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Gifts that give

The sunflowers are out at UP Diliman. These flowers were first planted as a kind of gift for our graduating students, but now they’re an annual treat for the general public, who flock to our campus for photoshoots.

I have been asked why we don’t make it a yearlong activity, and why we don’t save the seeds to sell.

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My answer to the first question: It’s expensive planting the sunflowers, what with the cost of the seeds, fertilizers and irrigation, especially this time around with our water shortage.

To the second question about saving the seeds to sell with the tatak UP (UP brand), I’m afraid we (UP Diliman and UP Los Baños) haven’t figured this out yet. We get our seeds from a supplier; these seeds, which are imported, are hybrids and cannot be harvested to plant a new crop.

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Now, the idea of “UP heritage seeds” or heritage plants has crossed my mind many times, and I have asked our gardener to start with the Balay Tsanselor, the house assigned to me.

I was finally spurred to do that when one of my colleagues, Dr. Lourdes Nepomuceno, sent me avocados, which she described as “coming from a hundred-year-old tree” in her garden. Stupid me asked her if I could get seeds, and she reminded me the avocados she sent have the seeds!

We really should do more of giving plants as gifts to our friends, accompanied by a note explaining where the plant came from and why you chose it. Some of my friends have been doing that, explaining that the trees came from their garden or farm.

If you know a folktale behind the plant, include it as well. Here’s one for a start. Some years back I read that the frangipani, a flowering tree that grows easily from a cutting, is a sentimental symbol, given to someone about to embark on a long journey. Once the destination is reached, the frangipani is planted, to serve as a reminder of the homeland and the loved one.

The frangipani is better known in the Philippines as kalatsutsi, and although it is sometimes associated with the dead, rethink it as a romantic plant when you send cuttings to friends—and that special friend.

You don’t have to limit yourself to trees and shrubs. Herbs are truly gifts that give because, properly cared for, they just keep growing, giving you leaves for teas, for cooking, for fragrance and room fresheners. The prices of Mediterranean varieties like rosemary and lavender have gone down through the years.

Talking about herbs, did you know the banana plant is actually an herb? Bananas, the fruit or the plant, are excellent gifts (okay, I know what some of you are thinking of in terms of its symbolism), and I mean the local varieties. On the way to Tagaytay, you can pick up a bunch of señoritas for less than a hundred pesos—small but exquisite bananas, so unlike the big but bland Cavendish that so many supermarkets and restaurants now offer.  A real treat, but not easy to find, is the Morado (also known as Gloria and raines na pula), which is huge and sweet.

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Go local to educate fellow Filipinos about our own plants.

There’s batuan, a tree that yields a small fruit which is excellent for sinigang, and very different from sampalok (tamarind). Then there’s the himbabao, the fruits of which look like caterpillars without heads. Ilokanos love using the fruit, called alukon, for cooking.

Last year, I told Imee Martinez, who is UP Diliman’s international linkages director, about how much I liked the kinilaw (ceviche) from northern and western Mindanao, its main secret being the fruit of a tree called tabon-tabon. Imee sent me several of the tabon-tabon but, alas, getting the fruits to germinate, and the seedlings to thrive, is a major challenge.

I’ll end with “the end”: Do consider giving live flowering plants, instead of cut ones, to bereaved families. The flowers will live for a few more days, even weeks in the case of orchids, and will bloom again.

Consider buying plants to comfort yourself when you lose a loved one. I had Phalaenopsis orchids for my father’s funeral when he passed away in March last year. I brought them home and the flowers faded after about a month but bloomed again in June, a few days after my mother passed away. Plants give life, in death.

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