Exotic plant named after Malani Fonseka


By Randima Attygalle

"I feel I have held hands with Mother Nature today," smiled Malani Senehelatha Fonseka when the new plant, "Nepenthes Malani, was named after her a few days ago. "It’s a significant milestone in my life after 50 years in the film industry and is as much a tribute to the Sinhala film and its fans as much as a personal compliment to me," the much loved artiste said amidst the applause of an intimate gathering which was privy to the momentous occasion.

The event took place at the trade fair Reflection of Sri Lanka, that was open to public at Ape Gama, Battaramulla, parallel to CHOGM that was concluded last week.

The unique plant was created by Borneo Exotics, among the world’s leading horticulture centres renowned for its excellence in production and export of artificially propagated Nepenthes. The new hybrid was the culmination of 16 years of selective breeding. Borneo Exotics propagates the widest varieties of Nepenthes anywhere in the world at its facility in Lindula and continuously and selectively breeds new and more horticulturally desirable hybrids and cultivars, using state-of-the-art and conservation-friendly techniques.

A marvel of nature

Recalling bright green Bandura which she vividly remembers from her childhood, Malani went on to say, "this plant which is named in my honour is so special because it brings two countries together. I’m truly moved by the gesture of Robert Cantley, the Managing Director of Borneo Exotics and his partner Diana Williams."

Clad in a pulsating orange sari, Malani seemed to blend in perfect harmony with Nepenthes Malani. "With its beauty comes its insectivorous nature (the plant traps insects which it digests in the pitchers), making Bandura exotic in every sense," Malani told the audience, sharing the herbal value of the plant notable for curing indigestions and severe coughs with the liquid concentrated in the pitcher.

Malani complimented Robert Cantley, founder of Borneo Exotics and the current Chairman of the newly formed IUCN Carnivorous Plant Specialist Group (CPSG) and his partner Diana Williams for their ‘inspiring patience’.

"They have been in Sri Lanka for over 15 years and theirs is an enterprise which demands a lot of patience, she said. "The cultivar named in my honour had taken many years of labour to create. Robert and Diana have inspired us all with their patience. Bandura is a marvel of nature which makes us ponder over the riches nature offers."

A rare honour

Naming of Nepenthes Malani was another gesture of sincere affection Robert Cantley and Diana Williams have for Sri Lanka- the land they have come, to call home today.

"Since arriving in Sri Lanka way back in 1997, we have done our best to help fly the flag for the country at every possible opportunity and have never regretted the choice of Sri Lanka from among many possibilities to set up our company," Cantley said. He explained that the naming of a plant cultivar after a person is a rare honour and has not been done in Sri Lanka before with a plant as unique as the one chosen to honour Malani Fonseka.

The last plant Borneo Exotics named after a celebrity was in 2011 when Oscar-winning actress Dame Helen Mirren was honoured at Royal Horticultural Flower Show at Hampton Court Palace, when Borneo’s Gold Medal winning exhibit was named after her. Cantley explained that once the name is accepted by the appropriate authorities such as the Carnivorous Plants Specialist Group of the IUCN, Nepenthes Malani will live for all time. Anyone creating the same plant again or propagating from the original plant material must use the same cultivar name.

"In effect, it is immortality in plant form. Hundreds, or even thousands of years from now, anyone growing a registered cultivar such as this, will be reminded of the person it was named after when they look up the origin of the name."

As Cantley noted further, plant cultivars are sometimes named just because of a very slight difference in colouration from other plants with similar parentage. "This is the case for example with orchids, where they are running out of differences between plants worthy of plant cultivar status. For example, the Singapore Government has an active programme to breed new orchid cultivars, specifically for naming after visiting dignitaries. Sir Elton John had an orchid cultivar named for him during a recent visit to Singapore. Whilst pretty to look at, these orchid cultivars are not often very distinct from one another to any but a trained eye. However, this particular Nepenthes plant we are naming today is a primary hybrid between two Bornean species of Nepenthes. It is a hybrid never made before and is extremely distinctive and entirely unique, being unlike any other Nepenthes plant."

Mass market introductions

More than 120 species of Nepenthes are found throughout the Asian subcontinent and one species endemic to Sri Lanka is scientifically known as ‘Nepenthes distillatoria’ is found in abundance in Sinharaja. As Cantley points out, until now, Nepenthes have been niche market items on the world stage as they are notoriously difficult plants to cultivate.

"But that is set to change, with Sri Lanka pioneering the way with the first ever mass-market introductions starting from 2014. The key to success in this is the crossing of warm-growing varieties with cool-growing varieties to produce the first-ever Nepenthes hybrids that can tolerate a wide range of temperatures. "This process can take years or even decades to achieve and was commenced by Borneo Exotics in Sri Lanka in 1997. The fruit of this labour is only now becoming available."

Once, the desired cultivar is created, it then has to be multiplied in a laboratory using advanced plant tissue culture techniques before it can be released in quantity to the commercial market. As the committed conservationist observes, time and patience are key factors in this new industry, which has such a long gestation period. "This work has already been undertaken by Borneo Exotics over many years. As a result, Sri Lanka currently leads any other producer of Nepenthes anywhere else in the world by a margin of at least five years."

Immortalized beyond cinema

What kindled Cantley’s interest in honouring the Queen of Sinhala Cinema? "When Ms. Fonseka visited our trade stall (at Reflection of Sri Lanka) she showed a keen interest in the plants, particularly this cultivar named after her. At the same time I could draw parallels with Dame Helen Mirren in whose name we launched Nepenthes Helen. Since her debut in the early 60s, Ms. Fonseka’s contribution to the Sri Lankan cinema has been exceptional. So I thought, ‘why not honour an iconic artiste whose cinematic journey spans five decades?’

The particular plant cultivar named after Malani has the distinction of being one of the first of this new generation of temperature tolerant hybrids ever produced and will grow in temperatures ranging from as low as 10 degrees Celsius up to 40 degrees Celsius, making it suitable to be grown in both tropical and temperate countries. "Mass production of this new cultivar is already underway by Borneo Exotics in Sri Lanka and within a few years, Nepenthes Malani will be grown in offices, homes and gardens all over the world. Protected from unauthorised copying by a form of plant patent known as ‘Plant Breeder’s Rights’, this cultivar will forever remain a Sri Lankan creation and ensure that Malani’s name will be immortalized not only in the world of cinema but in horticultural circles too," added Cantley.

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