Can you name five Philippine native trees?
Ask this question to a Filipino and you are bound to get at least one correct answer—the popular Narra tree—among several wrong responses like Acacia and Mahogany.
Filipinos, especially students, think that commonly seen trees in school campuses, playgrounds and parks are native trees when in fact they are not. It is indeed disheartening to know that some of the biggest trees in the city are actually “foreigners” or introduced species in the country.
Introduction of exotic tree species in the Philippines started way back during to the barter trade era. It became more prevalent when agricultural and forestry schools opened during the American regime and started teaching reforestation techniques using trees that are familiar to Americans—Continental American native trees and other exotics used in trade. Examples of these trees are Mahogany, Gmelina, Mangium, Acacia and Ipil-ipil.
Furthermore, reforestation was done as a method to efficiently extract timber in the 1900s. This was synonymous to planting species that have: economic value; rapid growth for short cutting cycle, resistance to fire and other damage-causing elements; and easy growth and propagation.
Exotic trees further pervaded into Philippine forests through a law requiring the replanting of denuded (logged over) forests in the 1960s. Most timberlands and protected areas were planted with exotic trees as seen in the reforested areas in Minglanilla, Cebu, the Nasiping Reforestation Project in Cagayan, Paraiso reforestation in Ilocos Norte, Canlaon, reforestation in Negros, and Impalutao reforestation in Bukidnon.
These areas were planted with Mahogany, Gmelina and Mangium. By extension, exotic trees were then used in landscaping city sidewalks and parks. There was no public consciousness yet in ensuring the presence or conservation of native trees in public lands including the streets named after them.
Years after, Mahogany trees were discovered to be especially invasive in Philippine forests. One Mahogany tree can disperse 3,000 seeds up to 40 meters away from the mother tree. Its seeds germinate in less than a month and thrive despite the lack of sunlight.
Competing with this exotic species is very dismal for native trees like the Philippine dipterocarps (e.g. Lauan, Apitong and Yakal), which irregularly produce fruits and seeds at intervals of four to five years. Native biodiversity is affected because exotic trees are alien to them. It is distinctly seen in Mahagony plantations when there is not much undergrowth and birds are rarely seen despite the lushness of the area.
It must be emphasized that this problem is entirely because of human interference and not because the Mahogany or Gmelina and other exotic species is innately “bad” or “good.” It just happens that exotic tree species have evolved in another region, have their own roles or niche in their area that is quite deterrent for local biodiversity to thrive when grown in the Philippine environment.
Exotic trees may have its uses. Known to be fast growing, Mahogany lumber provides quick revenue. Most of the fruit trees were introduced to the Philippines and these have helped in the country’s food security. Filipinos have created several delightful food and recipes because of exotic trees. An adobo dish will never be complete without the fragrant laurel leaves that come from the Sweet bay tree that has a Mediterranean origin.
However, planting native trees in cities, backyards, parks, protected areas even cemeteries far outweigh the advantages of exotic trees. Exotic trees are more susceptible to disease outbreaks and extreme weather events. Native trees in contrast are more resilient and support a richer biodiversity. One of the reasons for this is that Philippine native fauna and flora have co-evolved for centuries.
An introduced species creates environmental changes that force native species to adapt or perish. Adaptation may take hundreds or thousands of years. If unable to adapt, a species can be rendered extinct or extirpated (locally extinct) from its original habitat.
Finding the right native tree species for people’s needs might take some effort but it can be rewarding for Philippine biodiversity and it makes a better and sustainable society. Filipinos can ensure that these plants remain common to all people, across generations and inculcate greater Philippine patriotism.
So the next time you join a tree planting activity, make sure that you are planting the appropriate native trees.
You can plant Narra or Katmon trees instead of Acacia in wide-open spaces or backyards, or Banaba instead of Golden Shower along sidewalks. You can start learning the names of native trees and sharing nuggets of information with friends or online. You can support campaigns that bring native trees on the frontline in reforestation efforts, landscaping, urban gardening and city planning. You can collect seeds from native mother trees and plant these in appropriate areas, or better yet donate them to institutions or communities undertaking tree-planting programs.
By collectively mainstreaming these into society, Filipinos can ensure that Philippine native trees will thrive in forests and commercial centers.
N.T. Baguinon, M.O. Quimado and G.J. Francisco University of the Philippines, Los Baños Forest Management Bureau, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). (NA). Country report on forest invasive species in the Philippines. Accessed from: ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/008/ae944e/ae944e02.pdf
Simberloff, D. (2000). Introduced Species: The Threat to Biodiversity & What Can Be Done. American Institute of Biological Sciences.
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