Malaysian botanist Dr. Francis S.P. Ng:
"I make sure to duplicate all my best plants"
Dr. Francis S.P. Ng has a tremendously varied track record. Apart from academic research on tree species and forest fruits, he created a rainforest in a shopping mall, edits a scientific quarterly and cheerfully shares his gardening experiences on his blog. And for his grandchildren he is a teacher and story-teller: “I teach them to be curious, to ask questions and to think.”
His love for plants is his thread of life. As a small boy Francis Ng grew his own garden and propagated plants by seeds and cuttings. “While waiting for the school bus I would fill the time examining the weeds on the roadside and collect leaves to dry for bookmarks.” Equally apparent was his fascination with science, nurtured by books from school and libraries on the history of science and biographies of scientists.
Decisive for his future career was a short course in forestry he took as a boy scout. His talents didn’t go unnoticed. He won a scholarship to study at the University of Tasmania, where he graduated with Honours in Botany. “On my return from Tasmania I was posted to the Forest Research Institute as head of the Botany Section. Our immediate task was to organise a total survey and inventory of the trees of peninsular Malaysia. I was soon joined by Dr Tim Whitmore, the British botanical expert on tropical rain forests. The trees belong to about one hundred families of plants, and our job was to revise all the families. We managed to recruit volunteers from around the world, but the bulk of the families had to be shared out between Whitmore, myself and the Assistant Forest Botanist, K.M. Kochummen. It took me 25 years as researcher, project leader and editor to finally complete the project in 1989.” It resulted in the four-volume Tree Flora of Malaya
This project required a good deal of field work. “In my first four years I spent one week every month in the forest. At that time there was a parallel project to estimate the stock of standing timber in the country, so I followed the forest inventory teams. I had two or three aborigine men as tree-climbers. We would drive to the edge of a forest and walk in, carrying our gear on our backs. We would make camp by a stream and explore the surrounding forest, looking for trees in flower or fruit and collect specimens. We moved camp every two days. In the late afternoon we would be back in camp to process our specimens, and cook a simple meal for dinner. Usually we skipped lunch to save time. At night, by candlelight, I would write my diary and ponder about tropical plants and forests. I had read every book on tropical rain forests and there were lots of questions on my mind. I would devise various theories that had to be confirmed by observation and experiment. Only once did I read a book to pass time and that was Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I enjoyed it, but decided I had better ways to spend my time in the forest. I always kept in mind what Louis Pasteur said about luck and scientific discovery: ‘Luck favours the prepared mind’. Present-day botanists in Malaysia rarely camp in the forest and do not spend enough time in mental exploration of their subject. As a result, they can walk past interesting phenomena without noticing them.”
Later in life his knowledge of trees led him to an unthought-of adventure: creating a tropical rainforest inside Malaysia’s largest shopping mall, 1Utama in Kuala Lumpur. Francis Ng: “The canopy trees were moved in first. A crane lifted up the trees one by one and lowered them from the opening on the top of the atrium down to the planting holes on the floor. Fifteen-foot juvenile forest trees were then moved in to form the understorey layer, followed by shrubs and ground vegetation. Meanwhile the owner of the mall and I discussed the possibility of a garden on the roof. I did not have any reputation as a garden designer, but the owner gave me a free hand. It took five years of experimentation. Meanwhile it became known as ‘The Secret Garden’, because it was inaccessible to the public.”
With co-authors Wong Yew Kwan and Salleh Mohd Nor, Francis Ng published The Tropical Garden City, the first book on tropical urban planting in 1990. Another book Tropical Forest Fruits, Seeds, Seedlings and Trees was a solo effort, based on a study involving germinating all the seeds he could get hold of, and recording their anatomy, growth and development. “As a result I had thousands of seedlings that could be distributed to all interested parties. My book became the reference book for a new small industry — that of growing forest trees for urban planting. To this day, Malaysia has a more diversified urban tree flora than any other country.”
Now in his seventies, Francis Ng is the editor of an online scientific quarterly that is also readable for amateurs. The UTAR Agriculture Science Journal unites plant, animal and food production with stewardship of land, water and environment. “I emphasize holistic thinking and good writing. High standards of writing and presentation are now being set by bloggers and TED presenters. I think the established scientific journals are trapped in an obsolete format that fails to transmit the excitement and fun of science and to meet rising standards in the dissemination of ideas.”
With so many successes as a botanist, a researcher, an author and even a landscaper, are there any feelings of missed chances?
“I have grown and lost quite a number of rare exquisite plants because I did not take sufficient steps to propagate them. Now I make sure to duplicate all my best plants. I also spent ten years trying to develop a national botanic garden in Kuala Lumpur, but the government preferred commercial development. Financing has always been inadequate, but if we wait for financing, we can never do anything great. Any great work is a fiction until one can make it a reality."
For information on his scientific career: http://research.utar.edu.my/utargrn/icp/FrancisNg/
And for his private observations: http://tropicalhorticulture.blogspot.com/
March 2016, by Karolien Bais, image Francis Ng
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