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Philippines Palms

Join Marcelo Aspiras on a visit to the Botanical Gardens of the Philippines to see some unusual and beautiful palms in this volcanic region.
Marcello Aspras, 38 Nelstrop Road, Heaton Chapel, Stockport, UK
Chamaerops No. 15, published online 23-08-2002

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Above: Nipa palms (Nypa fruticans) line a waterway, with coconuts (Cocos nucifera) in the background
Below left: Arenga undulatifolia
Below right: Oncosperma tigillarium.

A trip to the Philippines should be high on the agenda of every tropical plant enthusiast, particularly for those with an interest in rare and unusual palms. Situated just north of Indonesia, the Philippines experience a tropical monsoonal climate with two distinct seasons, wet and dry. However, local variations occur, with some areas experiencing a brief dry period and a much more extended rainy season. The Makiling Botanical Gardens, located about 30km south of the capital city of Manila, sit at the base of the Makiling Mountains (actually part of an extinct volcano), and therefore receive copious amounts of rainfall for most of the year.


The Philippine archipelago is laced with volcanoes, mostly dormant but a few erupt violently from time to time, creating all sorts of havoc and disrupting the livelihood of the local inhabitants. Fortunately, the gardens themselves were spared the full force of Mt. Pinatubo, a long dormant volcano about 300km north of Manila, which erupted in early June 1991. The tremendous impact of the cataclysm and the ensuing mudflows (during the eruption, a typhoon struck the area and further exacerbated already dire conditions) did much to decimate surrounding tracts of virgin rainforest and to ruin agricultural lands. Within a few days of the eruption, an inch of volcanic ash had been deposited over the actual gardens and nearby towns. Nonetheless, I did not actually witness any evidence of physical destruction that may have been attributed to Mt. Pinatubo's eruption. This was probably because I visited the gardens in the summer of 1993, a full two years after the catastrophe and more than enough time to allow for nature to regenerate itself.

On the contrary, while approaching the gardens by car in my ascent, I could not fail to be impressed by the luxuriant thickets of giant bamboo draping the lower reaches of the mountains like a green mantle. Neatly organised coconut, banana and fruit plantations flanked either side of the road, while the occasional precipitous gorge or bare, gaping chasm struck a discordant note in this otherwise verdant rhapsody. Eventually, I arrived at the gardens where I was greeted by a local guide standing near a derelict gatepost. Somewhat startled by my sudden arrival, he congenially guided me throughout my tour of the gardens.


I immediately noticed sturdy clumps of Cyrtostachys renda, (sealing wax palm) a most beautiful palm noted for its distinctive vermilion trunk and shaft. Indigenous to Malaysia, this palm has become naturalised throughout the Philippines. Nearby towered some mature specimens of Oncosperma tigillarum, the nibung palm, which may reach a height of 80ft and whose slender trunks are studded with sharp spines. Usually found in brackish, riverine environments throughout Southeast Asia, the palms at Makiling were thriving happily in dry, grassy knolls. They also typically cohabit estuaries with the nipa palm (Nypa fruticans), a peculiar palm that actually requires waterlogged environments in order to survive. Although fine specimens were growing at Makiling, this palm is ubiquitous in coastal areas of the Philippines, where its leaves are utilised for thatching and other innumerable purposes.


A large section of the gardens is primary, undisturbed rainforest. Walking in trails that traverse the interior of the forest can provide one with a unique cross-section of this fascinating tropical ecosystem. Doing just that, I encountered majestic stands of hardwoods of the family Dipterocarpaceae, whose different genera are widely represented in the major Southeast Asian rainforests. An outstanding feature of some of these trees was their heavily buttressed roots and quite a few loomed at least 15Oft above me with their top-heavy crowns. Lianas with stems as thick as a man's thigh were freely intertwined amongst these forest giants and amid them were mature specimens of Calamus, those climbing palms whose sinewy, spinecovered trunks are the source of the rattan used in cane furniture.


Probing deeper into the forest, I began to observe scattered groupings of the sugar palm (Arenga pinnata) usually near areas where clearings had been made. The maintenance staff of the gardens selectively clear areas abutting the trails where the vegetation has run riot. A striking feature of the sugar palms was the silvery backs of their long, pinnate leaves, which seemed to glisten even in the subdued light of the forest milieu. Meanwhile, I noticed hundreds of seedlings of Livistona rotundifolia, a type of fan palm, arranged almost diagonally in the forest floor like tiles in a chequerboard. My guide mentioned that they were probably dropped by horabills, who apparently fancy the fruits of this palm and are at home amongst the taller trees of the forest canopy. I also spotted the odd Licuala, or ruffled fan palm, amongst bamboo undergrowth that grew profusely along the embankment of a stream. Their nearly rotund, entire leaves appear beautifully sculpted, which certainly underscores their reputation as one of the more outstanding palms of the tropics.


Of course there was also a wide variety of other plants, many of which probably have yet to be classified. The Philippines have about 10,000 species of flowering plants, many of which are indigenous to the archipelago. It might interest horticultural buffs to know that Medinilla magnifica, Mussaenda philippica and the jade vine, Strongylodon macrobotrys, were originally "discovered" by botanists in the Makiling rainforest itself and in an adjacent forested mountain range. These plants are now cultivated in the worldwide tropics as ornamentals and occasionally as houseplants in temperate regions.

It was just as I was about to depart that I learned from my guide that the gardens were established by the American colonial authorities then governing the Philippines at the turn of the century. Originally attached to the University of the Philippines, the gardens eventually evolved into an autonomous institution, which partly undertook the Herculean task of systematically identifying new specimens from the Philippine rainforest. It also played a pivotal role in the Philippines' agricultural development by serving as a repository for seedlings of plantation crops such as rubber and even hardwoods like teak. Nowadays horticultural staff at the gardens have been involved in breeding tropical ornamental plants like orchids and palms, some with actual export potential.


But for whatever reason one is attracted to botanical gardens, Making is certain to please. Although it is not as renowned as other botanical gardens in the Far East such as Singapore or Bogor in Indonesia, Makiling redeems itself solely by virtue of its remarkably pristine physical setting. I collected some seeds of the sealing wax and nibung palms, ambitious in my desire to try to propagate them under controlled conditions back in the UK. None of the seeds has as yet germinated in a heated propagator in my bathroom. Alas, perhaps the palms are best appreciated at home in their tropical environment, where they grace the landscape with their stunningly unique beauty.

Did you know....?

Of the 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines archipelago, spread over 1,600 km from north to south, 11 account for 94% of the total area and house most of the population. Of these Luzon and Mindanao are the most important. The archipelago is of volcanic origin, forming part of 'the Ring of Fire of the Pacific'. The terrain is mountainous with large coastal plains where sugar cane, hemp, copra and tobacco are grown. The climate is tropical with heavy rainfall and dense rainforests. The country is the main producer of iron ore in Southeast Asia, and there are chrome and copper deposits.

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