Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Weird Fruits on this Christmas Tree

We went to hear mass in Basco Church. We walked pass the Basco Town Square and was delighted to see the trees shaped and adorned with decors for the Christmas season. It was a good to see that the happy message of Christ's birth is celebrated with a happy tone everywhere, despite the language barrier. The mass we attended was even celebrated in Ivatan, but we did get to understand that the homily was about the Visitation. The mass was for children and the priest lively encouraged the participation of the younger attendees. There was clapping, standing, stomping etc. But ultimately there was laughter, probably one language I could undeniably understand.

Going back to the town square trees, the plaza was flanked with unique Batanes trees, the ones Ivatans call arius (Podocarpus costalis or igem-dagat to us Tagalogs) and riwas (Drypetes falcata or gakakan). The specimens lining the square were old trees but pruned to look like dwarf pine trees. The two species are good topiary trees it seems. But what would be weird were the strange fruits they carried, they were not the usual small arius and riwas fruits you expect. As an expression of Christmas creativity, the Ivatans hung real orange and pandan fruits on them. Certainly aroused my curiosity at first glance. I thought I discovered a new species of Podocarpus, with much more large and unusual fruits.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Hunt for the Voyavoi

I have known date palms or members of the genus Phoenix as Arabian plants, from the dry sand dunes of the Middle East and South Asia. So when I learned that there was a native Philippine date palm, I became obsessed to find it and eventually include in my thesis. After all, date palms are popular garden plants and it being a member of the palm family means that it is very ornamental worthy. I was in luck because there has been a specimen of Philippine date palm standing alone in the UP university avenue. Turned out I have been seeing the palm since I was in college. It is small and quite attractive judging from that lone palm. so I got intrigued and researched more about the native Phoenix.

The Philippine date palm is Phoenix loureiroi var. loureiroi. It is locally called voyavoi, especially by the Ivatans of Batanes, where it could only seen in the Philippines (though some variants exist in Taiwan and some parts of China mainland). In Batanes, wild specimens could still be found in abundance in 2 smaller of 3 Batanes Islands, Sabtang and Itbayat. In the largest island, Batan, the voyavoi population was reduced to a few isolated patches. What was more interesting is that the palm's cultural use in a local craft, they weave articles of clothing (specifically their rain and sun protection) from the leaves of the palm. The famed Ivatan vakul (women's headdress) and the kanayi (mail raincoat) are made from dried voyavoi leaves.

After seeing the UP Diliman specimen, I have longed to spot other grown specimens near Manila but to no avail. Other than a few juvenile seedlings in collectors' gardens, the voyavoi was quite elusive to see in the metro. I have heard from someone that a patch was grown in Manila Memorial Park in Paranaque but have not confirmed it. Another plant collector told me that the said park do have impressive palm collections but the phoenix being described was probably the common pygmy date palm, Phoenix roebellenii. I became desperate in spotting more samples of the voyavoi. It seemed that the only way to spot more voyavoys is to go to the source itself, Batanes.

When I finally got the chance to actually go north and hunt for my elusive voyavois, I chose Sabtang as the destination of choice to see the wild specimens (after some inquiry with Professor Maribel Agoo who studied the voyavois extensively). It would be an easier choice than Itbayat, because Sabtang would involve a shorter 45 minute boat ride than the 3 hours for Itbayat. It was the wisest decision I made as the sea was not forgiving in this part of the Philippines.

When I finally reached the island, spotting the palm was not a problem. At first they were sparse coming from the beach but when the elevation went up, one by one single clumps came into view. From clumps they turned into big clusters and eventually, a whole hill was fully covered by the voyavois, very impressive indeed. You could say that the palm could be considered a dominant flora in the landscape. But even with the visible abundance, the plant could be easily considered threatened if we look at the bigger picture.

Prof Agoo said that most of the Batanes land are quickly being transformed into grazing areas for cattle. Thus patches of vegetation are being burned to make way for cattle food - grass. Though burning also benefits the voyavois, which clears up their growing areas (the voyavois are said to survive the burning). But the small seedlings of the palm are easily trampled by the grazing cows and carabaos, thus killing the wildlings.

If we are to look at a map of Batanes Islands, Batan Island lies physically between Sabtang and Itbayat Islands. But the much more populated Batan Island has much lesser voyavoi existence. Most of Batan Island is visibly grazing land already, though some old Ivatans said that there are still some voyavois growing in isolated areas. I personally saw one growing wild in a field, only one. So the plight of the voyavoi in Batan might eventually happen to Sabtang and Itbayat if not checked and protected.

As for me I got what i came for, the pictures of this magnificent Philippine palm growing wild. I carefully took pics of full grown specimens and its fruits and flowers. It is a shame the palm is not yet being cultivated. It could give the introduced oliva or Cycas revoluta (native to Okinawa, Japan, not the Philippines) a run for its landscape money.

P.S. The art of vakul and kanayi weaving among Ivatans are said to be slowly dying because the newer Ivatan generation are not anymore familiar with the use of these articles, thus the cultural importance of the voyavois among the Ivatans is in jeopardy. The remaining weavers are said to rely more now on the need of tourists for vakul and kanayi souvenirs. The art and thus the plant hang by a thread, held in place by a very small demand.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Batanes, The Ultimate Destination

Probably one of the least places visited by Filipino tourists is the Batanes Islands up north. What to blame? The exorbitant price of the airfare amounts to more than a basic package tour to HK or Kota Kinabalu. The water route can be quite gruelsome because the waters that separate Batanes from the rest of the Philippines are where the South China Sea and the vast Pacific ocean meet, the results are sea waves that do more than simply rock the boat (can be a little sea sickin' for most people to handle). The isolation of the island prevents a lot of people to experience what Batanes has to offer. In my case I needed to go see the island as more than 5 (which turned out to be more than I expected after being there) of the 80 trees included in my thesis comes from Batanes. When I finally saved enough to finally make the trip, I asked 2 friends, Pinky and Cathy, to come and not surprisingly they agreed. After all, the adventure is not easy to come by and to find willing companions to share it with is rarer.

We rode the only Manila-Batanes SEAIR plane that day to Basco, Batanes. We were disappointed only by one thing, that the 4 full days we were there, the sky was cloudy. But almost everything in our trip fell into perfect place. Basco is small with a rural charm, that everything is almost walkable, reachable in a day's time. The views are quite spectacular, a find in every turn. Other towns are reachable by a tricycle ride, going thru coastal roads with breathtaking sceneries. Ivana town was quiet but people are very honest and friendly. And Sabtang was very magnificent and unspoiled. Oh, I forgot we do have a second regret, the boat ride to Sabtang from Ivana was quite a pill to handle, a very turbulent roller coaster ride. But that would be a very small price to pay for the beautiful experience found in that part of Batanes. It was worth the whole ordeal and every centavo we spent for the trip.

Will post more on my next blogs.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Rizal Province Leg of the Laguna Lake Trip

Professor Nori Palarca, who teaches the Landforms and Countryside Landscape graduate subjects in UP Architecture proposed a Laguna Lake loop field trip to visit various landmarks and landforms pertinent as landscape examples to their course outlines. As a result the 2 classes convened at 6:30 AM on a Sunday and boarded a small coaster, then commenced following a supposedly easy route around Laguna de Bay (but which suprisingly a few people ever follow). Though I am not part of that class I took the opportunity to join them, serving as photographer, space filler, tour guide, entertainer and vehicle counterweight.

They went on a clockwise direction starting with the towns in nearby Rizal Province. At 7:30 AM we reached the first destination on their prepared list, Hinulugang Taktak in Antipolo. This is the once famous waterfall, the Prime tourist spot of Old Antipolo. But now it is reduced to a sorry state with floating garbage and dirty water. As we made our descent down the steep steps leading to the waterfall valley, Prof. Palarca explained how this once beautiful resource reached its present state of degradation. Since the waterfall is downstream of Antipolo town proper, the refuse coming from human habitation has rendered the once beautiful resource into an environmental problem. Now Hinulugang taktak's visual resource potential is significantly lessened. Feeling a bit distraught of what we saw and learned, we left Hinulugang Taktak and headed for destination no. 2 at the outskirts of the town.

Following the Ortigas Avenue extension we reached the border of Antipolo leading to the next town of Teresa. There came to view our next intended landform. The peaks bordering Teresa town has long been the site for mining activities. They excavate large amounts of marble (the famous Teresa marble) and limestone (for manufacturing cement) at prominent portions of the slopes. As a result the adjacent mountains were left scarred with the wear and tear of the industry. The visual value of that resource was greatly diminished. We continued on leaving Teresa at a sad note, hoping to find better light in our next stop.

We moved through the towns of Baras and Morong, finally making a left turn at a Tanay intersection with a signange saying 'This way to Daranak Falls'. The path ascended to steeper elevation and we followed the way up up up. After a few kilometers we made another left turn and started to go downhill to the perceived valley of the two adjacent waterfalls, Daranak and Batlag. The road was rugged, flanked with a better vegetation cover than Hinulugang Taktak, a welcome change to the negative environmental conditions we saw in our first 2 destinations. The coaster braved a couple of minutes of dirt and potholes before making a halt. We all disembarked and continued on foot, crossing a long bamboo bridge and a rocky river, before finally getting a glimpse of Daranak Falls.

Surprisingly for a first time visitor like me, Daranak Falls water column rests on a shoulder of wide bare rock and falls into a basin of clear shallow water. Its sister falls, Batlag is in the same condition. But communities have started to sprout in the adjacent areas and the peripheries giving the apparent danger of exploitation, like in Hinulugang Taktak. We hope that Daranak and Batlag would stay a little more inaccessible to people to keep it naturally clean and beautiful for a longer time. We left both falls, hopeful that when we do get to return, we'll still find them in the same state.

We reached destination 4 a little before lunch. It was the look out point on the national highway, on the outskirts of Pililia. Here we could see the extents and boundaries of the whole Laguna de Bay. Though the mix of natural and developed areas was tilting towards the latter, the view was still awesome and breathtaking. Any landscape development in this area would still make use of the visual resource. But additional landscape and architecture should blend into the sight and not further hinder or block visual access. After rejuvenating with the picturesque view and a quick snack of quail eggs from vendors, we headed for the Laguna leg, and the second part, of our trip.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Native Ant Hoya in Bloom

Hoya darwinii is in bloom. The first time I saw this plant, I thought it was an introduced species, Hoya mitrata. I pressumed most of the native ant asclepiads were imbricate shields like Hoya imbricata and Dischidia cleistantha, imbricata and platyphylla. H. darwinii is unque with it bullate cupping leaves, sometimes forming clumps looking like balls where the ants could hide their colonies. I never knew an already interesting species could be arattractive rose colored flowers. Sure is worth keeping them in the garden, in bloom or not.