What we don’t know about our native trees

PASSAGE - Ed Maranan (The Philippine Star) - November 27, 2015 - 9:00am

Did you know that there are more than 3,600 species of native trees in the Philippines, of which 67 percent are endemic to, or existing only in the Philippines? This much we learned when Philippine Native Trees 101: Up Close and Personal was published three years ago, showcasing just a hundred and eight out of these thousands of valuable trees most of us were probably not even aware of.

How many among us could count on our 10 fingers the number of native trees we know? And could we even properly describe the appearance, the color of the flowers, the properties (medicinal and other uses), of just one of the trees we’re most familiar with? It would be a pity indeed if our knowledge of Philippine trees were limited to street signs bearing their names, such as in certain districts in Quezon City and Caloocan (kamuning, kamias, anonas, marang, kupang, mabolo, balete, mulawin, santol) or in a famous gated community in Makati (pili, banaba, balete, narra, mahogany, tamarind, calumpang, caballero).

But who knows anything factual or useful about almon, anilaw, akleng parang, bagalunga, bagawak, balinghasay, balobo, banay-banay, dagwey, digeg, and more than a hundred other native trees?

Thanks to a network of advocates whose main concern is promoting the integrity of the country’s endangered biodiversity, we now have a painstakingly researched and engagingly written series of guides to one of the greatest remaining natural resources we have: native trees. The second book has just come out, aptly titled Philippine Native Trees 202: Up Close and Personal, with 123 trees profiled in essays written by a diverse group of mainly “non-botanists writing for non-botanists,” some of them being veteran writers and teachers, but everyone definitely an environmentalist by heart.

One particular tree, the bignay pugo, is even given a special treatment because a team of four was tasked to write about it: an educator, Maria Milagros Agustines, and her 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old sons, “who always remind her to stop and smell the flowers.” The balete has a lyrical-philosophical poem written about it by a precocious eight-year-old student from Beacon School, Alexandra Beatrice Lopez. Veteran advocates or enthusiastic aficionados, the contributors to this valuable book are decidedly passionate about trees and plants as a basic necessity for the enhancement of human life through their aesthetic attraction and practical benefits (nutrition and health, habitation and soil protection, transport and construction, among others).

With full-page color photographs of native trees, or close-ups of their component parts, flowers and fruits, this 370-plus-page compendium is another stunning achievement by the Green Convergence for Safe Food, Healthy Environment and Sustainable Economy, and the Hortica Filipina Foundation, with funding for research and publication provided by the Lopez Group Foundation Inc., part of the Lopez Group of Companies, whose subsidiary, the Energy Development Corporation, is undertaking a 10-year nationwide reforestation program called BINHI (seed).

The front part of the book has a foreword by Oscar M. Lopez, chairman of the Lopez Group Foundation Inc. and a former director of Conservation International; a preface by Dr. Angela P. Galang, president of Green Convergence; and an introduction by Imelda P. Sarmiento, managing director of Hortica Filipina. What they have written are not platitudes or general statements about the importance of the book. They go into the nitty-gritty of why trees are important to human life, and the future of our country. Lopez gives the dismal statistics leading down to the ominous seven percent remaining forest cover. Galang enumerates the life-giving properties and uses of trees, and describes the contours of the Philippine ecosystem. Sarmiento discusses the background and rationale for this book project, and holds out the hope that more are forthcoming.

The first part of the book sets the tone and reveals the inspiration for this undertaking. The book is a virtual tribute to Leonard Co, the celebrated and internationally known botanist who identified and named thousands of plants in several Philippine forests, “a veritable walking encyclopedia on the taxonomy of Philippine flora”, writes Lopez in his foreword. The opening chapter, “Who is Leonard Co?”, features reminiscences of the legendary naturalist by his daughter, Linnaea Marie Flores Co; a classmate in UP, Ma. Elena M. Ragragio; a friend, Norberto Chingcuangco; and a student, Ulysses Ferreras.

I asked Imelda Sarmiento of Hortica Filipina about the number of native tree species in the Philippines. Her answer:

“As our botanists would say, it depends on what book you are reading! But we used the figure 3,600 for the total number of native tree species that we have.  We are still discovering many, but there could also be a number dying out on us even before we could discover them.  When you say a flora or fauna is native, there are two ecological classifications: indigenous species (like narra, molave, kamagong, banaba and talisay) are native to our country but are also native to other countries especially those within our climatic zone. When a species is endemic, then it is only native or existing in our country (i.e, katmon, pili, lipote, mangkono, and others). Out of all our native tree species, 67 percent are endemic.”

Philippine Native Trees 202: Up Close and Personal was launched several weeks ago without much fanfare in a small gathering at the Lopez Museum. There will be an official book launching and press conference on Dec. 11 at Fully Booked, Bonifacio Global City.

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