Vietnam Cycad and Palm Expedition (Part II)

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Southern Central Highlands

Figure 5. Female "cone" of Cycas pectinata var. elongata in habitat at Ca Na, displaying the elongated sporophyll tips characteristic of this variety.

On October 28 Dr. Hiep returned to Hanoi for a meeting in Malaysia and Anders, Dr. Hiep's assistant, Mr. Ban and I boarded a train south to the Southern Central Highlands of Vietnam. The train ride from Vinh to Qui Nhon was a 20 hour bone shaker. Only hard seats were available, which was a misery. It was impossible for me to fall asleep since I did not have enough fat between my bones and the wooden seat to endure the bumps. People told me that the railway was never properly repaired from the heavy bomb damage inflicted by the Americans during the war.

On our arrival to Quin Nhon we rented a car to the town of An Kne 70km away. We were at the southern end of the Central Highlands, a mysterious place for biologists. Most of the region is still not open to foreigners and our visit was possible only because of special permits from Hanoi. At An Kne we saw many specimens of Cycas pectinata var. elongata Leandri. These are large plants with trunks up to several meters tall. They differ from the typical C. pectinata from China and Thailand in that the female sporophylls have a narrow elongated tip (Fig. 5). Also in this area we were able to locate one of the main objectives of the expedition, the bamboo cycad, C. micholitzii var. micholitzii (Fig. 6). They were growing in a dry rice field. The original vegetation was bamboo bush on sandy soil. When locals burned the bamboo and associated vegetation the underground cycad trunks survive and sprout new leaves during the growing season for dry rice. It appears that only big trunks and the ones deep enough under ground escape the rites, as I could only locate eight very large tubers which extended deep into the ground.

Figure 5. Female "cone" of Cycas pectinata var. elongata in habitat at Ca Na, displaying the elongated sporophyll tips characteristic of this variety.
Figure 6. Cycas micholitzii growing in disturbed forest with bamboo, Southern central Highlands

On October 31 we travelled further west toward Playcu where we found more Cycas micholitzii. The leaves of the Vietnam form of this species were shorter than the Chinese variety, growing to less than two meters instead of five for the Chinese one. Here at Playcu Dr. Hiep had observed a population of C. siamensis just two years previous. They had all since been dug out of their habitat and we observed some growing in local gardens.

Figure 7. Cycas siamensis with male cone at Roc Don National Park.

The next day we travelled south to Buon Ma Thout city in Dac Lac Province. Here we visited Ron Doe National Park and found Cycas siamensis growing under dry, rocky open forest (Fig. 7) with Dipterocarpus tuberculatus as the dominant tree. The elevation was 210 meters above sea level. This was to be the only population of this cycad that we found in an intact habitat in Vietnam during our expedition. We moved on yet again to another cycad locality, identified from herbarium specimens, at Nha Trang, 205km to the south. This population, of Cycas pectinata var. elongata, was healthy because American mines from the war remained on the hillside. We risked the mines to examine these plants closely. Luckily we did not step on any mines, however, our translator, Mr. Ban was badly shaken by the experience. We travelled further south to Lam Dong Province. It rained heavily and we were unable to do field work for four days. Finally the rain abated and we searched for and found another population of cycads in rainforest, a form of Cycas pectinata. The largest specimen had a trunk 10 meters high with 6 branches, a real giant (Fig. 8)!

Figure 8. An unusually large specimen of Cycas pectinata, approximately 10 m tall with six branches, with Anders Lindstrom, in Lam Dong Province.
Figure 9. Cycas pectinata var elongata in its dry rocky habitat at Ca Na.

On November 10 we arrived at Ca Na, the type locality for Cycas pectinata var. elongata. At a nearby village we hired a local guide and proceeded into the field. The population of this cycad still covered large areas of rocky open forest close to the sea (Fig. 9). At 10 am while we were taking a break under a large cycad my guide pointed out a seedling nearby. When I told him that I would like to collect the seedling after I finished taking photographs, he walked over to the seedling and put his hand under a rock to collect it for me. Immediately he pulled his hand back with a terrible scream,. One of his fingers was bleeding and my interpreter shouted out: "Snake, poisonous snake!". A Russell's Viper had bitten him. We all ran in panic. The guide picked up and chewed some herbs then put the wad on his bleeding finger. Realising the seriousness of the situation, our team left the area to return to the road. Twenty minutes later we got back to Highway #1. Our guide refused to go to a hospital, but requested that I help him with medical costs. Later that afternoon I returned to the village to see the guide. His hands and face were swollen, but he was conscious. People told me that he was no longer at risk for death.

Figure 10. Cycas pectinata var elongata removed from the wild at Ca Na and awaiting export to either China, Taiwan, or Korea.

Along Highway #1 locals sold wild-collected cycads (Fig. 10). One was Cycas pectinata var. elongata and the other was a dwarf species that appeared to be an undescribed species. We found it later in the wild in sandy grassland or open forest close to the sea (see below).

Figure 11. Corphya sp. north of Saigon. The leaves of this species are used heavily for thatching by local villagers.

Around Saigon

On November 11 our car had a serious accident on the way to my hotel. Fortunately I was not in the car. We continued south with a replacement. North of Saigon we found a population of Corypha sp. (Fig. 11). In Thuan Hai Province, we located a population of a dwarf Cycas in the sandy bush. This cycad was identical to the one we found being sold along Highway #1. It has a subterranean trunk with short leaves and very narrow female sporophylls (Fig. 12). At this point Anders had to leave to return to Bangkok and I bid farewell to a trusted companion. I continued on to my next destination 175km north of Saigon (now officially called Ho Chi Mirth City) at the Cat Tien National Reserve along the Dong Nai River. I hired Mr. Long of the local branch of the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources as my interpreter. This was an area of wet rainforest and because it was close to a river we were fighting against leeches and thorny vines. Our socks and pants protected our feet and legs, but the leeches attacked our faces and necks. I got 5 leech bites and Mr. Long got 7 in our three hours in the forest. Despite all this we found a tall-trunked Cycas which showed no branching or pups. Later I would find that it is closely related, if not identical, to a species in the lowland rainforest of southern Thailand, C. macrocarpa (Fig. 13).

Figure 12. Cycas sp. in habitat in southern Vietnam. Note the small clump of sporophylls in this dwarf species.
Figure 13. Cycas sp. aff. macrocarpa in wet rainforest at the Cat Tien National Reserve.

I then went to Vung Tau by bus (128 kilometres) where I tried to visit Cong Dao island, located 180 kilometres south of the coast, to search for cycads and palms. Each day the tourist company there told me that a boat would go to the island the next day, but the boat would not arrive! My only alternative was to hire a helicopter, which would have cost me US$2,500, which was too much for my budget. After three days of waiting I gave up! On November 21-22 I visited the Department of Botany, University of Ho Chi Minh. The next day I caught a plane to Hanoi to obtain CITES permits. I felt a satisfaction that after enduring many risks and hardships my fieldwork had laid the foundation for the understanding of the cycads of Vietnam and hopefully for their long-term conservation.


I thank Willie Tang for his assistance in preparing this manuscript and Anders Lindstrom, Dr. N.T. Hiep, N.K. Ban, Dr. P.V. He and N.V. Long for their assistance in the field.
I also thank L. Whitelock, M. Perry, J. Fisher, T. Waiters, K. Hill and K. Tansacha for their support and inspiration.

Contributed by:

Si-Lin Yang (Fairchild Tropical Garden)
Reproduced from Palms & Cycads, No. 50 Jan-Mar 1996

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