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Home to the oldest rainforests on the planet, some 130 million years of age, Malaysia is a genetic treasure trove of over 14,500 species of flowering plants and trees. About 75 per cent of the land is covered by natural vegetation which changes with elevation both in species and height, with the tallest trees towering 45 metres above the forest canopy.
The world's largest flower, the Rafflesia , grows in the forests of Mount Kinabalu Park.
Its tropical rainforests exhibit species richness not only at the community level but also at the family and genus levels. In Peninsular Malaysia, the flowering plant flora exceeds 8,500 species, while in Sabah and Sarawak there are more than 12,000 species. One of the most celebrated is the Rafflesia, the world's largest flower measuring up to one metre across.
The lowland forests constitute freshwater and mangrove swamps which are regularly inundated with fresh water with high pH content and rich in minerals. The fluctuation of the water level allows periodic drying of the soil surface. In Peninsular Malaysia, most of these freshwater swamp forests, are found in Pahang and the southeastern part of Johor. There, in the sheltered coastal areas, stilt-rooted mangrove trees, which have adapted to tidal influence and saline waters, form an even, continuous canopy.
Water lilies is one of the many species of Malaysian flowers.
Further inland is found the nipa swamp forest. Uninfluenced by tidal movement, it is a unique brackish-water plant community dominated by nipa palm (Nypa fruiticans). On the landward fringes of the nipa swamp are clumps of nibong palms (Oncosperma filamentosum).The leaves of the nipa palm make good thatching material and the leaflets have been used for smoking tobacco long before the advent of cigarette paper. Its sap can be processed to obtain sugar and alcohol.
At one time, lowland peatswamp forests were a common feature on the coasts of Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak. Their forest structure is identical to freshwater forests, in that there is also the canopy, the understorey and the shrub layers.
The highland peat forest, or kerangas, are mostly found in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak. Here, the upper tree canopy is consistently 30 metres above the ground. However, much of this forest, especially in Johor state, has been converted into plantation land mostly for growing oil palm and pineapple.
Along Malaysia's lengthy coast, where soils are sandy and there is no mangrove, beach vegetation prevails. Stretching up to one kilometre inland, this thick, mat-like vegetation, including casuarina, cashewnut and simpoh trees, helps in controlling soil erosion. A typical beach forest is seen in Pulau Rumbia, Perak, where it merges well with coconut plantations.
The lowland dipterocarp forest, which is the most extensive type is found below the 300-metre line. The most important commercial timber species are found at this altitude where there is a considerable variation of dipterocarp species. There are also a variety of fruit trees with about 9 per cent of the tree flora, especially in Peninsular Malaysia, bearing edible fruits.
Hill forests on the craggy limestone hills and outcrops are striking landscape in many parts of Malaysia, and are rich in plant species. In Peninsular Malaysia, 1,216 species have been found on just 0.3 per cent of the land surface occupied by limestone hills.
Long Malaysian Orchids.
In most cases similar to the lowland dipterocarp, hill dipterocarp is distinguished by seraya (Shorea curtisii) trees. Lower dipterocarp forests are found at an altitude of 300-750 metres, while upper dipterocarp forests grow at 1200 metres. Together, the Malaysian lowland and hill dipterocarp forests rank among the world's most species-rich terrestrial ecosystems. The tropical tree families found here include the Bombacaceae, Clusiaceae, Dipterocarpaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Myristicaceae and Myrtaceae.
Walking up the dipterocarp forest from the lowlands up into the hill ranges, at a certain point one notices a fairly sharp change in the vegetation marking the boundary into montane forest. The exact altitude varies from place to place: from as low as 600 metres on the smaller isolated mountains to above 1,200 metres on the massive mountain ranges of western Sabah. At these points, very large trees and large lianas cease to exist, and there are very few or no dipterocarps and legumes. Climbers ascending Mount Kinabalu will encounter sub-alpine and alpine vegetation.
Flame of the forest.
The lower montane forest, or the oak-laurel forest, is distinguished by the predominance of trees belonging to the oak (Fagaceae) and laurel (Lauraceae) species. Also common at this altitude are tree ferns conifers and members of the tea, magnolia, oil-fruit and root-parasite balaphora families.
The upper montane forest begins at altitudes of 1,700 metres and above. Here, one finds Rhododendron and Vaccinium of the Ericaceae family. Their branches are gnarled and covered with mosses, liverworts, lichens and other epiphytes. Due to the enveloping blanket of cloud and mist, the forest appears perpetually damp.
Exclusive to Mount Kinabalu, Malaysian subalphine vegetation comprises a windswept, shrubby forest intermixed with open, grassy, waterlogged vegetation.
Further up the mountain, at 3350 metres, one encounters alphine vegetation where the forest suddenly becomes quiet with the cessation of the sounds of birds and insects. With the mist, visibility drops to less than 10 metres.