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Edited by Chermaine Yap

While Valentine’s Day may be over, flowers are still “in season” across Musim Mas’ plantations because of their beneficial value to combat pests within oil palm plantations. Specks of yellow-orange flowers dot shrubs lining the roadside, forming a sea of yellow spots throughout Musim Mas’ estates.

These flowers are known as Cassia cobanensis. “It may seem like these pretty blooms were planted for aesthetic reasons, but they do much more than that,” said Ooi Ling Hoak, Head of Research and Development (R&D) at Musim Mas’ Estates Division. This article helps explain why flowers are a sustainable method to manage pest populations and reduce the need for chemical pesticides.

An agronomist by training, Ooi and his team of research personnel support the plantations by providing specialist knowledge to resolve agronomic issues.

How do pests affect oil palms?

Plantations are often plagued by pests, which can cause significant damage to the oil palm leaves. Oil palm trees use chlorophyll in leaves to create energy through photosynthesis. Fewer leaves mean less energy for the trees, which leads to reduced growth and subsequent reduction in oil yield.

These pests can be difficult to control using traditional methods such as pesticides, as they can quickly develop resistance and harm non-target organisms. Thus, using natural predators is becoming an increasingly popular and sustainable approach to managing oil palm pests.

“These flowers give us a biological way to combat leaf-eating pests in oil palm plantations,” explained Ooi. Cassia cobanensis provides nectar as food for parasitoids associated with the nettle caterpillar and bagworm, the common leaf-eating pests in oil palm plantations.

Parasitoids are typically insects that lay their eggs on or inside another organism and whose larvae develop by feeding on the host’s body tissues. It ultimately kills and prevents its host’s reproduction. This is the parasitic cycle which regulates the pest population in a plantation.

Besides Cassia cobanensis, other flowering shrubs in the estates include Euphorbia heterophylla, Turnera subulata and Antigonon leptopus. These flowering shrubs host a range of predators of leaf-eating pests and hence are also helpful in pest control.

Beneficial plants are one of the methods in Integrated Pest Management

This biological method of pest control combining with minimal chemicals, also known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM), forms a vital part of the environmentally-conscious agricultural practices in Musim Mas. IPM aims to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides and their associated environmental and health risks.

In addition to planting resistant varieties of crops, Musim Mas uses barn owls as part of our IPM program. Musim Mas has installed owl boxes in its plantations to attract barn owls, natural predators of rodents. Rodents can cause damage to crops and spread diseases, but the presence of barn owls helps to control their populations, reducing the need for chemical pesticides.