Sunday, December 21, 2008

Those Star Flowered Tree Climbers

I started my romance with native species not with trees but with members of the genus Hoya. I fell in love with the flowers of the commonly available Hoya carnosa (which is from China but is argued also native to a lot of other Asian countries). Since foremost I am a collector, the prospect of finding new Hoya species available in the market appealed to me. Thus I acquired more Hoyas, red flowered, pink flowered, variegated leaves, etc. I then assumed that Hoya is an exotic plant genus till I encountered my first native species, the orange flowered Hoya obscura.

What made Hoyas collectible? Hoyas are easy plants to rear and propagate. They bear showy star clustered flowers and most have thick succulent leaves. The hunt became much more interesting when I read from Dale Kloppenburg's literature that there are 60 or more species available all over the archipelago,

From then on a lot more native species became visible. Some native species available in cultivation:

There is the unique Hoya multiflora (which is more shrub like than vining), the shooting star now reclassified under the new genus of Centrostemma.

Hoya meliflua which is a synonym of Hoya luzonica.

The hairy leaved Hoya madulidii named after the famous Dr. Domingo Madulid

The controversial Hoya buotii and its large counterpart Hoya halconensis

The simple Hoya incrassata

The fabulous mottled Hoya imbricata ssp basisubcordata

The bell shaped flowers of Hoya siariae.

...and the cliff dwelling Hoya cumingiana.

Not so Nuts about our Philippine Chestnut

My friend and colleague Cathy Fontanilla texted me today to read an article in the Philippine Star by the writer Rudy Fernandez (I am assuming just a namesake of the departed action star). It is about the endemic Philippine chestnut or Castanopsis philippensis. It was a short feature on how alarming that the native kastanias or talakatak is now absent as a Christmas fare in some Tagalog and Ilokano provinces especially Nueva Vizcaya. Ironically, earlier on I was discussing the talakatak with Mr. Emil Sotalbo and how it is becoming rare in our forests. Decades ago he could see fullgrown trees in Cavinti, Laguna but when he returned recently, he could not find any.

The Philippine Star article states that the talakatak is a very big tree reaching to about 28 meters in height and that the taste and color are very similar to the European variety available in the market. Some years ago, fresh and roasted nuts of Castanopsis were available in Solano, Nueva Vizcaya and some parts of Quezon province during the ‘ber’ months hence like the commercial chestnut it was associated with Christmas in local cultures. But according to the DOST-PCARDD this is no longer the case as lesser nuts could be harvested from wild trees as it is not popularly cultivated. Old trees in the forests are dying either by old age, logging and some other factors.

What was not mentioned in the article is that Castanopsis is a little bit difficult to cultivate due to the following reasons. Mr Sotalbo said that the fallen nuts (supposedly the source of wildlings) are readily eaten up by wild boars (because of its taste, it is a wild fauna favorite). Another thing is that the tree is dioecious (not sure if I spelled this right), meaning the tree has separate specimens bearing male and female flowers (with the understanding of biology, the female bearing the fruit and nuts). The probability of yielding the female tree is less if specimens are grown from seeds. Thus the surest way to propagate is by grafting the female specimen branch.

My only encounter with a specimen of talakatak is a sole young tree in the farm of Professor Roberto Coronel. Judging by the specimen, the tree has an attractive upright form and moderately fine leaf texture, making it a nice border tree in gardens and orchard candidate.

Incidentally the talakatak is recorded from Luzon to Samar and Leyte, then Basilan. If my geopgraphy serves me right, Leyte and Basilan still has Bohol and the whole lot of Mindanao in between them. That is still a big unexplored area. But it might be a lot of wishful thinking to think Castanopsis maybe found in the distribution gap. Probably the best thing to do is to bank on what is known and start conserving this disappearing Philippine forest commodity.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ang Maliliit na Bao ng Bitaog - The Shells of the Bitaog Fruit

I just learned how a familiar thing from my childhood was made! Remember sundot kulangot? If you take this literally you'll probably won't associate it with anything edible, much more something tasty. The sundot-kulangot is a popular Baguio pasalubong (edible souvenir). It is matamis na bao or coconut jam encased in small orb-like containers and fastened together with sticks of bamboo. I remember asking people going to Baguio to buy lots of this, and when they arrive, I get the kick out of poking the jam out their ball encasements. If you think of it it is much hassle eating them, but i still crave them. To people who still can't imagine it I have attached a picture of the delicacy.

I was talking to Ray Ong (the Philippine Star editor for Philippine Gardens) last week in the Philippine Native Plant Concervation Society's Christmas Party. He solved the long mystery of my child hood of what those ball encasements were made of. The good news is it came from the fruit of another native tree (but could also be seen in a lot of Asian countries), the bitaog. The bad news, he told me how they are made.

(also called Palo Maria or dangkalan in some provinces) or Calophyllum inophyllum is a handsome tree growing near the coastal areas of Asian islands. Because it is easy to grow, it is commonly used as a park or landscape tree. I am not sure though how this coastal plant got to figure into the manufacturing of a highland delicacy, probably because Baguio is adjacent to a lot of coastal provinces like Pangasinan and La Union.

The part of bitaog used for sundot-kulangot are the fruits. The bitaog fruit is not palatable but the rigid shell is dried up. The fruit shell is then split into 2 and the lower part - without the stem - is used to encase small portions of cocojam (when the cocojam hardens it look like booger, hence the name). They get another non-stemmed half to enclose the jammed-up half, and sealed with red-colored paper. Several of these are then tied up using bamboo sticks braces.

In the UP Lantern Parade, I brought a few sticks of sundot-kulangot with me to share with some classmates. It was hard opening up each orb and scooping the jam out with bare fingers. Landscape Architect Nappy Navara taught us the right way to eat it. The bamboo stick braces are detached from the packaging and used as a poking stick and scoop for the 'kulangot'.

So what makes anything in this bad news? Some of these small home industries - that get to cook the cocojam and package them into sundot-kulangot - forget to wash the bitaog fruit casings. They get to pick them straight from the tree, dry them up and fill them up straight with the jam. So you now know what makes them so special. Maybe some of the flavor of the bitaog gets into them

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Remaining Boracay Tree Flora

I got the chance to survey Boracay by air. My initial reaction is that it is not at all a pristine paradise but quite urbanized. The resorts are already jam-packed into the long stretch of white sand beach and behind them are grids of houses and establishments. And there are already lots and lots of settlers, formal or otherwise.

By my visual estimate, less than 50 percent is undeveloped. Yes there are still areas with green patches, like in the steeper elevations, the cliffsides and the periphery of Fairways and Bluewaters. So I was not expecting to find any species to include for my thesis.

The first tree that caught my attention is what they call ugayan. The tree I suspected was Alstonia macrophylla (which was later confirmed by Leonard Co). I saw this tree before in Mr. Sotalbo's UP tree tour and in Real, Quezon (both individual not-in-flowering trees). Immediately after our plane's touch down at Caticlan airport, I was entranced by the 2 trees in full bloom flanking the airport terminal. I barely had time to take pictures of the airport specimens - to my dismay - only to find out that there are bigger and more flowering ugayans over at the Bora helipad.

Alstonia macrophylla or the Visayan ugayan is called batino by the Tagalogs. The tree is very similar to the more common dita (Alstonia scholaris) but have bigger and more lanceolate leaves than the ovate to oblongate of dita. The residents say that the ugayan over at Bora was introduced from the mountains of Panay. I asked for any cultural or economic use for the plant and the natives could not recount any.

Alstonia scholaris or dita, which the Visayans call bita, is also very visible on the island. I had a chat with Bora resident Lolong Acosta and he said that bita is famed as wood for coffins because the wood is easy to cut and carve. Lolong said that he remembers bignay or Antidesma bunius to be abundant in the island but nowadays you could rarely see them.

A relative of pili is also quite common in the island. It is a Canarium species which I suspect to be C. asperum or pagsahingan. The Bora natives call it salong. Leaves are quite similar to Canarium ovatum but the tree is taller than it is wide. The extract from its trunk is used to light fires and fuel lamps.

The only new species I could add to my list is malabuyo, which I got to later confirm from Mr. Co is Pittosporum mollucanum. I saw this tree from Popototan collected branches and seeds (and from my classmate's pic) . I saw it again in Bora growing on limestone outcrops and steep areas.

The tree is quite attractive with its whorling ovate leaves, moreso when it is adorned with the bright red fruit clusters. Lolong said that the fruits have a certain stink but are a favorite of birds and bats.

Other trees in the native Bora flora mix include kalumpang (Sterculia foetida), binunga (Macaranga tanarius), bangkal (Nauclea orientalis) and tugas (Vitex parviflora). The cliffs are populated with agohos (Casuariana) and pandan dagat (Pandanus).

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Probably the Most Beautiful Philippine Palm

Palms are garden hits, as they have a particular distinct structure that is both attractive and unique. Most palms have either the familiar pinnate or palmate (palm leaves are also unique in shape, some equate it to looking like the 'palm' of your hand). A big fraction of palms come from the tropics with a small number of species thriving in subtropical climate. Southeast Asia has its big share of the palm selection.

I hear from collectors that the most attractive palms come from Malaysia, which is a stone's throw away from the Philippines. I asked El Roos, a palm enthusiast, if the Philippines do have its share of the beautiful palms you could find in Malaysia. He said that our palms are mostly ordinary with the exception of a recent find. He told me his version of its discovery. He accounted that the palm was discovered by Mr. Emiliano Sotalbo in one area of Mt. Apo in Mindanao. Mr. Sotalbo backed up on the palm discovery while documenting another find, a prehistoric tree of the anacardium family.

El didn't give any decriptions of the palm other than it is a member of the genus Heterospathe, the sagisi palm. Most heterospathes are sleek looking palms with pinnate leaves. I equated the usual heterospathe appearance to the new palm.

Last July I got the chance to schedule an interview Mr. Sotalbo (which actually became the start for me to consult with him regarding my thesis and he always answers all my inquiries). I was looking forward to it because I was more curious to find out what this new palm looks like. I scheduled the meeting for Tuesday then went to UPLB the Monday before it(for our LArch 263 site evaluation). There a took pictures of a small attractive palm in front of the College of Forestry. In the meeting, I found out from Mr. Sotalbo that the palm I took pics of the day before is his new palm find and the details of El's discovery story are not entirely true.

Mr. Sotalbo's version of the story goes like this. He went on a work related trip with Botanist Dr. Edwino Fernando to Surigao (not Mt. Apo). On this trip they spotted the undescribed prehistoric-looking Anacardiaceae tree (which 2 specimens were planted in the UP Information Center - sadly the children from the nearby squatter area mutilated the specimens, one died and one still at the brink of survival). While finding a good position to photograph the tree, they discovered the palm. They initially found a lone specimen but the next day discovered an area with a good population.

The palm was named Heterospathe califrons or yanisi. It looks different from other local Heterospathes because its leaves are simple and undivided, looking like an inverted arrow tail. It does not look like ordinary, a far cry from the familiar coconut and bungang-china. Its discovery merited it to be on the cover of the International Palm Society journal in 2001(cover pic from their website).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Wonder Lipote

Around the start of May, my cousins sent us a box of various fruits. They were harvested from trees planted in their small Silang, Cavite property. The contents included mango, tiesa, buko, pili, etc and an unfamiliar fruit looking like duhat (but i was certain it is not). I opened my Madulid book to get an idea what the fruit was. I found a picture of it there labeled Syzygium polycephalum, or locally called lipote. Since it is Syzygium, it is very much related to duhat and the bigger macopa. (I googled lipote and came out with Syzygium curanii or curranii, whichever is the right spelling, as the more popular associated species name). what made me more interested in it, lipote is endemic to the Philippines.

It turned out my cousins only have a sole tree planted near their gate. The next 3 weeks they sent us literally bagsful of the black berry like fruits. They also gave me few branches to document. They relayed stories they heard from neighbors (who recognized the tree when it bore fruit) that the tree (its fruit and leaves) is a good cure for high blood sugar.

My dad, who likes eating fruits very much, developed the taste for the lipote fruit. He prepares it like duhat, shaking numerous berries in a bowl mixed with a dash of rock salt. After a few days enjoying lipote, his sugar count went down from 119 to 92. This good a news easily went out to geriatric friends who also asked for some berries.

Barely a month after, we were excited to go to Silang and see the lipote tree up close. Since the single tree was planted in between pili trees, the foliage and canopy was a little hard to tell apart from the pili foliage. But it is undeniabable that the tree is tall (about 10 meters in height) and moderately full bodied (7 meters canopy diameter with 6 to 8 inches truck diameter) . My cousins accounted that in the first few weeks the tree was literally covered with the black berries. That day the still thick fruit clusters were confined near the tree top. So the caretakers had to climb up the tree to collect fruits we could take back to wanting recipients.

Naturally I took home fruits for myself and planted the seeds in pots (in my garden). I now have seedlings a foot tall with beautiful reddiosh puckered leaves.

Tree Blogs, Thesis and Sketches

When I did my LArch 25 plates on plants, I enjoyed doing it so much. I rendered my plates in full watercolor (even when what was required were just quick sketches). Now that I am in the midst of my thesis, Grace Servino is urging me to do the same. I tried to start doing some, but due to practicality I have to hesitantly abandon it (I have a day job and limited time and not to mention finite resources to do it).

I have to fit doing my ambitious thesis in my shoe string budget (I am actually surprised how I get by considering I had to leave work for a few months to finish my other graduate subjects, leaving thesis at last). I am very grateful to a lot of people who have extended their help and expertise, even though the only thing I could repay them with is my own passion to finish this native plant thesis.

I have decided to start with the second phase of doing the actual evaluation and leave the plant number at 200 species, eventhough there are still a lot of nice trees to include. In short I could not do the watercolor drawings for the thesis (I already have 5 drawings which i have to abandon) nor find some more time to explore additional trees and other exciting finds. I am posting herewith the 5 finished drawing I did, kamansi, baraibai, kabuyaw, kagumoy and kalumpang. I will do the plant drawings, but not as time consuming like these watercolor washes.

While doing research I stumbled upon some pencil sketches of plants displayed over at The site had a link to wonderful blog at The blog and the drawings were done by Val Littlewood. Instantly I became her fanatic. Her drawings have this polished and finished look though they were mostly pencil sketches. She is very meticulous in the detail in drawing a single leaf or fruit. They are so simple yet they convey a lot of attitude in small supposedly inanimate objects - plants. because of her blog i got the idea how to proceed with the plant drawings, sketch them architecturally - which is what I am used to doing. (But still i could not finish it in time for March. I ll graduate in October most probably.)

I emailed Val Littlewood and was surprised to receive a warm reply from her. It turned out she had a pinoy friend, Pedro, from Camalaniugan in Cagayan. She was interested in Pinoy plants. Her blog and her passion prompted me to create a separate blog for my pinoy native tree thesis. It is at Other than posting here in my multiply page I will keep all plant related blogs there.

A week after I received another email from Ms. Littlewood. She got intrigued with Kabuyaw in my blog she went out to the Orlando Botanic Garden to hunt for Citrus hystrix, which she did find. She wrote an entry about it in her own blog.

You should check out her other blogs and sketches. They are very worth a slow day's read.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Marvelous Taheebo

There is some confusion in using common names. One example is taheebo. Taheebo is supposedly a medicinal plant, a wonder drug if some may call it. But most literatures actually do not include absolution to what is the identity of taheebo.

If you base what taheebo is commercially, the plant prescribed would be Tabebuia sp. (I read in a blog that it is Tabebuia avellanedae). Tabebuia is the New World genus of landscape trees and shrubs in the Bignonia family. Incidentally a lot of Tabebuia species have made it to the Philippines as landscape plant, like T. pallida, lutea, rosea etc. Now another species has made it to Philippine shores via the vitamin supplement route.

My Marvel Taheebo, the food supplement, claims that the active part of taheebo comes from the inner bark or phloem. If I remember my Biology right the phloem is the one that distributes food from plant leaves back to the roots (that is why when you ring or circumferentially debark a tree, it dies). Commercial taheebo is said to have the ff properties: analgesic, anti-oxidant, decongestant, diuretic, hypotensive and ultimately as cancer therapy. Truly marvelous but not what I am after this moment.

The less popular taheebo is the one they call balbas pusa in Philippine countrysides, or Orthosiphon aristatus. Though not the one used in the wonder drug it has its shares of wonders as an herbal cure. In fact it is more known to albularyos and faithhealers (local witchdoctors) than the commercial taheebo.

According to, the balbas pusa is an effective diuretic and cure for kidney and urinary problems. The leaves are supposed to contain a lot of potassium salts. These are boiled and drank as a tea.

I remember my parents resorting to a faithhealer years ago to cure some ailments they had. The albularyo made use of heated drinking glasses and placed it on my dad's bare back. Up to this day they could not forget that painful experience. When they were on their way home the faithhealer gave them cuttings of the balbas pusa as a sort of drug prescription. That is why to this day I have the plant as a weed in our garden.

I inquired with Leonard Co the origin of Orthosiphon aristatus. He said a lot of literatures have indicated balbas pusa is a native plant of the Philippines. But in all of his local field work he had never encountered the plant in a natural and wild setting.

But in any case the balbas pusa has rooted itself deep into our traditional and folk culture as medicinal plant. The white spike flowers are an added bonus, rendering the plant landscape worthy. It is also easy to propagate by plant cutting, thus an economical planting material.