Alfred Russel Wallace – Borneo Ferns

Cambridge University Herbarium relocated to the Sainsbury Laboratory in 2011 since when a review of its historic collections has revealed some new and important discoveries. In the internationally reknowned Lindley collection Dr. Daniele Cicuzza found fern specimens collected by the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. 33 species, 22 genera and 17 families are covered by this small collection. Three specimens are types, underlining the scientific as well as historical importance of the material.

The specimens were all collected by Wallace from a single locality in the vicinity of Kuching (Sarawak) Borneo. Wallace wrote

“On reaching Sarawak early in December, I found there would not be an opportunity of returning to Singapore until the latter end of January. I therefore accepted Sir James Brooke’s invitation to spend a week with him and Mr. St. John at his cottage on Peninjauh. This is a very steep pyramidal mountain of crystalline basaltic rock, about a thousand feet high, and covered with luxuriant forest. There are three Dyak villages upon it, and on a little platform near the summit is the rude wooden lodge where the English Rajah was accustomed to go for relaxation and cool fresh air. It is only twenty miles up the river, but the road up the mountain is a succession of ladders on the face of precipices, bamboo bridges over gullies and chasms, and slippery paths over rocks and tree-trunks and huge boulders as big as houses. A cool spring under an overhanging rock just below the cottage furnished us with refreshing baths and delicious drinking water, and the Dyaks brought us daily heaped-up baskets of Mangosteens and Lansats, two of the most delicious of the subacid tropical fruits. We returned to Sarawak for Christmas (the second I had spent with Sir James ), when all the Europeans both in the town and from the out-stations enjoyed the hospitality of the Rajah, who possessed in a pre-eminent degree the art of making every one around him comfortable and happy.

“A few days afterwards I returned to the mountain with Charles and a Malay boy named Ali and stayed there three weeks for the purpose of making a collection of land-shells, butterflies and moths, ferns and orchids. On the hill itself ferns were tolerably plentiful, and I made a collection of about forty species…” 

(Wallace, A.R. The Malay Archipelago 1869, p.132)

With good approximation, we can conclude that plants were collected on the mountain “Gunung Muan”, coordinates approximately 01 26 N 110 13 E, near Peninjau village. The locality is an isolated mountain comprising a basalt/granite pluton (exposed on the flanks of the summit) erupting through sandstone. This is the mountain upon which stood Sir James Brooke’s hut used by Wallace as a field station. Today the local community maintains a trail in the forest on the “Gunung Muan” named after Wallace and James Brooke (Peter Boyce pers. com. to Daniele Cicuzza).

The majority of the species have forest ecology for example Diplazium cordifolium Bl. a common species found on the forest floor. Other forest fern species are represented by two magnificent tree ferns, Cyathea latebrosa (Wall. Ex. Hook.) Copel. and Cyathea wallacei (Mett.) Copel.

Wallace’s London agent, Samuel Stevens, advertised the fern collection for sale in Kew Miscellany (1857) presenting it as: “Wallace’s Borneo Ferns, 30 to 40*, at 50 shillings per 100”… “*Among which are some species of great rarity and beauty”. Despite some species being common in the tropical East Asia region they were indeed of “great rarity” on the British collectors market at a time when the collection of dried and living fern specimens was particularly fashionable. John Lindley purchased a set, subsequently sold with the rest of Lindley’s herbarium to Cambridge University in 1866.

More information in Cicuzza, D. ‘A rediscovery of Alfred Russel Wallace’s fern collection from Borneo at the Cambridge University Herbarium’ Notes and Records published online September 17, 2014

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