Find­ing refuge for trees in the con­crete jun­gle

The ne­ces­sity of a re­newed ap­pre­ci­a­tion for our na­tive trees


There is a faint flo­ral scent in the air once sum­mer be­gins. When the wind blows, tiny yel­low blos­soms fall, car­pet­ing the gut­ter. “It’s snow­ing,” chil­dren say, con­trary to the sea­son. The flow­ers, on their own, seem in­signif­i­cant; in fact, they re­sem­ble crushed corn ker­nels. But if you look up, the dense yel­low clus­ters against the tree’s ver­dant fo­liage is a sight to be­hold. This is how the indige­nous narra tree ( Pte­ro­car­pus in­di­cus) de­clares the en­trance of sum­mer.

De­spite the narra’s aes­thetic, my mother re­fused to grow one in our back­yard. It’s nei­ther be­cause of its seed’s long ger­mi­na­tion process nor its ex­ten­sive root sys­tem, but be­cause of the pop­u­lar belief that en­gkan­tos, par­tic­u­larly the gi­ant kapre, tend to in­habit the tree. How­ever, narra is revered: its proud stature makes it fit to be our na­tional tree, and its ter­mite-re­sis­tant wood is prized in the fur­ni­ture in­dus­try. So while peo­ple mar­vel over Ja­pan’s cherry blos­soms, why is there no fuss about the flow­er­ing of our na­tive trees?

Narra is one of the 3,600 species na­tive to the Philip­pines––per­haps the lone one that most Filipinos can name, thanks to grade school so­cial stud­ies. Artist and na­tive flora en­thu­si­ast Ron­ald Acha­coso shares that the com­bined land area of U.S. and Canada, which would be 65 times larger than the Philip­pines, only has 700 species. This makes our coun­try one of the most di­verse ecosys­tems in the world.

How­ever, the di­ver­sity of na­tive flora is un­known to city dwellers. Ac­cord­ing to Acha­coso, more than 90 per­cent of the trees we en­counter in our ur­ban cen­ters are for­eign. A quick drive down our city streets re­veals the abun­dance of ipil-ipil ( Leu­caena leu­co­cephala), a tree na­tive to South­ern Mex­ico that’s known to be in­va­sive and sus­cep­ti­ble to diseases and in­fes­ta­tion. Acacia and ma­hogany trees are often thought of as Philip­pine na­tives, but they’re not: acacia is mainly found in Aus­tralia, while the in­va­sive ma­hogany is com­monly seen in Brazil and the Caribbean. As they be­came more rare in ur­ban­ized cities, our knowl­edge of na­tive trees has been re­duced to the streets named af­ter them.

In­side the Univer­sity of the Philip­pines-Dil­i­man cam­pus, a short walk from UP Cine Adarna leads you to the Wash­ing­ton Sy­cip Gar­den of Na­tive Trees (WSGNT). Lo­cated across UP Ba­hay ng Alumni and right be­hind the car­il­lon, the 4,700-sqm. gar­den used to be a park­ing area un­til 2012. Now, the gar­den is home to more than 100 indige­nous and

en­demic trees, in­clud­ing crit­i­cally en­dan­gered trees like mala­pan­git ( Tec­tona philip­pen­sis) and those we know only as street names: guijo ( Shorea guiso), yakal ( Shorea asty­losa), and ka­m­agong ( Diospy­ros blan­coi).

A quick glance at the gar­den’s land­scape blue­print re­veals that the trees are grouped by fam­ily to bet­ter de­scribe their at­tributes. “For in­stance, the legu­mi­nous trees be­long­ing to Fabaceae were grouped in the mid­dle of the gar­den. Th­ese trees be­long to the bean fam­ily and are ni­tro­gen fix­ers and are good can­di­dates for re­for­esta­tion,” Acha­coso says. Ni­tro­gen is a vi­tal nu­tri­ent for chloro­phyll pro­duc­tion and leaf growth.

With over­pop­u­la­tion and the ris­ing num­bers of sky­scrapers in the city, grow­ing a na­tive tree within the prox­im­ity of a city home is now a lux­ury. And if you have this lux­ury, Acha­coso sug­gests ev­er­greens–– trees that don’t shed leaves, un­like de­cid­u­ous ones–– as per­fect can­di­dates since they don’t grow too big.

Al­though it de­pends on the soil and grow­ing en­vi­ron­ment, he gives three species for back­yard trees: ka­muning ( Mur­raya pan­ic­u­lata), kat­mon ( Dil­lenia philip­pinen­sis), and ban­toli­nao ( Diospy­ros fer­rea). Ka­muning is a low-grow­ing tree grown for its fra­grance. Kat­mon, on the other hand, is a vul­ner­a­ble en­demic tree that bears ed­i­ble fruit. Fi­nally, ban­toli­nao is a vul­ner­a­ble indige­nous tree that has at­trac­tive fo­liage. It is pop­u­lar among bon­sai en­thu­si­asts as it makes for a good spec­i­men. “It would take sev­eral life­times to see their max­i­mum size,” Acha­coso says of ev­er­greens grown from seedlings.

Na­tive trees pro­vide home to na­tive or­gan­isms, from fungi to birds. Dr. James LaFrankie men­tions in the guide book for WSGNT that a ma­hogany for­est is a “dead zone,” as the for­eign tree does not have any re­la­tion­ship with lo­cal fauna. When­ever we plant a na­tive tree, it doesn’t just pro­vide us shade and a solution to flood­ing; we also make it more pos­si­ble for other crea­tures to live among us, as na­tive trees sup­port the nat­u­ral or­der of the lo­cal ecosys­tem.

Acha­coso has been prop­a­gat­ing sal­im­bobog or balai-lamok ( Crat­eva re­li­giosa) for more than a decade al­ready. “At one point, it was my fa­vorite tree, but I’ve moved on to other species. I used to ask [tax­onomist] Leonard Co [what his fa­vorite tree was], and it al­ways frus­trated me when he would an­swer, ‘ La­hat na­man sila ma­g­a­nda.’ Now, I’m be­gin­ning to see it that way, too,” Acha­coso says.

“I want us to level up in terms of our ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Philip­pine na­tive flora. I get frus­trated when a fel­low en­thu­si­ast would post that [the sight of ] our trees [is] more beau­ti­ful than the cherry blos­soms. Maybe so; at least, some could ri­val them. From a vis­ual level, a cherry tree in full bloom or a Mada­gas­car fire tree is truly stun­ning, and you would have to be very glib to con­vince any­one oth­er­wise. I’m af­ter the big­ger scheme of things. You can­not fully ap­pre­ci­ate a plant or an or­gan­ism by iso­lat­ing it and look­ing at it apart from its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. If we could see the whole as­sem­blage and how one na­tive species is in­tri­cately con­nected to an­other, then we get to see the beauty be­yond the vis­ual or aes­thetic level. Then we truly see how beau­ti­ful some­thing is in its proper con­text.”

In their per­ma­nence, trees don’t for­get. They may shed their leaves or lose a branch, but they hold a col­lec­tive mem­ory through gen­er­a­tions. Like in the fi­nal scene of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, trees im­mor­tal­ize our se­crets and mem­o­ries in their si­lence with­out any trace, un­til their ul­ti­mate demise. There is noth­ing wrong with pa­tron­iz­ing spec­tac­u­lar for­eign trees, but as Leonard Co said, “Love all, but plant only na­tive trees.”

“If we could see the whole as­sem­blage and how one na­tive species is in­tri­cately con­nected to an­other, then we get to see the beauty be­yond the vis­ual or aes­thetic level.”

The trees at UP Wash­ing­ton Sy­cip Gar­den of Na­tive Trees are tagged for ed­u­ca­tional pur­poses.

Siar ( Pel­topho­rum pte­ro­carpum) can be used as a road­side tree. The tree blooms twice a year and its rich nec­tar at­tracts bees.

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