more moist Drosera petiolaris and another species that was similar in appearance to Byblis liniflora became evident. Actually it was hard not to stand on them. Peering through the long grass we could see what looked like Nepenthes seedlings spattered all over the damp ground. The pitchers on the plants were quite mature and were of various shapes from cylindrical to quite squat. There were different colour forms becoming apparent from green to pink to the occasional red splotched pitchers. On closer examination there were some seedlings around but most were older stunted mature plants. Such was the harshness of their habitat. This swamp was quite large and we split up to cover more ground. I was armed with a hunting knife but Rod informed me that this would probably only scratch a crocodile! I kept Rod in sight all the time as he has had more experience in this area. Along the edge of the swamp amongst the long grass and small trees, different forms of N.mirabilis could be seen. One of the nicer forms looked like N.alata from the  Philippines. Walking further into the swamp led to marshy ground. Shallow clear water was flowing continuously over a black peat bottom in which we sank up to our ankles. Surprisingly there was pure white sand under the 8cm layer of peat. There were stands of tall grass and the plants became more apparent around the bases of these. We started to see more of the red splotched forms of the typical N.mirabilis that were various shades of red. Some were growing in the exposed swamp and others in trees around the edge. There were two distinct colour forms noticed. Both were red splotched on the outside of the pitcher however one was white inside while the other was dark pink to purple. We kept exploring the area in the swamp and discovered plants that started to fit the description of N.rowanae . This species was first noted by Bailey many years ago. The pitchers were quite squat and bulbous and dark pink in colour. The plants themselves were quite stunted and were basically a grey brown stem with a few leaves with pitchers at the top. Even though the plants seemed like young plants they were in fact quite mature,with some having old flower spikes. As previously mentioned it was the harsh growing conditions that must have caused this stunted growth. When the roots were examined it could be seen that they looked more like a rhizome than the usual fibrous roots of Nepenthes spp. This we assumed was a survival mechanism due to the harsh climate and frequent bush fires where some of the plants do get burnt. After a lunch break we headed back into the same swamp for further exploration. We kept searching until the light started to fade and the chance of  crocodiles was more of a concern. Not that the thought was ever out of my mind! I had not seen what Rod had discovered but when we got back to camp we had some rare and unusual finds. We had discovered various forms of plants that fitted the description of N.rowanae and a lot of unique ‘one-off ’ forms, ‘sports’ as they are usually known. The size of the N.rowanae pitchers was quite amazing, they were huge, some measuring 20-25cm long and 12-15cm in diameter! We both were astonished how this species could have been lumped under the name of N.mirabilis and remained undiscovered for so long. One of the new discoveries was a colour form of this species that was red splotched. We hope to name it in honour of Rod who has done many trips and most of the ground work in the discovery and re-discovery of these spectacular species and forms. I for one am proposing that the name be N.rowanae var. krugerii or similar when these plants are sorted out finally. The next day we set out again into the same swamp. We saw evidence everywhere of the damage the wild pigs are doing in this area and in the swamps. There were actually trees uprooted and large areas of ground turned into mires from the pigs. It was in one of these mires that Rod found a very unusual plant that the pigs had dug up and left to die in the sun. It was one of the sports. The pitcher was certainly a surprise, it was nearly spherical in shape with a domed lid and red splotched in colour! We had read in some texts that N.ampullaria came from hear but this plant had pitchers even more spherical in shape than even that species. We didForm X the right thing and rescued this plant. We gave this plant a tentative name as ‘form X’. We kept searching and came across plants that were only growing in the centre of the swamps in exposed areas. The pitchers were sticking up on top of the plants and were cylindrical in shape and yellow in colour. They reminded me of N.madagascariensis . On closer examination the yellow pitchers were attached to the leaf tip by short tendrils that had made single full loop that held the pitchers upright. We could see more of these stands of this striking plant as we looked out over the other exposed areas in the swamp and that seemed to be the only place they grew. The stands of these plants were very old and seedlings were not evident. We searched high and low to even find a basal shoot with lower pitchers. However we did and the lower pitchers were slender and cylindrical and were half pink and half yellow/green in colour similar to typical N.mirabilis colouration. The unusual thing we noticed on the pitchers was that theForm E lid seemed too large to fit the pitcher mouth! We called this plant ‘form E’.

On the outskirts of the swamp we found some typical forms of N.mirabilis and some red splotched forms climbing quite high into some trees in the drier ground. In one of the plants Green ants had sown the leaves together and made a nest. I had never seen Nepenthes leaves used like this before. It was time to move on so we headed back to camp. This is when I discovered another unusual sport. It was growing in a small bush on the drier ground. This form we called ‘Y’. I noticed an upper pitcher first. The peristome caught my eye as it was very large and flared inwards so that it left only a slit for the pitcher mouth. On the peristome there were also raised ‘hooks’ similar to those seen on the peristome of N.mirabilis var. echinostoma. I checkedForm Y the other upper pitchers I could find and they were all showing the same characteristics. The lower pitchers were bulbous and had quite a substantial peristome but not as spectacular as the one on the upper pitchers. After showing Rod my exciting discovery we broke camp and moved onto the next swamp.

The temperatures in the swamps are seasonal and although we did not measure them, I would say they would have been about 12-15oC at night to 27-29oC during the day at this time of year. In Summer it is purely a lowland tropical climate. The next two swamps were only found with special GPS equipment. They were found after a bit of a trek through the bush as there was no way to drive near them. There we found similar plants and variations that looked like hybrids between N.rowanae and N.mirabilis. One was reminiscent of the old hybrid N.xCoccinea but a larger version.  In one of these swamps we found a form of N.rowanae which had a prominent white margin around the mouth of the newly opened pitchers, very similar to N.albo-marginata, that faded as the pitcher aged.

The next night we camped on the banks of a large river and as with all the rivers in this area it had an infamous reputation due to the number of fatal crocodile attacks which have occurred over the years. Luckily we did not see one but Rod assured me that they would be watching us. There was evidence all over the river banks of the slide marks that the crocs. make when they slip back into the river after sunning themselves.

N.rowanae in habitatNext day we drove around near the river and the typical N.mirabilis plants were abundant and growing right up to the roadside and it was sometimes difficult not to drive over them. We found more of the pink form of N.rowanae in the swamps after some searching which gave us an idea of why they had not been seen for many years. With the area's  reputation for crocs., very few people would be searching around or in them for plants! We trekked into several other areas over the next few days and located some amazing plants. One that is worthy of special mention was a large plant of N.rowanae. The actual plant was located on an island in the swamp that was surrounded by deeper water than usual. It covered an area of about 10m2 and the pitchers were huge and nearly as broad as they were high. One thing also worth noting especially in deciding whether N.rowanae should be a distinct species, which we think it should, is the marked difference in the plant compared to typical N.mirabilis . N.rowanae can be distinguished from a distance as the plant has a blue colouration on the upper surface of itÂ’s leaves and some coarse hair was noticed on the upper surface of the leaves. I have also seen these hairs on the leaves of N.rafflesiana. The plant is a lot more robust and tough in itÂ’s leaves, pitchers and stem and the leaves form a distinct ‘VÂ’ shape when viewed from the tip to the stem. This is quite different from the papery thin leaves of the typical forms of N.mirabilis. The trip was quite an eye opener and has opened the doors for a lot more study of the Nepenthes growing in Australia.

We feel what we have discovered is the start of speciation of Nepenthes in Australia. In our opinion, the main pressure causing the start of new species formation, the sports that are good examples, is environmental. The plants are adapting to the harsh and different environments present in this area. N.rowanae seems to be the first of these to evolve into a new species with others close behind. There is no doubt that all the forms found so far and N.rowanae have evolved from N.mirabilis and more work will be undertaken in the future. There has been more trips done in the area with some more unique finds. A couple worth mentioning are N.rowanae forms. One has noticeable ‘hooks’ on the peristome and another has pitchers broader than they were high!

Most of these forms will become available in the future so please keep watch on our site. We have seedlings available now from seed collected from a pink N.rowanae female plant which are showing a bit of variation but are mostly very squat. These are limited at present and it is first in that get the pick. Please see the attached photos that we hope will tell the rest of the story of this amazing discovery. Some of which are of the plants in cultivation which are showing their unique characteristics!

UPDATE 21/11/03

The above plants are showing some interesting growth in cultivation. They seem to go into a semi-dormant period in the Winter months where some plants have completely lost there growing tip. However as the daylight hours lengthen they send several base shoots up which take over. On recent trips to the area, sections of Nepenthes have been observed which have been burnt out with bushfires only to be seen reshooting later. This habit is similar to other Australian native plants. Therefore if your N.rowanae plants loose their growing tip in Winter do not despair or discard them as from our experience they come back with vigour.




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