‘Once upon a time’ book

/ 01:42 PM July 09, 2013

Leaf through the new book “Philippine Native Trees 101.” Early on, you’ll find that it measures up to the subtitle: “Up Close and Personal.”

In one of the book’s 137 personal accounts, dzUP reporter Raymund Villanueva recalls how Typhoon Ondoy ripped Luzon in September 2009, killing 747 and inflicting US $1.09 billion in damages. In barangay Bagong Silangan, Quezon City , 36 persons, including a two-week-old baby escaped drowning. How?


They clambered up a dita tree and perched on its branches “from 10 that morning to 3 dawn the next day. Flood waters were still waist deep” when they inched down. Amidst the ruins, the tree towered unscathed. “My vote is for more dita trees in our cities.”

Hortica Filipina Foundation and Green Convergence published this book which depicts 108 of over 3,000 native species. They range from the critically endangered “Starburst” or “Bagawak Morado” to the “the Landscaping World’s Toast”: “lubi-lubi or niyog-niyogan.”


Stunning photos illustrate the book. They include Ilocos Norte’s “loktob” to kamalan of Isabela. Many were culled from archives of the late Leonardo Co, foremost Filipino authority in ethnobotany.

Co was doing research in Kananga Leyte on Nov. 15, 2010. The 16th Infantry Battalion troops claimed it engaged communist rebels then. Co was killed with his guides. An independent mission led by physicist Dr. Giovanni Tapang reports there was no firefight. Gunfire originated from the military. The Department of Justice filed homicide raps against two officers and eight enlisted men. It was murder, Co’s family protested.

Typhoons Yoling to Juaning confirmed Leonardo Co’s advocacy for native trees. Only native trees like igot and pili survived. Hortica Filipina Foundations’ Imelda Sarmiento writes in the preface, “When asked for names of our native trees, most stop at narra.”

Few know that 67 percent of native trees are found nowhere else. “Where are they now?” Sarmineto asks. “For years, I planted acres of alien species at La Mesa dam, Tarlac and around the metropolis.” Such programs wrecked biodiversity pools by foisting ill-suited alien tree species.

“Native Trees 101” will “hardly rectify some of environmental wrongs we’ve done,” Sarmiento adds. “But it is a start… towards reintroducing our own trees to our own people.”

“So, what’s wrong with our molave?” we asked 11 years back. Vitex parviflora is Philippine mahogany. It is legendary choice for altars, mansion posts, even handles for the Moro kris, that Jan. 12, 2002 column noted. Who grouses about “tindalo?” Tough wood from afzelia rhomobodia encases fragments of the original cross that Ferdinand Magellan planted on Cebu ‘s seashore in 1521.

Indigenous trees, however, are given short shrift within many reforestation programs. Too many re-foresters work by the yardstick that holds: “Imported is sikat (tops).” Cash, time and effort are funneled into monoculture plantations, sown to nine “introduced exotics.” These include gemelina and teak from India; Malaysia’s labang or candlenut tree; mahogany from Central America .


“Monoculture of exotics is of low diversity,” Franz Seidenschwarz of Munich University told a University of San Carlos forum in 2002. They’re so unlike the original and mixed forests of Cebu. Instead, a blinkered preference for imports denigrates native trees.

As a result, the genetic base of plantations are constricted. Worse, it opens windows of vulnerability to disease. “Valuable native species are thinning,” cautioned Seidenschwarz, who is married to a Filipina.

Non botanists stitched “Philippine Native Trees 101” together for non botanists. It breaks from rigid academic formats. Contents follow nature’s contours instead. There’s a chapter on “A Mangrove Eco-Park,” another on “Coastal and Beach Trees” to “Mainstreaming Native Trees in Urban Greening.”

“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it,” political theorist Johanna “Hannah” Arendt wrote. Indeed “Once upon a time” remains the time-tested tool for teaching. Personal accounts are a unique mark of this book. Examples:

On a Sierra Madre Range, botanist Ulysses Ferras was taken ill. The nearest hospital was a day’s trek away. Dumagat guides stripped bark from the kalingag tree and brewed a crude jungle tea. That enabled Ferras to complete the month-long study mission

Five years later, an endoscopy revealed Ferras had hiatal hernia and is under medication. “I look back in wonder how that medicinal tree sustained me.”

“It was love at first sight,” wrote Jo Conseulo Quimpo, conservationist. “Why a tree that rivals Japan’s cherry blossoms is called “balai lamok” (or house of mosquitoes) baffles. Sacred garlic pear or salingbobog once dotted Mother Ignacia Street in Quezon City. Mid-April, it explodes in colored flowers that last much longer than cherry blossoms. Yet it has not been cultivated by local horticulturists for urban landscaping.”

“In two years, I’ll be 100 years old,” writes Teofista Zuñiga of Virac Catanduanes. There are 24 children in her four-generation family. “In childhood, Catanduanes did not suffer from typhoons of today’s standard. In my mid-life, storms were annual guests. In my twilight years, there’ve been fewer storms.

“But some things don’t change.” The “anonang tree remained constant. For our fevers, pounded anonang leaves were applied. Its juice became our paste. After Catanduanes’ fiercest storms, coconut trees were strewn all over. But native trees like igot, pili and the anonang remain standing” – once upon a time.

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