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.

1 comment:

Burn Gutierrez said...

Very interesting! I also remember having around 10 buyaboy trees as "patoto" (boundaries) in our small farm in Batangas. Great information to treasure, bro! Keep it up!