Dealing with ‘botak’ plants
Published on: Sunday, November 21, 2021
By: Eskay Ong
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IT is common to see bald or ‘botak’ heads everywhere with most of them on male bodies and only a few on female ones. Hairless heads are non-issues but normally, passers-by would nonchalantly take a second look for no other reason except to appreciate the smooth, tidy and shiny ball, and perhaps to help look out for the last few hairs still sticking around.

On the other hand, it is much less common to see animals with furry or hairy bodies that are bald-headed. Many vultures also have bald heads without feathers except a covering of skin over the entire head. In namesake, the Bald Eagle stands out as one of the most famous living things that carries the ‘Bald’ signature. In fact, the eagle is not at all bald.  It only has a head and tail that carry white feathers but a significantly large body that is of brown to dark brown colour, with tinges of black.  

Against a background of changing colours when in flight, an impression is created whereby the head of the bird appears to be bald whereas on closer look, it is fully covered with white feathers.

Another example is that of a breed of lions in Kenya, Africa, where some males tend to go naturally bald.  It is common to see such lion broods that are led by baldies that usually have more females than those broods led by other males with thick manes. This shows that no one should ever underestimate the power and attraction of baldies.

In humans, it is uncertain whether those responses to bald-headedness work the same way as lions but it certainly contributes as a morale booster to male ego thus underpinning the pull of baldies in town. 

Why plants go bald

In plants, the occurrence of baldies is a daily affair. The characteristic dropping of leaves may be due to neglect, natural cycle or intentional defoliation. But when plants go bald, they do not result in smooth, dazzlingly shiny heads nor do they attract any female plant to amble by, if at all they can move.  

Healthy plants are not much affected by cyclical balding as the leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds will continue to appear on the scene without suffering any harm come the next cycle.

Plants, especially the ornamental ones, do not look good when they are devoid of leaves, in particular those that are already scrawny and straggly, which is the same as pet dogs or cats with patchy furs like kucing kuraps. That is why gardening enthusiasts also tend to see dark clouds and sad days ahead whenever they see their plants going bald.  

Trees, especially the deciduous or semi deciduous types, tend to appear to be scrawny when they undergo seasonal foliar abscission. The grasses and creepers within the local scene do not suffer leaf falls or diebacks, but such a scenario can drastically be altered by occasional extreme changes in climate such as a prolonged period of drought, disturbances as a result of unnatural acts such as rape and plunder of the land, or simply by extended periods of neglect by cultivators.

Normally, one would consider it a non-event to see leaves falling off from certain plants during certain periods of the year. This is most significant with those plants that bear the characteristics of deciduousness, which means that wintering is a must at certain times of the year. The result is that the plant is left in a barren or nearly barren condition which would appear to be quite shocking to the uninitiated.

Even with some popular ornamental plants that one often sees being tended with loving care and attention, heavy leaf fall cannot be avoided if the plants are left solely to the natural cycles of weather pattern.  Unless such plants are maintained against the course of nature, and no matter how costly they may be, they are likely to face the same problem of heavy leaf fall that other deciduous plants face out there.

If conditions deteriorate after a session of serious leaf fall, the non-deciduous plants may find themselves in deep trouble because heavy leaf fall in an evergreen plant is a sign that something has gone wrong somewhere. This is where an appropriate maintenance regime need to be applied and strictly followed to prevent further damage to the plant such as die-back of stem and branch terminals.

Plants that undergo heavy leaf fall

Plants that suffer heavy leaf falls normally become bald for that particular period in that cycle of growth. Nonetheless, there is little to worry about as it will be back to normal before one realises whatever is happening.

Some widely cultivated ornamentals that face this phenomenon include the ever popular desert rose or Adenium obesum. The newer hybrids provide a wide range of colours, petal forms with tinging, speckles or stripes, and so on. But nothing beats the traditional Adenium colour of pinkish white, red or dark red, and with petal edgings of a denser shade, with or without frills.  

A mature and well-grown one of such a kind in a large jar is capable of producing a thousand flowers in full bloom. This was done in Sabah many years ago, and is, until today, the most awesome and fantastic potted flowering ornamental I have ever seen.  

My judgement is that nothing will ever beat this amazing work, at least not in the near future. This is not a tale from the internet or some foreign gardening writers trying to push their story but it is a true Sabah story that is worth telling and retelling.

The interesting thing about adeniums is that during certain times of the year, especially during or before a drought, the plant naturally abscises much of its leaves without the need for a single drop of defoliant. The bald plant is quickly followed by lots of flower buds which quickly morph into blooms within a period of 45-60 days, although some may need up to 75 days to come into bloom.

During an unnatural cycle such as when the plant is not given water for months, the leaf drop may continue, together with bud loss, smaller and fewer flowers, until the terminals start to die off.

This means that having a bald plant is not only having a less than attractive ornamental at home, but it is also a time to open one’s eyes as to the condition of the plant.

Such a kind of response to changes in its surroundings, conditions, and standard of care and maintenance also occurs with many other plants, one of which is another popular ornamental, namely, wild water plum or shui mei of the Wrightia spp.

This is also an amazing plant that comes with thousands of whitish fragrant flowers that some say is akin to the cherry blossoms of Japan. The difference is that the latter is only faintly fragrant while Sabah’s local water plum is strongly scented with a sweet and disarming fragrance. Moreover, cherry blossoms are large trees while the local knock-out bloomer is a small shrub.

The peculiar habit with the local water plum is that during good times with plenty of rain, the shrub becomes blanketed with a layer of green leaves. When the dry times are just around the corner, the leaves start to drop until the majority is gone, while at the same, the flower buds start to appear.  

Usually there are countless clusters of buds all over the plant, with the flower petals facing down. The fragrance exuded is especially sweet during the early mornings and late evenings. This tend to attract great numbers of tiny hummingbirds during the evenings just before sunset.  

The presence of such birds is easily felt by the incessant hummings and buzzings as they fly around from plant to plant and from branch to branch while at the same time partaking of the copious amounts of nectar in the flowers. 

However, it is certain that one of the most visible of all ‘botak’ plants is the angsana or Pterocarpus indicus. This is a large ornamental tree that may reach 35-40 metres in height with a trunk diameter of a metre or more.  

During the colonial days, many were planted all over the country especially at or around large buildings or the club houses of the colonialists, or along main roads and large fields. Amazingly, some of them are still visible in Penang, Johor and several other states in Malaya and attaining sizes that can be considered as massive.

Whenever the trees undergo leaf fall or wintering, virtually everything is naked from the trunk to branches to the terminals. But this is a good sign indeed as new flushes of foliage and flowers are not far behind. Flowers of angsana are golden yellow in colour with a slight shade of orange as well as a little fragrance. The blooming is well synchronised as almost all the flower buds tend to open together but unfortunately, the larger portion of them would be on the ground by the next day.  

Angsana fruits are flat and round in shape with seeds within a round central housing that is surrounded by a ring of membranous wing-like structure. This acts as a tool to help in the dispersal of the species.

Angsanas make very good shade trees as well as in avenue planting to take advantage of the thick foliage and striking blooms that appear seasonally. 

Young trees are more brittle with a lot of breakages during heavy rains and strong winds but the problem is nearly negligible as they grow in size with very thick trunks and branches. Another problem is that the heavy leaf fall may require a lot of cleaning work in much the same way as bucida and rain trees.


A row of angsanas barren of foliage.

The same row of trees (as pic above) with rich green foliage and in full bloom. 

A vigorously growing wrightia with plenty of leaves and flowers.


Healthy adenium with leaves and flowers.  

Adeniums barren of leaves due to some maintenance inadequacy.

Scrawny wrightia badly needs some right treatment to stop it from going bald. 

Need to spend some money to make this bucida tree ‘botak’ to reduce terrible leaf falls. They will be green again within three months.

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December 20, 2014