Balete tree’s eeriness makes it ‘least endangered’ | Inquirer News

Balete tree’s eeriness makes it ‘least endangered’

/ 05:40 AM October 31, 2022

‘A PALACE IN ITSELF’ A resident in Barangay Campalanas in Lazi town, Siquijor province, cleans the surroundings of this “balete” tree believed to be around 400 years old. —INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

‘A PALACE IN ITSELF’ A resident in Barangay Campalanas in Lazi town, Siquijor province, cleans the surroundings of this “balete” tree believed to be around 400 years old. —INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines — Sixteen-year-old Enola (not her real name) recalled how she felt her skin crawl every time she took a peek at the “balete” tree towering a few meters away from her classroom.

It didn’t help when the security guard at her school in General Trias City, Cavite province, warned schoolchildren not to get too close to the tree with the creepy hanging roots because it “ate people up.”


They were told it was the dwelling place of supernatural monsters like the half-man, half-horse “tikbalang” and the tree giant “kapre,” along with the “diwata” (fairy) and “dwende” (dwarf).


One day, Enola saw a “mariposa” butterfly, which seemed bigger than its usual size, fluttering out of the balete’s hollow trunk.

The girl and her classmates crowded around it for a closer look and concluded, as children would, that a diwata must be living inside the balete and shape-shifted into that butterfly.

“Back then, I personally just wanted the tree to be gone so I could get it off my mind,” Enola said.

A staple in horror stories in popular culture and folklore in the Philippines, the balete tree has been the object of fright and fascination among Filipinos for decades, even centuries.

‘White lady’

A popular urban legend about the tree is the two-lane street in New Manila, Quezon City named after it.

A “white lady” is said to stalk unsuspecting motorists passing along Balete Drive, but that story has been retold in many variations as far back perhaps as the 1970s.


One such story, which has prompted fear in some and laughter in others, is about a seemingly distraught woman in white who hails a cab and asks the driver to drop her off at a house along that road.

Upon reaching that destination, the woman asks the driver to wait for her and passes through the side of that house.

After quite a long wait he rings the bell and inquires about his passenger, describing the woman, only to be told that she had long been dead.

Balete Drive has inspired at least two movies about a wronged woman seeking justice from the afterlife, although the street, which intersects some of the busiest thoroughfares in Quezon City, is now lined with condos and various establishments.

In 2005, a barangay official proposed to declare the street a “haunted site,” hoping it would boost local tourism.

At Malacañang, too, a balete tree stands tall in front of the old presidential palace.

In 2011, then President Benigno Aquino III declared it a heritage tree despite stories among Palace staff that it was inhabited by a kapre.

How did such fear of the balete tree start?

‘Residence of spirits’

According to University of the Philippines (UP) anthropology professor Felipe Jocano Jr., this dates back to the Spanish colonial period when priests and friars preached against indigenous religions and superstitious beliefs.

“The tree itself was always regarded as the home of the spirits,” Jocano told the Inquirer, noting that the balete is a known “residence of spirits” based on ancient stories. “Spirit beings were a familiar part of the natural environment,” he said.

In some ways, the fear of the balete has benefited the species, as it has kept humans at bay.

It may well be the reason why it is considered the “least endangered” of all native trees in the country, according to Lillian Rodriguez, an assistant professor of ecology and taxonomy also at UP.

Balete trees help sustain Philippine rainforests, being a source of staple food for hundreds of wildlife species.

“If we have #RiceIsLife, they would have their own hashtag: #FigIsLife,” Rodriguez told the Inquirer in an online interview. “This is particularly evident when you stumble upon a fruiting balete tree in the forest.”


While Filipinos fear the balete tree, the local name of several species of figs from the genus Ficus, its close relative, the banyan tree, or strangler fig, is revered and even worshiped elsewhere, including by Buddhists in parts of Asia, such as Thailand and Cambodia.

They hold the banyan tree in high regard, as it is believed Buddha achieved enlightenment while he was meditating under its shade.

As for the balete, the tree has always been considered to be “connected” to the spiritual world by Filipinos, said Jonathan Carl Salazar, a member of the Philippine Native Tree Enthusiasts, who specializes in the balete.

Salazar said locals had long believed that cutting down the tree would require a “sacrifice” — often the life of the perpetrator.

Others say that playing around the balete tree or making noise in the vicinity might disturb the creatures lurking inside.

“For me, we should also hold the balete trees in high regard to prevent any threats,” Salazar said.

One way of giving respect to the balete tree would be to utter the words “tabi tabi po” or “excuse me,” he said, “so as not to experience any supernatural effects.”

‘Strangled to death’

Under folk traditions, the balete tree is seen as a “palace in itself,” Jocano said, as those taken or lost in it were bound to enter a “totally different world.”

Deep in the forest, the balete tree is clearly distinguishable from other trees, making it easy to locate for birds and insects that look at it as food source.

While myths surrounding the balete may not be grounded in science, its biological life cycle may qualify as a horror story of its own.

As hemi-epiphytic plants, the balete tree starts as a seed on a tree branch up in the forest canopy, according to Rodriguez.

As it grows, the tree continues to shoot its roots down to the ground, giving it its distinct appearance, she said.

Once they reach the forest floor, the roots receive “more nutrition” from the soil, eventually thickening enough to “suffocate” the host tree, Rodriguez said. The host tree begins to wither and die because of “indirect competition.”

“This is why the insides of mature balete trees are hollow because there was once a tree inside the center of the balete,” she explained.

This may be the scientific reason for Filipinos’ fear of the balete tree, “because life was once inside it but the balete tree strangled it to death.”

Like all fig trees, the balete has white sap or “dagta,” which Rodriguez said contains plenty of chemical compounds that are proven to be antibacterial and antimicrobial.

Traditionally, these fig species are used to cure small open wounds, with its leaves and the bark having the greatest concentration of antimicrobial compounds, she said.

But no specific studies have been done yet in the country as to the possible medicinal use of balete’s components, except for other Ficus species like the Ficus septica (“hauli”) and Ficus nota (“tibig”), according to Rodriguez.

The ecology professor said it was “fortunate” that Filipinos feared the native tree.

‘We let them be’

“We leave them as is. We refrain from cutting them, thinking we might offend the spirits living inside these trees,” she said. “As a result, we preserve their diversity. We let them be and they continue providing food for our native fauna.”

But Rodriguez said such treatment should extend to other tree species, as she called on the government to “put its foot down” on illegal logging, especially within the country’s protected areas.

“Commercialism and greed know no bounds,” Rodriguez lamented. “Habitat conversion and illegal logging will always be huge threats to all our trees, the balete trees included,” she said.

Time may also not be on the side of the balete tree.

As modernity creeps into the country’s forests, chipping away at the mystique that once protected the balete, the legends surrounding the scary tree are fading away, too.

Soon, the balete tree may grow more and more vulnerable to exploitation, according to Jocano.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

“Nowadays,” he said, “with a more materialistic worldview, these trees and places no longer evoke the same fear as they did in the past, thus endangering them.”


In Pangasinan, ‘love affair’ with native trees blooms

DENR vows to protect Cordillera’s 616 million trees

Is planting trees the best way to tackle heatwaves?

TAGS: Balete

© Copyright 1997-2024 | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.