Reforest mountains with fire trees and their kind | Inquirer Opinion
As I See It

Reforest mountains with fire trees and their kind

/ 12:10 AM April 23, 2014

The fire trees are beginning to bloom—no better sign that summer is here in full force.  Along the highways and roadsides, in parks and in private yards, you see them from a distance, a red streak on top of the tree line. As you come nearer, you see the reason for its name: The whole tree seems to be on fire. Moses probably witnessed a similar sight when he saw the burning bush on Mount Sinai.

I have four fire trees in our yard: two in front, one at the back, and one in the middle. As the days get hotter, the trees begin to lose their leaves, as most trees do when they are about to bloom. Then buds appear and soon burst open, and the first hint of red appears as the first tiny petals shyly open, like a girl at her first prom. Then more buds appear and more red petals wave in the breeze.

The tree at the back, the biggest and the oldest, is always the first to bloom. I planted that one myself, from a sapling given by the Bureau of Forestry, when the house was newly-built. Then the two in front, not to be left behind, follow suit.

A story goes with these two fire trees, also planted from saplings given by the bureau. When they were big enough and ready to bloom, a strong typhoon hit Metro Manila. As the strong winds battered all the trees around, I saw through the front window the branches of the two trees bowing and swaying, trying to fight the wind. Then I heard a loud “craaack,” and when I looked out the window again, the trees lay across the street like Manny Pacquiao after receiving that right-hand punch from Juan Manuel Marquez.

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The workers came to clear the street as soon the winds died down. They chopped off the top branches, and then a wonderful thing happened. The two trees, which were growing side by side, began to stand up like a groggy boxer, with a loud creaking sound as if their roots were complaining. We did nothing more after the trees were standing up again. We thought they would die from the damage wrought by the storm.

But two weeks later, we saw buds sprouting out where the branches used to be.

We felt sorry for, and at the same time proud of, the trees for their spunk. How they wanted to live so much.

Soon the buds opened, and became twigs that grew into branches. Now the trees are full-grown again, although their trunks are much bigger than the upper branches.

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One summer, I saw the first tinge of red on the branches. The tinge became redder as the buds opened into full-blown blossoms. Those trees have been blooming for several summers now.

The fire tree in the middle is the youngest, a sapling from the Manila Seedling Bank. It was planted there to provide shade in the big lawn. Now it is fully grown and beginning to blossom.

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Every summer, when all four trees are blooming, the whole yard seems to be on fire.  One summer, when I was returning home from a vacation, I looked out the window as our plane was coming in for a landing at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The plane swooped low over our subdivision and there below, the four fire trees were waving their red blossoms as if welcoming us.

I have a suggestion to the Bureau of Forestry. Instead of planting seedlings of hardwoods like narra and molave to reforest our denuded mountains, why not plant fire trees?  While narra, molave, yakal and other hardwoods command a high price in the market, they are slow-growing. On the other hand, fire trees (local name: caballero) and other leguminous trees like the acacia, ipil-ipil, kakawati, and tamarind, although their wood is soft, are fast-growing. They become full-grown in five years whereas the hardwoods take 10 years or more to mature.

What’s more, their leaves, being rich in nitrogen, make for good fertilizer. All of them are also self-propagating. The trees bear brown pods that crack open when ripe, scattering their seeds to the forest floor. The seeds of the narra, mahogany and malunggay have filmy wings that allow them to fly great distances in the wind, thus scattering themselves throughout the forest floor where they begin to sprout after the first rain.

Thus, there is no need to plant more and more seedlings every rainy season. The trees propagate themselves. Once the first seedlings grow to maturity, they will scatter their seeds and propagate themselves and take care of themselves, even fertilizing the soil with their leaves. Legumes can be distinguished from their leaves. The leaves grow horizontally from a midrib. Corregidor, which was denuded by bombs and artillery shells during the war, was reforested with ipil-ipil seeds scattered from a plane.

Fire trees have one added advantage: their blossoms. The fire tree has profuse red and red-orange blossoms, the kakawati has pink ones, also profuse, and the acacia, yellowish and smaller blooms. The tamarind and acacia blossoms mature into dark brown pods, the hard round seeds encased in sweet-sour pulp. Goats and pigs like to eat them, swallowing the seeds whole. Thus, they contribute to the propagation of the trees by taking the seeds in their stomachs great distances and then dropping them on the forest floor with blobs of fertilizer.

Imagine a mountainside planted with fire trees, kakawati and acacia trees. The mountainside will be a colorful mix of red, pink and yellow blossoms. The kakawati tree bears pink blossoms that rival those of the Japanese cherry tree.

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The state of Vermont in America is famous for its foliage tours during autumn, when the leaves of the trees turn red, yellow, ochre and brown. The state earns a lot of money from the foliage tours, and Japan from the thousands of tourists who come during cherry blossom time. Imagine what a “blossom tour” in the Philippines can do for our tourism industry.

TAGS: column, neal h. cruz, reforestation

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