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How I Became a Meconostigma Nut

I think obsessions sneak up on you. They don't just appear, fully-formed, and change your life forever. They appear first as innocuous events in your life, perhaps even trivial incidents that seem less than ephemeral, then blossom slowly like an enormous flower.

I've always been interested in plants, at least as far back as 1990, when I was studying at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, CA, USA. I remember going around campus trying to figure out the various tree botanical names using one of those small picture books from peterson's or somesuch.

It was in this frame of mind that I one day took the bus to the Arboretum, where I spent the whole day perusing the various and myriad plants and flowers in that institution. By the afternoon, finally exhausted but all too happy, I finally reached the tropical portion of the gardens, and while crossing a stone bridge that arched over a small lake chanced to look upon a most remarkable plant in the far distance. The plant lay sunning itself in the far banks of that small lake, far beyond the reach of casual visitors to the site, its enormous entire leaves perhaps faintly rippling in the slight breeze.

It was of course an aroid, probably an Alocasia robusta or one of those other immense Alocasias that like to show off their prodigious leaves. At the time, I did not know what it was, nor could I discern any nearby labels or signs that could help enlighten me. Nevertheless, I went back to my dingy student's apartment happy, as if I were a glutton whose appetites had been entirely satisfied by a hearty meal.

Fast forward several years later, when I became one of those hapless graduate students you see propping up universities around the world with their sweat and tears and sleepless nights. I worked at a lab in the Busch campus in Rutgers University here in NJ, conjuring up genetically engineered tobacco plants by the hundreds and then subjecting them to weird and wonderful experiments that were meant to wrest the very secrets of existence (or at least the secrets of their physiology) from their puny little plant bodies.

By chance, right next to my lab building was a huge greenhouse that sheltered many of the plants used for research purposes by these mad scientists at the university, and many if not most of the plants were aroids. This was because Rutgers was also coincidentally home to Dr. James French, one of the better known personalities in the aroid research community!

I remember I used to wander the greenhouse every once in awhile, marveling at the variety and sheer beauty of the aroid plants in the habitat. There were Dranunculus specimens there, and Philodendrons, Homalomenas, and Anthuriums in sundry numbers, as well as Amorphophallus and tons of other species. It was a treasure trove that drove me to becoming an aroid nut, and I was further pushed in that direction when I discovered that Deni Brown's aroid book was in the university library. It was around this time that I finally realized that immense plant I glimpsed from a distance in 1990 was an aroid.

I bought two common aroids from the local Home Depot, a Philodendron bipinnatifidum and a Philodendron xanadu, both of which still remain with me to this day. At the time, I did not associate them as being from the Meconostigma group - they were just fairly cheap plants to me that promised to get larger and help assuage my then rapidly dwindling interest in aroids.

For the next several years my interest in aroids remained a barely flickering flame that hid in the background of my frenetic life. I had many other interests, from stomatopods (I almost single handedly created the market demand for these fierce little critters with my stomatopod website), to leafcutter ants, to my personal life with my wife.

My interest regained some traction in 2000 or so, when I read about Tom Ray's experiments with Monstera seelings and their quest for shaded areas in the environment, as well as a coffee table book called The High Frontier: Exploring the Tropical Rainforest Canopy that described hemi-epiphytic Philodendrons as green snakes in the treetop heights. The picture of these aroid plants not as static, earth-bound entities, but as active, almost frenetic organisms stirred my imagination. I pictured these secondary hemi-epiphytes as light predators, plants that severed their connections to the soil and wandered gloriously among the high branches, their huge leaves unfurling to catch the life-giving rays of the sun whenever possible.

My interest in aroids in general had now become more focused, and for the next several years (in between my other activities and interests) I wondered about Philodendron hemi-epiphytes and a world millions of years in the future, when sentient Philos traversed their treetop cities in slow motion (at least to our eyes), their questing aerial roots weaving arcane symbols in their quest for nutrients in the thin air.

It was but a small step from my infatuation with hemi-epiphytic Philodendrons to Meconostigma aroids. I believe this happened when I realized my large aroids with the beautifully ornamented stems were part of a group called by the somewhat intriguing name of "Meconostigma". People may think this small group to be archaic remnants of some older times, the more primitive branch compared to their other Philo brethren, but I see them instead as wonderful examples of arborescent hemi-epiphytes, able to "stand" on their own stem when needed, but also able to climb adroitly up the steepest trees and/or buildings when they so desired, their huge leaves unfurled like wavy sails in a vast green sea.

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Penulis: A. Sunjian
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