Few plants are as virtuosic as the Koster's Curse (Clidemia hirta) - vigorously growing in open areas, shaded areas, even aquatic environments. She owes her common name to the story of how some guy named Koster accidentally introduced the plant while importing coffee plants into Fiji. This memorable name, alluding to how invasive and destructive this plant has been in the tropics thus far, has persisted through the years. But there is a paper by Evenhuis (2014) who dug deeper into the plant's origin story and found that it was more probable that another guy, called William Parr, a wealthy Englishman who reportedly owned many plantations and slaves, set the curse. He was known as a plant enthusiast, importing all sorts of ornamental plants to grow on his properties, one of which being the Clidemia. Koster was just another unfortunate, random guy who lived close enough to be entrapped in this misnomer. Anyway, both guys are dead now so we will just refer to it as the common name out of convenience.

Can you spot the curse?

The Koster's Curse is listed as one of the top 100 most invasive species worldwide. A densely-branching shrub that can grow up to 5 metres in height, her seeds are spread quickly and far by birds, and each small purple fruit can consist of over 100 tiny seeds. The fact that each seed can lay dormant in the ground for up to 4 years compounds her rate of survival. She's a notoriously difficult plant to exterminate. She has also shown to be a lot more shade-tolerant in her introduced range than native land. One of the theories supporting its effectiveness in non-native habitats is the 'enemy release hypothesis': due to the lack of natural enemy insects and fungal pathogens in the exotic location, the plant is "released" from her enemies and hence enjoys a much higher rate of survival. Today, this shrub is a very common sight in the wastelands and the understoreys of secondary forests in Singapore.

Close-up on the ripe berries and hairy leaves

On first contact, many people are beguiled by her rough, hairy leaves. Apparently, the orang asli (aboriginals in Malaysia) use them as a soap brush. I first noticed this plant when I was doing an internship on an agroforestry research project on an oil palm plantation in Jambi, Indonesia. I was tasked to collect and document as many different types of seeds as possible, and as a young (and impatient) student, I remember feeling so frustrated that most of the areas I could get to was dominated by this plant! The small, bluish-black berries (each not more than 1cm in diameter) is edible, though the taste is insipid, nowhere like a blueberry which it resembles. The leaves are reportedly used by the orang asli as a antiseptic for small wounds and cuts.
The texture of the ink made from the berries was rather gummy, due to the rubber-like nature of the fruit skin, and there were some remnants of the skin in the ink when applied on paper. Not the most perfect ink in our opinion, but it is a simple to make and accessible choice. It gave a bluish gray colour when prepared.
It's still a compelling plant to work with, regardless. I think it'd be intriguing to personally witness how the orang asli have used this plant in different capacities.
Do hop on over to our Gallery to see more artworks with this ink!

The dirt road we were on

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