Once upon a time, there was a clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum) at the entrance of the Rimba Ilmu building. It was a popular stop for garden tours, because the sight of cloves, or cengkih in Bahasa Melayu, growing on trees never failed to fascinate visitors to Rimba Ilmu. (As one student volunteer guide said, if you want to grab people's attention, find something for them to touch and smell.)
Clove trees can easily be identified by its bushy, conical appearance, and are small trees that rarely exceed 25 feet in height. An evergreen tree, meaning that it does not shed its leaves seasonally, the clove tree in Rimba Ilmu sounded warning bells when bare branches, with very few new leaves, started showing.
The botanic garden’s authorities made the difficult decision to cut it down. The twist was that they made sure they replanted the same species! This simple story can easily be practised by city planners, developers and gardeners everywhere: If you chop down a tree, plant it back.
About three feet in height, the new clove tree was replanted through the concerted effort of Rimba Ilmu and JPPHB gardeners. They carefully lowered the tree into the ground, and arranged it to ensure it grew straight and true, before patting the topsoil into place.
Tree planting is a noble cause, but often we volunteers are more enthusiastic than gentle during the process. Watching the gardeners made me feel more conscious about treating the tree as a living being, rather than 'just a tree'!
The ixora hedge, which surrounded the original tree, was also replanted. Besides providing some shade and coolness to the young tree, this ensures that Rimba Ilmu stays true to the determination of resurrecting every plant that was removed!
Now that the clove tree is replanted, we can hope that it will flower in its fifth year of life. A native of the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, it can live up to 100 years, although one clove tree of 150 years has been recorded.
The cloves that we use as cooking spices are actually the unopened flower buds which are dried and resemble small nails - therefore the Latin name 'clavus', which means 'nails'. The generic name Syzygium means 'paired' in Greek, and refers to the leaves which grow in opposite pairs on the stem. Aromaticum refers to the aromatic fragrance of the plant, of course!
Besides cooking, cloves have many traditional medicinal uses - clove tea can be used in stomach upsets, nausea and vomitting, whereas its essential oil can be applied onto skin for headaches, colds, arthritis and rheumatism. The flower buds can be chewed as a breath-freshener or for toothache. It also has antibiotic and antiseptic properties, and is currently being studied as a larvicidal agent to combat dengue!
Happiest when surrounded by books, Vanessa Ting finds herself thriving in the no-less-fascinating world of conservation biology. This mostly involves exponential (learning and topographical) curves, tagging behind ardent, energetic botanists and zoologists. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.