This tutued tree is the bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus), so named by Carl Linnaeus because, well, it looks like a bird’s nest (nidus is Latin for “nest”).
Linnaeus came in contact with the plant through the herbarium collections of Pehr Osbeck, one of Linnaeus’ “apostles.” Osbeck was a chaplain on the ships of the Swedish East India Company trading with Asia and collected a specimen of Asplenium nidus in Java, Indonesia.
The bird’s nest fern is the most abundantly found epiphyte in Southeast Asia–and is native to the region in fact. Epiphytes are plants that grow on top of other plants. They’re not parasites, however; they simply use the host plant as a resting place and draw in nutrition from the surrounding environment. And they give plenty back in return.
Epiphytes are terribly important for global biodiversity. Part of the reason for that is they don’t take up a lot of space–you can cramp hundreds of them into a space where only a few terrestrials would thrive.
The bird’s nest fern, in particular, plays a key role in the ecology of other plants and animals. These ferns are “litter-baskets,” intercepting falling leaf litter from the branches above.1 Water that flows down the trunk of the tree (“stemflow” if you want to get technical) percolates slowly through this decomposing leaf matter, leeching all the good stuff from it, eventually seeping into the soil. As a result, the soil around the bird’s nest fern is especially hospitable to all sorts of plant and insect life.2
There’s a strong parallel here between epiphytes and apartment-dwelling homo sapiens, with studies showing that high urban density has a strong positive correlation with knowledge spillovers and innovation.
But that’s not all. Unlike the “urban heat island” effect we see in high density urban areas, the densely populated base of the bird’s nest fern (all those rotting leaves etc.) has an air-conditioning effect on the local microclimate.3 This makes it an especially important plant in an area with the world’s highest rate of deforestation.
Could it be that the morphology/ physiology of this plant contains some useful design lessons for architects?