It's A Jungle Out There (Part 1)

I. Introduction
Tropical vegetation tends to be a bit tricky to duplicate especially at a scale most of us work with. Often itís a two-fold problem. First, the lack of reference as few of us are botanists coupled to boggling nomenclature and secondly, the lack of representative, correct scaled materials. Well Iím no botanist although I am involved in manís oldest profession, Agriculture and have done some jungle bashing in my wasted youth so the following will be pretty much layman stuff. It is the intention of this article, that some of the stuff here will hopefully be of some use to anyone interested in doing a tropical jungle or even a Vietnam diorama.
A bit about jungles in general is necessary as a guide in modeling the various plants. The subject is just too huge so Iíve tried to keep out most of the nitty gritty. Tropical jungles irrespective of the region can be broadly split between undisturbed, virgin jungle and secondary or disturbed jungles. Of course jungles could also be differentiated based on rainfall and elevation (i.e. subtropical, lower montane) but the broad classification used here is geared towards dioramas.

Virgin Jungles Characterized by 3-4 tiers or layers. The highest consisting of very tall (200-250ft.), straight trunk trees with generally glossy, small leaf canopies. Branching is restricted to the very tops. The second tier consists of the main bulk of the jungle we would see from an aerial view. Their lush canopies range from 60-150 ft. Here we will also find a fair amount of creepers/lianas competing for light. The 3rd. tier would consist of several saplings and small shrubs and the last tier is the jungle floor littered with a few shade loving, small plants as light penetration is minimal.

Disturbed Jungles More often encountered and which most dios will be based on are jungles that have experienced some logging, farming or natural catastrophe (i.e. typhoon). Here the tiers become indistinguishable and what you get can range from open grasslands interspersed with a few islands of mid-height trees (30-100ft.) as often found in the Central highlands of Vietnam to dense impenetrable jungles ala Hollywood and lowlands/riverine areas of Southern Vietnam. Such jungles will be characterized by plants such as low shrubs, creepers, rattan, bamboo, palms, lianas, yams and tons of saplings. The density is due to availability of sunlight more than the richness of the soil. Tropical soils are relatively nutrient poor. Nutrition is powered by recycling so most jungles have a thick litter. A point to remember when doing the groundwork is the litter (photo #4).

Additional reading and photo references can be found in the Reference section below.

Iíve included 3 photos. They range from secondary jungle (Photo #1) to open grasslands (Photo # 2) to riverine vegetation (Photo #3). Notice that in the photos almost every bit of space tends to be covered as plants compete for light.
II. Layout
As you can see, modeling a 200 ft. tree would mean mounting a 5 foot tree at 1:35 scale. Thus in most cases accurately portraying a virgin jungle tends to be a bit difficult unless itís just to model the 2nd layer or at 1:72. At any rate most dios as mentioned above will occur in disturbed jungles.

There are 3 broad considerations to any jungle layout:

1. Variety.
Tropical jungles as opposed to temperate forests display a wide variety of vegetation often growing side by side in small clumps with the exception being open grasslands where one species/type dominates.

2. Competition
The competition is mainly for sunlight with water & nutrients collectively coming second. As you can see for Photo #4 hardly anything will grow under very heavy shade although moss and fungus can be found under the heavy litter. However, there are plants that are tolerant to moderate shade such as ferns and certain wild yams (see photo #8) which will grow under the shade of taller trees as opposed to grasses dominating open spaces. Itís really a jungle out there as plants try to out-compete each other. The most obvious example is when a tall tree falls an sunlight filters through. Such exposed areas if portrayed in a dio should have large number of saplings, grasses and ferns trying to out-compete each other.

3. Density
Density is often a function of the earlier 2 factors. Thereís also the additional and very obvious consideration governed by the dio itself. Too thick and our figure or AFV would not be visible and too thin would mean it would look like a desert. As a rough guide, determine the needs of the dio first then consider density from the viewpoint as to whether its near a water source (more lush vegetation) or far from it such as a hill top or a farmed or burnt area (lower density & variety).
III. Materials & Methods
By far the toughest subject as the availability and access to materials Iíve used here will vary between countries. Being from a tropical country blessed with an abundance of plant material, Iíve gone largely A La Naturale, in my choice for materials anyway.

The following is a description of materials used to reproduce only a small proportion of the almost infinite species of tropical vegetation. While it is hardly does justice in accurately representing a true tropical jungle, it is a fair compromise. Iíve grouped and reproduced several more common jungle plants based on availability of materials and the ease of making them. Given the variety this article will have to be a 2-parter with this part covering Grasses, Ferns, Wild Yams/Epiphytes & Bamboo only.

Although most of the materials and methods mentioned herein have been found through self experimentation, invariably some are modifications or the actual M & M originated from fellow members here. I will try to mention their names but please forgive me if Iíve left anybody out. It is Truly Not My Intention to plagiarize anybody but rather itís because I may not have come across your post or article. For that I sincerely apologize.

Relatively the ďeasiestĒ to portray. Based on my home country and what Iíve seen while in Central Vietnam, the ďelephant grassĒ so synonymous with Nam pics can be roughly divided into 2 varieties. Pennisetum spp. (seen in the upper right portion of photo #2 with brownish-yellow flowers), which has a growth habit similar to bamboo being sometimes referred to as bamboo grass and Imperata cylindrica (the foreground of photo #2), which is sometimes referred to as Blade grass. The latter has broader leaves with edges that can cause cuts like paper cuts. Grasses tend to thrive mostly in open, sunlit areas.

For me, coconut husks are a wonderful source for grasses. For our temperate based forum members, I would suggest a trip to your neighborhood Oriental store or Chinatown. Ask for a whole coconut rather than the nut. The husk has to be stripped & dried in direct sunlight for about 5-7 days. Depending on how and where you strip the fibers off the inside of the husk you can get variation in the thickness of the ďgrassĒ as shown in photo # 5. The grass to the far left of the photo is from a variety of Bermuda lawn grass that has been dried. Coconut fibers are second from the left and the different thickness of fibers can be used to represent anything from short grasses (bottom of photo #5) to thicker blade grasses with flowers (top of photo). You can also get coconut fibers from certain older type cushions. As a suggestion, you may want to first ask the owner whose favorite couch youíll be ripping up.

Given my cheapo tendencies and the poor exchange rate, Verlinden and Heki are but a dream. Although I have to say the Heki grass used by Csago in his Vietnam SEALS ambush dio (under Vietnam section, Diorama forum) is a dead ringer for a variety of Bamboo grass common to stream/river banks. As for my other cheapo alternative, itís a wood varnish brush and if correctly painted with several shades of green & brown provide a reasonable tall tropical grass (photo #6). Its camel hair and it takes paint well.

Itís the painting that gives the material life. When painting grass its best if the edges of clumps or grass fields be painted light brown to simulate dying or dried grass blades as can be seen in Photo #2. The center of the clump should be a darker shade while a lighter shade should be highlighted at the base and tips of the ďgrassĒ.

Ferns are very common especially under shaded conditions and in wet moist areas (i.e. swamps and river banks). They tend to grow in small clumps rather than singly. Sometimes large clumps can be found too as in swamps. They are ďgiantĒ versions too with small trunks which are for now difficult to make.

Real life ferns are relatively easy to preserve with a glycerin:water combo. I tend to use a 1:10 to 1:20 glycerin:water ratio. Try to pluck them in the morning and pick only healthy looking ones. Wash off any soil, cut off all roots and dip in the glycerin:water mix immediately. Keep in airy place away from direct sunlight for 3-5 days. As water from the plant is lost through transpiration (the plantís equivalent of breathing) it sucks up the glycerin:water mix. Water in the mix gets transpired off eventually leaving the glycerin portion. What glycerin does is replace water in the leaves allowing the leaf to remain supple but in most cases the color is not retained. No big deal coz you can always paint them.

The trick to preserving real vegetation using glycerin is that sometimes the dipped portion of the stem rots and glycerin:water mix doesnít get absorbed. The plant eventually dies because of dehydration. Keep an eye on the dipped portion daily and make a fresh cut removing the old portion if necessary. Having said that not all plants preserve well with glycerin but so far the ferns

Iíve used are still okay (photo #7).

They offer a rough approximation of real ferns especially when the tips of the leaf stem are used and grouped together as seen in the right of Photo #7. The ones found by Kancali comes pretty close to tropical ferns especially those associated with swamps/ponds. Found in the thread below together with Kancaliís pic is also a rather poorly downsized photo by me of a real tropical fern, Nephrolepis bisserata.

Foliage Thread

Wild Yams & Epiphytes
Wild yams (photo #8) are basically tuber plants somewhat like potato and are found like ferns, under semi shade and often in wet places. There are many species and very widespread but the one Iím making here is sometimes called a Giant Yam as it grows to about 3-4 ft. Yams are found often solitary or in groups of 2-3 as in the Giant yam or in very small clumps for shorter varieties.

Yams may be simulated using dried flowers. Most yams have heart-shaped leaves as in the reference photo #9. I use strips of bamboo which have been shaved off a kebab skewer with a sharp blade (center of photo) as the leaf stems. Paint in the veins of the leaves with a lighter or darker shade of green than that used on the leaf (light green for base preferable). The undersides should be much lighter than the leaf tops. Aquarium plants can also be used if theyíre leaves arenít too thick.

Epiphytes are very common tropical plants found usually attached to taller trees or even fallen ones. They are found at the crooks of branches or stuck in the leaf bases of palms but seldom ever on the ground. The one seen in Photo #10 is commonly called Birdís Nest and is one of numerous epiphytes found.

Simplistically put, epiphytes are any plants that uses another to gain a slight advantage (remember Competition) without hurting its host as opposed to parasitic plants. Again dried flowers shaped by scissors or even leaves of preserved ferns can be used. I usually used the leaves of preserved ferns (extreme left of photo #7) as the edges are wavy resembling the real plant. Shape by cutting and place in a whorl of 5-8 leaves. Make sure to put a few crumpled leaves at the base which will be painted grayish brown to simulate dead leaves. Photo #11 is a finished example.

For me nothing represents Nature as well as Nature herself. My method utilizes twigs from a tree called Casuarina or Australian Pine and young shoots from Bermuda grass (a very common lawn grass). Iíve included in the Reference section of a site where you can look it up. In the interest of space and to avoid being too long winded (symptom of aging), Iíve included a link here on Amorama of my SBS description on how itís done.

SBS Thread

Photo #12 shows the varnished & primed (left) and painted stages (right). Iíve included in the top middle of the photo some leaves of dried flowers. I use them very sparingly to simulate the bamboo fine leaves which in reality are less closely packed.

The bottom middle of the photo shows the runners of Bermuda grass that will be inserted at the joints of the bamboo trunk and also used as young bamboo shoots.

While the description is a bit tedious the process is not as bad with a bit of practice. Most of the time is spent in painting especially the joints of the individual sections or culms. Paint a lighter shade of green is a thin band around the joint followed by desert yellow as a thin line to mark the joint. Both the giant and dwarf varieties of bamboo are found in Vietnam with the latter found largely towards the highlands.

Bamboo should always modeled closely grouped with several new bamboo shoots (use young shoots of Bermuda grass) growing closely at the base of the mature ones (photo #13). Bamboo as in bananas grows more readily from rhizomes (runners) or suckers (young banana shoots) which sprout from the base of older stems near the ground.
IV. Additional Considerations
For most of us a jungle is just green but in reality it consists of many shades of green interspersed with various brown shades to the occasional red/orange splotches. Painting a jungle is a bit like weathering an AFV, I guess. Trees will have leaves at various shades of growth and thus display colors of light olive green (young leaves) interspersed between mature leaves of medium green to yellow to brownish grey of decomposing old leaves towards the canopy bottom. Trunks are never uniformly brown and surprisingly enough most are actually shades of grey (a wash will do it). Even litter will have various shades of light brown to dark brown to grey (done easily by highlighting) depending on their state of decomposition.

There is no distinct Autumn period in the tropics although certain tree species do shed their leaves (wintering) in areas with distinct dry periods as in the drier areas of Vietnam. At any rate, evergreen trees normally outnumber these trees unless youíre modeling a rubber plantation in the dry season where the rubber trees defoliate collectively.

While not critical to add all these minute details, I find it adds to the realism of the overall diorama.
V. Conclusion to Part I
Thatís it for Part I anyways. I hope to cover lianas, creepers, bananas, coconuts, palms and shrubs in Part II if forum members find this part useful. Of course, thereís procrastination to contend with too. Feel free to contact me for any additional details or clarifications. I like to wish a big Thank You to the Editor and Staff of Amorama for putting up with a long winded old bum on this article. Hereís hoping to Part II.

1.General info on tropical jungles

2.only for the diehards who love nomenclature & specifics, no photos

3.elephant grass details

4.description of Australian pine with pics

5.a good intro to preserving vegetation

6.a good starting point for bamboo info

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About the Author

About CK Tang (beachbum)

Like most forum members here I started with Airfix, Frog & Matchbox at a time when there was no Internet. From the first time I saw a photo of a vignette on a Ford GPA in a swamp (from Monogram I think), I knew dioramas was the thing for me. However, it took more than a 25-year layoff from modelling...