Leonard Co’s lotto
Last week I attended the formal inauguration of the Leonard Co Garden of Indigenous Plants at the Marine Science Institute (MSI) of the University of the Philippines Diliman, with several dozen native trees planted, complete with identifying markers.
The garden is a joint project of the MSI (mainly Professor Emeritus and National Scientist Edgardo Gomez, who started the tree planting almost as a hobby) and the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society Inc. (PNPCSI), which was founded by the late Leonard Co, a botanist.
Leonard would have turned 61 on Monday, Sept. 29, but he was killed almost four years ago in Southern Leyte, shot by soldiers while he was doing field work in a biodiversity project. Justice has been long in coming, with government officials saying they would charge the soldiers with reckless imprudence leading to homicide. Leonard’s family and friends are skeptical even about the charges, because forensic investigators say he was shot at close range.
He was the Philippines’ foremost botanical taxonomist, or one who collects and identifies plants. He discovered eight new plant species and provided detailed studies for many more.
Leonard’s love of plants was actually part of a fierce nationalism. He was an activist who, long before environmentalism became fashionable, saw the link between love of country and love of our natural resources. He fretted about how little we knew, and appreciated, of those resources, even as they were rapidly disappearing.
I got to know him because we were both working in the Cordillera at one time, and had a shared interest in medicinal plants. He had been impressed by China’s development of medicinal plants and felt we could do the same thing in the Philippines. He eventually wrote a book on the Cordillera’s medicinal plants. The book has botanical descriptions, as well as a description of what diseases the plants can be used for, and how they can be prepared.
We talked several times after he founded the PNPCSI, about his plan to digitalize information on our plants so more people can access it, whatever their interest might be, from backyard gardening to medicinal plants.
Leonard was always in a hurry when it came to plants, almost like he was worried that if you didn’t create a record of a plant today, it might disappear tomorrow. He was especially concerned about the value of native plants.
From trees down to roadside weeds, these plants represent products of thousands of years of adaptation to our environment, anchored to the soil and, in the process, enriching the environment with nutrients.
We are learning, the hard way, about the value of native flora. I wrote last month about how Typhoon “Glenda” had toppled numerous trees in UP Diliman. Most of them were our iconic acacia trees, which, while grand and resplendent, are actually “exotic” species, meaning coming from outside our region. UP faculty and students had the best of intentions when they planted these trees and, later, gmelina and other exotic species in tree-planting projects, but they were not meant for the Philippines. With age, they became more vulnerable, no match for Glenda’s strong winds. The trees came crashing down, pulling power lines down with them.
UP has to plan ahead with new trees, and we will be using more of native species. The MSI garden is only one of several that have been and will be set up on campus to educate our communities, and visitors, on the importance of native plants.
At the inauguration, one of the PNPCSI members brought a donation, a tree named Iloilo. It was the first time I had seen it, and I was unaware, as were many people in the audience, that Iloilo, the province and city, goes back to the plant name. There are numerous other places named after native flora: Quiapo, Manila (May-nilad), Antipolo (Rizal), Dao (Pampanga), Narra (Palawan), Ipil (Zamboanga), Vigan (Ilocos Norte, vigan meaning the Ilokano version of biga), to name a few. Talisay seems to be particularly popular, with several towns and barangays with that name.
We have more than 10,000 plant species in the Philippines, many used for food, shelter, even transport. By transport I don’t mean just boats. Recently I met Prof. Benjamin Mangubat of UP Manila, and his “bangkarwayan,” a solar-powered car made of bamboo and rattan!
Our lack of awareness of our plants and their uses may be a reason we have all these streets with strange names, from cigarette and car brands (two subdivisions in Quezon City) to American presidents (Greenhills in San Juan) to western plants. In several of our cities and towns, we have barangays identified not by names but by numbers. Manila alone has 896 of such nameless, but numbered, barangays. Now how can anyone have a sense of identity or pride living in Barangay 103?
UP’s MSI and Institute of Biology (look for Dr. Perry Ong) will be most happy to help people who need names for buildings (our dorms are named after trees, including a new one called Acacia that’s been plagued with problems, like its namesake tree), streets, barangays, subdivisions, maybe even children. (After all, we already have names like Jasmine and Rose.)
We’ll even help you find seedlings so you can plant the trees that you name your streets, or children, after. (No, no, please, not kalachuchi; it’s not a native plant, and the child you name Kalachuchi will take you to court someday.)
Sorry, Leonard, I got carried away.
Leonard’s sister, Lily Co-Austria, was at the inauguration, delivering an emotional message of thanks. She said her family used to fret about Leonard because he was so intense about plants. He spent most of the year doing field work, coming home on his birthday and staying put (more or less) into the new year before taking off again. The family could not quite understand all the plant specimens, and Leonard’s obsession with preserving and recording them.
Only after Leonard was killed, as friends and colleagues shared their memories of his work, and his causes, did the family understand that this was in a way “Leonard’s lotto.” Leonard had put his stakes, his life even, on plants, anticipating that someday, Filipinos would wake up to the importance not just of our native plants but also of our heritage, of our nation.
On the eve of Leonard’s birthday, I can assure his family that his lotto hasn’t just won once, but has been winning, over and over again.
(Visit philippineplants.org for one of Leonard’s fulfilled dreams: a digital archive of our plants. It also has a listing of barangays, towns and cities named after plants.)
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