Finding the name for a tree in the Bornean forest is a pleasurable challenge. There is no guidebook to the tree species of Borneo, and we don’t even have a comprehensive checklist (an estimate of the number of known species is 5,000, but it is likely there are many more still undescribed). Instead of turning to a single resource, those seeking to learn the trees of Borneo must accumulate knowledge from a number of different sources. My favorites include:
- E. J. H. Corner’s Wayside Trees of Malaya
- The Tree Flora of Malaya
- Peter Ashton’s Manual of the Non-Dipterocarp Trees of Sarawak
- P. F. Cockburn’s Trees of Sabah, Vols. 1 & 2
- The Tree Flora of Sabah and Sarawak
- Flora Malesiana (for some taxa only)
- Ferry Slik’s Plants of Southeast Asia website
- The Plant Observatory website
A recent addition, and without doubt the most beautiful and useful single reference, is Jim LaFrankie’s Trees of Tropical Asia. This is a nearly comprehensive account of the genera (ca. 800) of trees in the whole of Southeast Asia, complete with excellent photographs of bark, leaves, flowers, or fruits for most genera. It is a labor of love, having taken Jim many years to complete, and represents the distillation of a vast amount of literature and personal experience (most of the photos were taken by Jim himself). Besides being an invaluable reference, it is very readable, full of significant stories and observations. It reminds me of an up-to-date rendition of some classic nineteenth century natural history work. It was the only (paper) book we took on our expedition. I dipped into it nearly every day, over my morning cup of coffee, seeking insight into some tree we had encountered. Our local team members (particularly Pak Manto) also treasured it; while they could not read the English, the images are so abundant and well-annotated that they were able to teach themselves the scientific name for many taxa.
As an author on a slowly-progressing field guide to the genera of Bornean trees, I often think about the advantages of different formats for field guides. Electronic books have many advantages over paper books: portability, ease of copying (if that is the authors’ intention), durability, etc. However, the physical layers between the information and the reader (i.e., the screen and buttons) still limit the quality of experience of a digital book. Using a paper field guide is perhaps the most complex data-access task we perform: frequent use of the index and table of contents, flipping back and forth between figures and text, marking several sections with fingers to compare similar taxa. Our spatial memories are also engaged with a physical book, enabling us to remember the physical location of taxa pages, thus speeding up the use of the guide once we have used it a bit.