When you open the recently launched book “Philippine Native Trees 101: Up Close and Personal,” you may be surprised to discover that it lists 108 trees. This isn’t a typographical error because the 101 in the title is a reference to catalogue numbers of introductory college courses: History 101, Psychology 101, Literature 101. The final grade you got for such a course or who your teacher was indicates whether you remember the course with hate or affection.
I took botany in college and that killed what little interest I had in plants. We were quizzed on species and genus, we were asked to identify monocots and dicots, we went around the laboratory for exams, peering into microscopes at magnified leaves or cross-sections of fruit and flowers. A student’s interest largely depends on the teacher, and if I had someone like National Scientist Benito Vergara, Domingo Madulid, or the late lamented Leonard Co, I would perhaps be a botanist rather than a historian today.
The book describes 108 native trees that we have forgotten about because they have been replaced by fancy imported trees. The 108 trees highlighted in the book were photographed in the urban jungle, not in a rainforest or an arboretum. These are a mere 108 of 3,600 native trees identified, and of these 3,600 about 67 percent are endemic to the Philippines. In other words, they are found only in the Philippines and should proudly be referred to as Philippine trees rather than mere “native” trees that make them appear less desirable or inferior to foreign or imported trees. The book is readable because it is written for a general reader, not the specialist who prefers “pterocarpusindicus” to something everyone knows as “narra.”
I read the book from cover to cover because it is a book of memory, a book that draws out childhood memories of trees that should not just be a memory but should still be seen in our backyards, streets and parks. The book reminded me of the trees of my childhood. I was too young to appreciate the trees of Area 3 in the University of the Philippines’ Diliman campus where my parents first lived, but I recall having a lone coconut tree in our garden in Philam Homes Quezon City. There was an isis tree in the garage that was harvested for the sandpaper-like leaves used to scour the pots and pans in our kitchen. There was an atis tree in a neighbor’s yard whose branches crossed over the wall into our own yard and provided my mother with sweet fruit. When the neighbor complained, my mother replied that the branches were trespassing on our property and that the fruit deserved to be picked and eaten by her.
Many years later when my parents had gone up in the world, we moved from the noise and dust of Edsa to the quiet, gated community called Forbes Park that had trees everywhere, even in its streets’ names: Agoho, Banaba, Ipil, Molave, Lumbang, Narra, Pili and Tanguile. Our garden had fruit-bearing mango trees of the apple and Indian varieties that were so prized by my mother that we had to restrain her from shooting the birds or poisoning the squirrels that got to the fruit before she did. There was a duhat tree tucked away in the back of the property that produced the biggest, sweetest fruit I have known—again all monopolized by my mother who claimed it was a remedy for her diabetes. Then there was the kaimito tree on another side of the property whose sweetest fruit strayed into Washington SyCip’s property, to be promptly picked by his security guards and household help. This was my mother’s karma for all the atis she took from our Quezon City neighbor years ago.
When I learned to drive, I discovered that streets named after trees were not confined to Forbes Park but were also found elsewhere in Makati: Bagtikan, Bangkal, Kamagong, Palosapis and Catmon. When I went to college, I found trees in Quezon City streets like Kamuning and some UP dorms like Yakal and Narra.
“There the delicious ates displayed its delicate fruit and lowered its branches to save me the effort of reaching for them; the sweet santol, the scented and honeyed tampoy, the pink macopa competed as my favorites. Farther away, the ciruelo, the harsh but flavored casuy, the beautiful tamarindo, equally pleasing to the eye and delightful to the palate. Here the papaya spread its broad leaves attracting birds with its enormous fruit. There the nangca, the cafetero, and the naranjo, that perfumed the air with the aroma of their flowers. On this side are the iba, the balimbing, the granado with its thick foliage and lovely flowers that enchant the senses. Here and there were found elegant and majestic palmeras loaded with large nuts, swaying its proud crown and beautiful fronds, the mistresses of the forests. Ah! It would be endless if I were to enumerate all our trees and entertain myself in naming them!”
Many of the trees described by Rizal above are foreign trees. Philippine trees have been disappearing since his time, and with them the insects and birds that found a home in their branches. Rizal described the birds in their backyard: “the yellow culilan, the maya of different varieties, the culae, the maria-capra, the martin, all the species of pipit.”
We rarely see birds in the city today, or crickets and fireflies that form part of childhood memory. If Philippine trees are propagated, then the former ecosystem will not just be a memory but will come alive again.
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