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