The Philippines has been making it to international news with our “plantdemic,” a new word used to describe people discovering the joys of gardening during the pandemic. The trend has generated additional terms to describe the gardening enthusiasts, taking off from our Spanish-Filipino words for uncles and aunts to produce “plantitos” and “plantitas.”
This plantdemic is actually global, and has been reported to be quite widespread among urban dwellers, including people living in very limited spaces like apartments and condos and even in our slums.
It’s a good development, part of the One Health that I wrote about last week, recognizing the interconnections of the health of humans, animals, and the environment. For our heavily polluted cities, plants are important for the population at large, with benefits filtering down to individual homes. Plants pick up our waste gas carbon dioxide and give us back oxygen in a kind of year-round monito-monita gift exchange.
In the context of COVID-19, our need to plant probably wasn’t just because we had idle time. There’s something about having plants around in times of stress, and there are science articles that attribute this to our evolution, with greenery stimulating diverse emotions in humans. Which is why all across cultures we find plants figuring as important gifts used to celebrate, to comfort, even to court someone.
Note that the emotions triggered seem to cut across cultures, but the kind of plants to give are pretty much culturally determined. For example, in the Philippines you don’t give kalatsutsi (frangipani) to someone you’re courting, because the flowers are associated with the dead. Stick to orchids, although again people are often unaware that the name of the plant is from the Greek orchis, which means the testes. The Greeks swore on their testes and, in modern times, we swear our love using the flowers instead.
Sadly, we caught international attention because our plantdemic has been associated with an increase in plant poaching. Endangered plants are being illegally gathered from the wild and sold at very high prices to plantitos and plantitas who are after the social prestige of having these expensive plants.
The list of threatened plant species is a long one, including ferns, orchids, pitcher plants, and other forest species now coveted as ornamentals for our homes. Note that gathering plants in forests now requires a permit, with heavy penalties for plant poachers. The memorandum order listing endangered plants can be downloaded here: http://bit.ly/DENRThreatenedPHPlants
When you think about it though, why pay through your nose for these threatened species when gardening should be something enjoyable, whether for ornamentals, food (vegetables), and even medicines?
The threatened forest species often die when brought to our toxic cities, so there goes your money. The joys of gardening come with low cost or even free plants.
Convert gardening into an educational experience with your homebound kids as they watch plants sprout. Go beyond mongo seeds. For example, try calamansi seeds to sprout little ornamentals in small pots.
Raid the kitchen for potatoes and gingers that are sprouting from “eyes.” And one of the sturdiest and best-tasting vegetables is alugbati, which survives even after you buy it from the market. Just stick the vegetable into soil and it will grow like Jack’s beans. When you serve the alugbati to guests, you might want to use its sosyal name, as it appeared during a banquet some years back for Asia-Pacific heads of state: Malabar spinach. (Kangkong you can call river spinach—avoid its other name, swamp cabbage.)
Remember the song with the lines parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme? Yes, together with lavender, they’re aromatic and nice to grow, but you need to be extra careful not to water them too much or leave them out in the rain.
Easier are local medicinal plants, including the 10 approved by the Health Department as proven safe and effective. While in Western countries medicinal plants are usually small herbs, ours go from small spices to large trees: bawang, sambong, tsaang gubat, akapulko, yerba buena, ampalaya, ulasimang bato, bayabas, niyug-niyugan. Throw in an 11th, pansit-pansitan, which was approved more recently.
All 11 are easy to find, but niyug-niyugan is an expensive ornamental, better known among plantitos and plantitas as Rangoon creeper, which, with market prices going over a thousand pesos, just doesn’t make it cost-effective as a medicine for intestinal worms.
Oh, and throw away those expensive supplements, which are just pulverized plants given fancy names with outrageous claims.
With Christmas around the corner, consider growing your gifts now.
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