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Horticultural nationalism

A page of the book that features the flowers of the Kapa-kapa or Medinilla magnifica

I must thank my friend Imelda “Ime” Sarmiento for this most welcome copy of a long-awaited book, Philippine Native Trees 202: Up Close and Personal, published by Green Convergence for Safe Food, Healthy Environment and Sustainable Economy together with Hortica Filipina Foundation Inc. — as a sequel to Native Trees 101 which came out three years ago.

Once again, carefully culled and presented are species of native trees, this time totaling 123 as compared to the first book’s 108, that deserve to be recognized, appreciated, and propagated. Native can be either indigenous or endemic, both meaning that they’re found in our country, the last with the added distinction of being confined to or found only in our country.

The project team includes Marietta Marciano as editor, Domingo Madulid, Ph. D. as botanic editor/consultant, Sylvia Mesina as researcher, and Raymund Villanueva as copy editor.

The foreword is written by Oscar Lopez, chair of the Lopez Group Foundation Inc., a major sponsor for both books, which are printed by ABS-CBN Publishing Inc. Mr. Lopez offers:

“The first essential step towards saving our forests and our biodiversity is for us to be able to appreciate our trees, to learn more about them, and to fall in love with them, and having done so, to protect and preserve them.”

In the Preface written by Green Convergence president Angelina Galang, one of the project coordinators together with Leonor Garcia Berroya and Hortica Filipinas Foundation Inc.’s Imelda Sarmiento, the concern is expressed:

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“Our ecosystems have developed from our natural physical endowments. It is the ‘togetherness’ of the biodiversity in these ecosystems that sustains this integrity. When alien species are introduced, deliberately or inadvertently, into these communities of flora and fauna, they often out-compete the native species for resources and often cause the extinction of our own. The natural interaction and the natural food web are disturbed, affecting likewise the water cycle and other ecological processes.”

For her part, Imelda Sarmiento explains in her Introduction: “The task we set for ourselves — ‘storifying’ our memories of native trees to keep them alive and relevant — impels us to go much farther on this path. As in our first book, we offer you more than a hundred stories of personal reminiscences of how our native trees nurtured us and became part of our lives.”

Thus, each of the 123 species is presented not only in terms of photographs and boxed texts with identificatory info — from familiar name to eco class to distribution and characteristics, as well as identifying “the botanists who are credited to have named and registered their plant discovery” — but also charmingly, with personal stories, mostly from non-botanists, that wrap around these trees.

For instance, Gloria Angara writes of the Tanglin tree:

“As good friends enthusiastically and literally dug into the soil at our Nasugbu, Batangas farm to create a native tree park, they were actually creating a ‘garden of memories’ for me — for every close friend a quietly beautiful native tree was being planted to mark our friendship.

“During that warm April afternoon, my husband and I each planted a Tanglin, a tree of which we knew practically nothing! Was it really endemic? Even with an exotic sounding Asian ring to its name? Indeed, the Tanglin Club founded by the British Community in 1865 in nearby Singapore came to mind….

“Since April, the Tanglin saplings at my Garden of Memories in Nasugbu have grown steadily and swiftly, notwithstanding the devastating storms and strong winds which had buffeted our Batangas farm. Again, a good argument for planting trees is their inborn native tenacity and special God-given purposes in their native soil!”

She has another entry, on the Igem-dagat (Podocarpus costalis), which also draws a memory piece from agriculturist and horticultural plant breeder Fernando B. Aurigue.

Former National Museum director Corazon Alvina has pieces on the Akle and Akleng parang. “There are ten native species of Albizia or Albizzia in the country. Like the akle, Aklang parang glories in the sun. But unlike the slow growing akle, the Akle of ‘open space’ (parang) is a speedy grower, and thus a favorite for reforestation. Its flowers are similar to those of the makahiya or mimosa, except for the color. The makahiya has bright magenta flowers, while the Akleng parang’s are light-colored to white, but — surprise! — both blossoms are quite fragrant. In fact, one of the most fascinating bottled scents to have come out of a French perfumery is called Mimosa.

“I have to look for an Akleng parang in full bloom, get a ladder and sniff.”

Other writers include Oscar Lopez (on the Malabulak), botanist and professor Domingo Madulid (on the Agoho Palawan, Tinikaran and Zambales Pitogo), horticulture writer and bonsai culture specialist Serapion Metilla on “The Transformation of My Makulot Tree,” former Congressman Felicito “Tong” Payumo (on the Bayag-Usa), former DENR secretary Victor Ramos (on the Dapdap), writer Ester Dipasupil (on Lanzones), and writer-journalist Karla Delgado with an ender of a piece titled “May You Grow Strong and Live Strong.”

Grade 8 sudent Alexandra Ma. Beatrice Lopez contributes a poem on the Balete titled “Mystery, Magnificence and Magic.” Ten-year-old Czarina Agustines has a brief piece on “My Brothers’ Bignay,” while her 12-year-old twin brothers Xavier and Alejandro also contribute short pieces: “In Search of a Tree” and “My Favorite Tree,” respectively. They join their mother, writer-educator Maria Milagros G. Agustines, who writes on the Bignay Pugo.

The book also includes a starting section that serves as a well-deserved paean to uber botanist Leoncio Co, who became an unfortunate victim in the hands of murderous men in our mountains. The legendary forester’s daughter, former classmate, friend, and a mentee each write lovingly of their memories of the extraordinary man who “was always unselfish with his knowledge” and “who did his work because he loved plants and… felt that studying the native flora was his way of showing his love for his country.”

Over a hundred writers and scores of photographers contribute to this invaluable, full-color book of 376 pages, definitely a collectible. There is much to laud regarding the motivation, conception, and unified thematic drive behind this book. It is obviously a labor of love — and nationalism.

Now, on that score, let me get onto another tack, even at the risk of offending (I hope not) the zealous nationalists whose pride in our patrimony makes them take the stand that they do — with regard “exotic” or imported species.

I have a true Brazilian annatto on our narrow streetside garden. I’ve planted neem trees, the Indian tree, the flame tree, a golden shower, a traveler’s palm, a podocarpus — all considered exotics or non-natives. 

In the mid-1990s when we moved to a gated village, the streets were mostly lined with acacia mangium, and I delighted in their small but plentiful yellow flowers that were in frequent bloom. True enough, as the years went by, their number decreased. There may be some truth to the assertion, often made in this book, that certain species don’t quite fit our urban setting, and that some can actually be invasive.

But it’s also a fact, as stated in Wikipedia, that “In Malaysia, A. mangium is a widely planted roadside tree, and in Thailand, it is recommended for wider use in urban forestry.”

I’m aware of the nay-saying over the Bilar man-made forest in Bohol, where 10 hectares of mahogany were planted, and which reputedly led to a “biodiversity-dead zone (where) there are no birds, no insects, only a nearly dead soil due to the lethal chemicals that leak from the rotting leaves” — per thelighttraveler blog.

Then there are all the alarums that have recently been raised against the donation and planting of Japanese cherry trees in what is envisioned to become a sakura park in Atok, Benguet. Here the concerns strike me as likely unfounded.

Non-native tree species are known to have been successfully introduced all over the world. It’s been over a century since a Tokyo Mayor gifted Washington D.C. with 3,020 cherry trees, and each year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates this historic gift of friendship — attracting thousands of visitors. A hundred of these original trees still stand, steadfast in their provision of aesthetic delight.

In my view, something can always be said about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, as against the heart of the nationalist. Like the sakura with all of its varieties, jacarandas have been dispersed all over from its original habitat in Central America. Pretoria in South Africa has become known as “The Jacaranda City,” and similar displays of arboreal aesthetics have been developed in many Australian cities. (Decades ago, I bought a jacaranda seedling at a German conservation plot in Baguio and planted it outside our cabin in Bangaan off Sagada.)

I have nothing against taking pride in our own, but if nationalism is to be wielded as a defensive weapon of outright exclusion of tree species that do delight the eyes as ornamentals, then I’ll have to give it a second thought.  

In this book, Jurgenne H. Primavera, obviously a much accomplished scientist judging from her credentials (Scientist Emerita, SEAFDEC Aquaculture Department; Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation; co-Chair, IUCN Mangrove Specialist Group; and Chief Mangrove Scientific Advisor, Zoological Soxiety of London) argues: “The rightful place for exotic trees, such as neem, mahogany, gmelina, mangium and eucalyptus is only in commercial plantations for eventual harvest and sale (for lumber, pulp, etc.). They should never be planted in watersheds for rehabilitation and biodiversity, nor along highways and in town plazas for shade. Only native trees deserve such special niches.”

I won’t argue with this, even if that last sentence betrays the usual emotional chord of nationalism. What makes town plazas “special niches”? Oh, okay, they usually have a statue of Rizal. So I’ll grant that: such areas are to be reserved for pride of place. But I can’t join in the condemnation of urban landscapists who choose to bring in exotic palms to prettify a setting.

If this tight defense of our national landscape had been applied centuries ago, then we’d never have gloried in the beauty of the acacia, the fire tree, the golden shower, the plumeria or kalachuchi, let alone profited from the produce of the kapok tree, the ipil-ipil, the guava, chico or sapodilla, atis or custard-apple, avocado, jackfruit, breadfruit, cashew, sineguelas, camachile — all of which were introduced from Latin America.   

Also from Wikipedia: “The effects of introduced species on natural environments have gained much scrutiny from scientists, governments, farmers and others…. (T)he fact of the matter is that organisms have and continue to be introduced to areas in which they are not native, sometimes with but usually without much regard to the harm that could result.” But it’s also been argued that “‘invasive’ is a loaded word and harm is difficult to define.”

In brief, the jury is still out on whether extreme horticultural nationalism stands to reason. Pardon this counter-sentiment. It shouldn’t detract from the obvious wonders offered by Philippine Native Trees 202 — which can only merit a loud and resonant Bravo! And oh yes, how I’d love to have a taste of that Gumihan fruit in Bulusan.

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