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12 June 2009

Ecological Garden


Angela Hijjas: Welcome to Rimbun Dahan.

Bernadette Nunn: Thank you.

Angela Hijjas: So glad you could make it out of KL's noisy traffic.

Bernadette Nunn: Well, this doesn't feel like the rest of KL, I must say.

Angela Hijjas: Not at all, no. As an Australian living in Malaysia, I've taken a leaf out of my Australian experience, and I'm collecting indigenous species to South-East Asia. I've been in Malaysia for over 30 years. I came in 1972. And I'm married to a Malaysian. My children are Malaysian. We collect all sorts of things, including this orchid here, which is about to flower. It's a rare thing and you don't see it in South-East Asian gardens.

Bernadette Nunn: So why wouldn't people plant something like this in a garden in Malaysia?

Angela Hijjas: Well, they're not available at nurseries, but also people are not interested. There's no demand. It's not like Australia where you have a huge interest in native species. In Malaysia we're still looking at exotic species. They want colour. They want bougainvillea. They want things that are colourful all the time. You don't get that with Malaysian species. There are some Malaysian plants that have spectacular flowers, like this one, which is a ginger. But most Malaysians wouldn't recognise it as this. They would recognise it as the bud. And that's used for cooking. They wouldn't leave it like this to finally emerge as a quite spectacular torch ginger.

Bernadette Nunn: So they'd never actually get to see this flower?

Angela Hijjas: No. No.

We have half an acre in the garden that is dedicated to herbs and spices and fragrant species. We have collected about 100 species, and one of the nicest plants is the nutmeg tree, which is actually indigenous to Indonesia. This is the nutmeg. Outside the seed you have the mace, which is a separate spice. And inside is the kernel, which has a very hard shell around it. And that we have to break open. And this is the squashed fruit with a very pungent smell of nutmeg.

Bernadette Nunn: Mmm.

Angela Hijjas: That's a monitor lizard, a water monitor. And they grow up to about two metres. And we have several of them living in the ponds here. This is a Shorea materialis, which is a balau pasir. It's a tropical rainforest hardwood. It's been heavily logged in its natural environment for construction. In fact, you would rarely see it in Malaysian forests. It's a fast grower, but it's a very hard wood. Now it's a relatively rare tree and I'm happy to have it in my garden. These are my pelong trees, and this is the name of the kampong that we live in, 'Sungai Pelong', meaning 'pelong river'. Most Malaysian place names are named after plants or geographical features. And that's something that we've forgotten.

Bernadette Nunn: Because the plants aren't there anymore?

Angela Hijjas: The plants aren't there anymore, and pelong trees are not really noted for anything useful, so they were cut. I managed to source the plants from the aboriginal community, the Orang Asli, who live a few miles away. They knew what the plants were. Said, "No problem. We'll get that for you." So they brought in 20 and we set them out here. And it's made a lovely space for the garden.

Bernadette Nunn: How do Malaysians feel about this Australian woman telling them that they should appreciate their plants more?

Angela Hijjas: They take it very well. Having been here this long, it... And Malaysians are very supportive. They're very welcoming, and they will accept what you tell them if they think that, well, "She knows more about plants than I do. She must have something to say." And I've been encouraged every step of the way. Having lived here for so long, you develop a love for the place. And I think about going back to Australia, but I don't think I ever would. This is my home and this is where I belong.