Thursday, January 29, 2009

Understanding the Origins of the Breadfruit and its Relatives

I was prompted to research and account the genus Artocarpus because I passed by the Subic Clark expressway. The route reminded me of scenes unlike any here in the Philippines. But every time I was hoisted back to Philippine reality because of view interruptions - they were interrupted by tall specimens of rimas (or the breadfruit tree) and antipolo. I have always equated the leaf shape of these Artocarpus trees as a distinct character in Philippine landscapes (unlike the plain and fine foliage of subtropical trees).

Literary and history freaks may know of the breadfruit tree as the important fruit in 'Mutiny on the Bounty'. The novel accounts the great mutiny that happened on the ship retrieving the breadfruit from the Pacific island of Tahiti to bring to Jamaica in the West Indies (to solve the problem of slave hunger then). The breadfruit was famed to have flesh with the taste of bread thus forming a great source of starch before taro (Colocasia esculenta or gabi) became popular. Now the breadfruit has spread all through out the islands in the Caribbean.

As a landscape plant I have mixed opinions regarding its use. Obviously the breadfruit has an attractive and familiar tropical leaf shape, color and texture, but most plants I see all around Manila are improperly grown and trimmed. Thus I never imagined the potential of breadfruit as a garden specimen till I saw nicely manicured and young specimens in the American War Memorial. Breadfruit is indeed an exceptional landscape tree.

Breadfruit is Artocarpus altilis which belongs to the family of mulberries (Morus) and figs (Ficus or baletes). The genus Artocarpus is composed of a few more species that are either endemic or native to our country (or at least suspected or claimed to be). Some are familiar and bear the biggest and tastiest fruits there are.

The langka or jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) is native to a few Southeast Asian nations but is not native to the Philippines. Langka is however among the favorite of Filipino popular fruits. The plant has a regular compact silhouette and has shiny and good colored leaves. The fruit is very much edible, serving as a vegetable (cooked with coconut milk) when unripe. Ripe fruits are sweet and could be eaten raw or cooked in sugar or syrup. The numerous large seeds could be boiled and eaten like nuts.

The marang (Artocarpus odoratissimus - tastiest fruit in my book) on the other hand is a native of Mindanao and Borneo. Marang is famous in Davao along with the durian especially on the Kadayawan month of August when the ripe fruits abound.

The antipolo or tipolo is a tree in which the Rizal Town was named after. Tipolo, the tree, is Artocarpus blancoi. It was said that the town where our Lady of Good Voyage is a patron was abounded by a lot of tipolo trees. Tipolo trees are still common in Antipolo and a few adult trees still stand in the compound of the Antipolo church, but i would assume they are much less than they were before the town was named after the namesake. The leaves of Tipolo are dried and boiled to a tea concoction for people having stomach aches.

A friend, Pinky Gendrano, told me of a another fruit called dalungyan in Quezon Province used cooking nilaga. She said that it usually would taste special whenever they use the fruit in the nilaga. I asked if it was same as rimas (local name of the breadfruit) but said they also know of rimas and was sure that dalungyan was different. I suspect that what she was describing is kamansi (Artocarpus camansi), a native of new guinea and probably the Philippines. The difference between kamansi and rimas is that the former has seeds and the latter does not.

The breadfruit is also suspected to have its roots in the Philippines and other Pacific islands. It has long been cultivated by Indonesians, Micronesians and Polynesians thus resulting to the emergence of good varieties through out history. It was also believed that the plant is a cross of artocarpus blancoi and another species from the Marianas. The rimas has also figured as an edible fruit among Filipinos.

Both Artocarpus camansi and altilis are now spread in the Americas with kamansi common in Mexico and Central America. A. altilis is more common in the Carribean because of the events that unfolded after the Bounty mutiny of the novel and of history. But it is believed that kamansi has reached the New World long before the bread fruit via the galleon trade from the Philippines to Mexico. Thus the breadfruit and its native relatives has long figured in our culture as well as our indigenous and colonial history.

Pinoy Sputnik Flower Trees

The Rubia family (Rubiaceae) is heavily represented in Philippine biodiversity. Rubiaceae members famous in landscaping include the ever loved santan (Ixora spp.), star cluster (Pentas lanceolata), the common rubia (Carphalea kirondon) and the first lady plants or the Doñas ( Doña Aurora, Doña Luz, etc. or the variants of Mussaenda philippica). The latter mentioned and some Ixora species like Ixora palawanensis and I. luzonica (rarely seen in cultivation) are Philippine natives.

Some interesting native members of this plant family are the ones bearing orbicular spiky inflorescence, in the term used by marine biology prof. Ed Gomez describe them - Sputnik-looking flowers (referring to the old space satellites of the 70's). Two prominent examples are bangkal (Nauclea orientalis) and lisak (Neonuclea barthlingii).

I first noticed bangkal while tagging along with Ronald Achacoso on a trip to Iba. He pointed to a long stretch of trees along the Zambales highway. He was wondering what they are and I made it my crusade to learn the identity of those trees. It did not take long for me to learn them.

A month after I got introduced to Prof Ed Gomez. He promptly gave me a tour of the College of Science grounds and his native trees. Of course one of the trees present was bangkal, and fortunately was then in flower. The bangkal 'orbs' were quite odd. Prof Gomez is reminded of old movie sci fi UFO's - that is why he calls them Sputnik, named after the old Russian space satellites.

Bangkal trees have a stocky to tall apearance with large broad and glossy (therefore atrractive) leaves. They grow upright making them an ideal tree to position in rows (good for street planting). Coupling them with the seasonal sci-fi flowers, they are interesting additions to any garden.

An observation I had is that most specimens that I encountered were in wet to semi wet areas. In UP and other parts of Quezon City, the wild bangkals were situated near creeks. In Zambales, they were near the sea. In my last trip to Bora, I found wildlings growing in the marshy to mangrove areas of the island.

Additional information on the tree: It is revered in superstition to harbor enchanted spirits and engkantos - probably because of its big imposing appearance. The leaves are folklorically used as some kind of antiseptic to heal boils and wounds. The bark is also medically researched as a remedy to combat malaria and some other diseases.

Lisak, on the other hand, or Neonuclea barthlingii is a smaller and more graceful version of bangkal. It has smaller leaves, lesser imposing tree form but still has those interesting Sputnik flowers. Its features are far more refined compared to bangkal (which is on the massive side) thus more ideal for smaller landscapes. It also has the preference for wet areas of growth.

In my opinion, lisak is one of the best pinoy landscape trees. I have only seen 4 specimens of this (2 in UP, 1 near the entrance of Ninoy Aquino Wildlife and another in West Riverside in Frisco - all wet areas). The only problem I could perceive is that if it is difficult to propagate (i have not confirmed this yet). In Bora wildings are very visible around the main bangkal tree. I yet have to come back to Wildlife and check on wildlings of the lisak tree (then in flower - fruits might now be ripe to harbor the seeds or even collect wildlings).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Very First Tree Lecture

I got invited to lecture in this year's Philippine Horticultural Show over at Q.C. Circle. I have conducted lectures before but usually the topics are Hoyas (which I was passionate about since 2001) and water plants (a hobby which took a backside since I went back to school). The organizers asked me to lecture on landscape practices. I felt I would not be a good resource person for that and referred a few persons from UP-Arch. But they insisted I do it but choose a topic I would be comfortable with. I chose to tackle - what else but - Philippine trees with landscape value.

In the lecture, I encouraged listeners to butt-in so that we could readily exchange informations on certain tree species. I always learn a lot from my audience, I would like tov think I learn more than what they learn from me. I prepared a slide show with close to a hundred Philippine trees suitable for landscape use, but only got to discuss about 20 species (Q.C. circle busted an electrical transformer thus a brown-out and my laptop battery went empty). But we got a good round of information exchange for certain important species like kamagong (Diospyros blancoi), molave (Vitex parviflora), katmon (Dillenia philippinensis), dita (Alstonia scolaris), kamuning (Murraya paniculata), lipote (Syzygium polycephalum), kahoy dalaga (Mussaenda philippica), paho (Mangifera altissima), antipolo (Artocarpus blancoi), buri (Corypha elata) and a few more trees. I hoped to discuss all 100 trees but circumstances intervened and reserved the other trees for another day. Maybe I could arrange my own inquest for this plants and invite participants for an exchange of plant information.

Incidentally the horti show had a good exhibit and retail area despite the controversies that surrounded the organization. But the current trend of plant collectibles has led to cycads and agaves priced in the thousands of pesos ( would you buy a cycad for 100 thousand pesos?). A few years back i could buy agaves for a few measly hundred pesos but now everything seems to be selling not lees than a thousand. I pity the young generation who get to start the hobby in this time.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Our Heritage Trees

I try to incorporate my advocacy into my work. When Heritage Park was hit by Milenyo some years back, the park lost a considerable amount of trees and slowly these losses are continuously being replaced.

My pet-peeve right now is to introduce native species into the Heritage landscape. Some natives like pili (Canarium ovatum), narra (Pterocarpus indicus), banaba (Lagerstroemia speciosa), molave (Vitex parviflora), botong (Barringtonia asiatica) and balitbitan (Cynometra ramiflora) were already thrown into the landscape mix but I wanted to add more species.

My first attempt was a few months back when I asked Sterculia spp. to be planted over at an empty parking area. I collected the seeds of Sterculia comosa (banilad from Bohol) and Sterculia foetida (from namesake barrio Kalumpang in Marikina) and reared seedlings out of them. We planted 8 seedlings in all flanking the parking. Then I went on study leave for a few months.

When I returned after the work leave I was surprised and pleased to find some of the Sterculias in the brink of being trees. Some are already as tall as I am. I can't wait a few more months for them to provide a good shade to a very exposed parking area. Because of this encouragement I asled the groundskeeper to plant a third native species, lipote or Syzygium polycephalum. I hope this one follows the steps of its Sterculia predecessors. If everything goes well and if i get to find seedlings of dungon-late (Heritiera litorallis) and baraibai (Cerbera manghas) I would start to introduce them in the lagoon area of the park.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pacific Natives on this Atlantic Coast

I am halfway across the world in Florida, yet it seems I could not get out of the thesis state of mind. I have my trusty notebook cum sketch pad with me but i had not opened it up to add to the sketches i should be making for my thesis. But even here in the eastern side of the New World, there are a lot of native Philippine plants used in the local landscape scene. Actually in garden shops and centers I visited (I am helping my sister spruce up her small garden), the plant selections are almost the same as the ones that are available back home.

Some of the Pinoy native plants I saw in this side of the Atlantic:

The famous Manila palm or Adonidia merrillii (bungang china) is used as street plant in my sister's community. I read somewhere that in some areas in Florida the Manila palm is having a hard time to adapt. But in sunny but a bit cold West Palm Beach they grow well.

A plant I could easily recognize from afar is the Mexican Firecracker plant (Clerodendrum quadriculare). The Philippine native bagawak probably ot its English common name probably by the route of the Philippines to Mexico galleon trade. This plant brings out its showy long flower clusters in the winter months.

Another easy to identify plant is the very widespread Ficus benjamina or ornamental fig. This is called salisi in the Philippines and is also native to a lot of other Asian countries. In the US this plant is a popular indoor plant because of its fine and glossy leaves.

On the way to my niece's swimming lessons, I spotted a long grove of Hibiscus tiliaceus or malobago which is abundant along coastlines of the Philippines and neighboring Asian nations. The large yellow (which later turn to maroon) standout from the broad glossy leaves.

The church where my sister attends mass had a few dapdap trees in its compound. the big Erythrina variegata was being trimmed by the gardeners to maintain itas a small tree. but a full grown dapdap is actually a very large tree with distinct leaves and branching.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Putat's Last QC Stand

My friend Ronald Achacoso has been telling me tales of a lone tree that he found in the last open areas of Project 8, Quezon City. He said that the tree might be a native tree and has very showy pendant flowers. Its identity eluded him till last year when he finally exclaimed that the tree he suspects to be Barringtonia racemosa or putat.

Upon learning of his tree suspicion, I immediately took interest. If it is putat, it native and most probably could be found in a wet area. I have seen Barringtonia racemosa before in Singapore but have not seen it in Manila (though I first saw a specimen in a deep creek in Dasmarinas, Cavite). We kept on planning to go to where Ronald saw the solitary putat. We never got to visit the place, till last December.

When the day came, I got up at 8 am and met up with Ronald to drive to the place. Since we both live in Quezon City, I expected that we reach the putat tree an hour or so. Our trip commenced entering a small alley along EDSA to a congested community area in Project 8. As we made our way deeper, the road width became narrower. To my surprise, the confinement opened up into small patches of wet areas and rice paddies, this in between heavy residential areas. Ronald tells me theses are remnants or the Quezon City wetlands at the bounday of Novaliches and Project 8. But even the remaining open lots are being reclaimed. topped with concrete fill.

In no time at all we reached our tree goal. The putat tree was a moderate size one growing out of a paved area. The tree roots are restricted by the asphalt road at one side. But the putat still displays its glory as the branches still had remnants of the pendant flowers. I took pictures of this last tree and we tried to spot some other specimens in the area. There were none. It appears that the tree is becoming endangered as is the open wetlands in the area. We talked to some residents and made it obvious to them our amusement to finding the tree. Hopefully they get the picture that we would want to find the tree again if we have the chance to return.

Putat is a very nice medium size tree for the landscape, usually planted along wet areas. Though the putat could still be found common in most provinces especially Palawan, the continuous degradation of our waterways pose a threat to its habitat. Also a lot of places were named after it, like Putatan, meaning it was once a place abundant with putat (Putatan in Taguig City is said to be found in the area noe Fort Bonifacio and I fear that no putat could be found in that area anymore).

We collected 4 fallen fruits and hope that they germinate to continue the legacy of the last sole QC putat tree.