He has discovered strange plants that eat monkeys and rats in the forest of the Philippines, identified pre-historic plants in Venezuelan jungles, chanced upon a remote plateau littered with gemstones... Jeremy Miles catches up with Stewart McPherson, the award-winning conservationist.
The small jungle rat couldn’t resist the temptation. The sweet-smelling water, which lay in the large, red pitcher-shaped flower – nepenthes attenboroughii in case you are wondering – was too delicious to ignore.
For a few seconds, the rat struggled desperately to extricate itself from the fluid and scramble up the pitcher’s wall, but the downward facing spines in it prevented the rodent from escaping.
It was in 2009 that he first made international headlines when it was revealed that he had discovered a huge, but previously unknown variety of pitcher plant growing on Mount Victoria and Mount Sagpaw in the highlands of the western island of Palawan in the Philippines.
The real Indiana Jones
“It was an amazing trek, and when we finally got to the top – 2,000 metres up – we discovered a plant, nepenthes deaniana, that hadn’t been seen since 1899.”
The nepenthes deaniana is a very large carnivorous pitcher plant that grows only on Thumb Peak, the land that was being used as a penal colony. Because of this, the area was relatively inaccessible and unexplored. It took weeks of planning and lots of paperwork in order to explore the area.
I ask how Stewart got on with the murderers. “Oh they were great fellows, absolutely lovely chaps... and an enormous help clearing our path with their machetes.” Wasn’t he just a little bit worried? Stewart laughs, “No, not at all. I think they might have had some awkward questions to answer if we hadn’t come back.”
It employs the same mechanism that all other carnivorous pitcher plants have, except most are only big enough to devour flies, bugs, mosquitos and spiders.
The press had a field day when they discovered that not only was this plant big enough to trap rats and digest them with its flesh-eating enzymes, but that Stewart had named it in honour of his hero, broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Stewart has always admired Sir David’s work in promoting an understanding of the natural world. Sir David was delighted, telling the world that he thought the plant was “elegant and charming.”
Surveying the breathtaking panoramic views from Stewart’s family home on the Dorset coast, in southern England, it’s easy to see why he was inspired to become an eco-campaigning adventurer.
His travels in search of rare flora have taken him to some of the world’s most remote regions, from the mountains of the Philippines to the jungles of Borneo.