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Plantitos and plantitas of the ’60s

By PAULO ALCAZAREN, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 27, 2020 4:00 pm Updated Nov 27, 2020 10:15 am

A pamphlet published by the UP Garden Club gives us a glimpse of the plantito/plantita movement half a century ago.

One of the few good things to come out of this quarantine is that people have discovered or rediscovered gardening. Many have become plantitos and plantitas, enjoying the therapeutic effect of caring for decorative or edible plants.

The other good thing in this pandemic is that it has allowed some of us the opportunity to clean our bauls and I’ve been finding lost items of ephemera. One such gem is a pamphlet published by the UP Garden Club, which gives us a glimpse of the plantito/plantita movement half a century ago.

The pamphlet, printed in 1965, was entitled, “The Pursuit of Beauty with the UP Garden Club. The front cover featured “The Bathing Lady” by Ildefonso Marcelo, a student of National Artist Napoleon Abueva. (This was one of three statues he did and which were installed nearby, including "Captivity" and "Contemplation.”)

  The UP Garden Club was one of the pioneering garden clubs in the metropolis. and Mona Lisa Steiner's book on Ornamental Plants was our bible for greening in the 1950s to the 1980s.

The UP Diliman campus in the 1960s had filled up with buildings after over a decade of construction. The acacias that line its inner loop road were maturing rapidly. Academic residents banded together to enhance the greenery in their enclave, which was isolated from central Manila.

Hopefully this new generation will push for re-greening beyond condominium balconies and suburban lots. What is needed is the re-greening of our mountains and valleys to help address the problems of flooding and climate change

Eight residents of the campus, headed by Dean Victorino Villa, established the club in April of 1957. It held its first garden and flower show in December of that year, and regularly after that through the 1960s. First ladies Leonila Garcia and after her, Eva Macapagal, were regular sponsors.

The club and its garden shows were matched by similar clubs’ events in Manila, Makati, Cebu and other urban centers nationwide. A group of plantitos and pantitas of the era, Benito F. Legarda, Dr. Eduardo Quisumbing, Mona Lisa Steiner, Eugenio E. Cruz, Minerva Laudico and  Federico Mangahas pushed for annual community beautification contests. 

 First Lady Eva Macapagal was instrumental in Rizal Park's re-greening.

Mr. Legarda and Mr. Mangahas then thought it was a good idea to consolidate efforts and hence the United Garden Clubs of the Philippines was born in 1962. The first national conference of garden clubs was held at the UP campus that year.

Mona Lisa Steiner wrote a regular column on gardens in a Manila broadsheet and authored several books, one of which — Philippine Ornamental Plants and Their Care — became our reference for ornamental plants when I studied landscape architecture under National Artist IP Santos in the 1970s.

 The Cebu Garden Club was headed by Mrs. Remedios Canizares.

Carlos P. Romulo, president of the university at the time, sent a message: “The quality of any culture is usually judged in terms of its attention to the achievement of beauty. Whether we respond to a culture through its attainment in architecture, painting, literature or music, it is always by the standards of beauty that we come to judge its quality… I congratulate the UP Garden Club for its consistent effort to realize a context of life on our campus truly expressive of our constant desire for excellence.”

The first ladies Mrs. Garcia and Mrs. Macapagal were quoted. Eva Macapagal said, “I love gardening. It teaches me to be patient and content while my husband goes up and down the country trying to save it. The company of flowers requires nothing and gives everything in showing me how to discover fun beyond the envy of neighbors and the wives of rival statesmen.”

Mrs. Garcia contributed, “The organization of a garden club in every town… in the Philippines should receive our wholehearted encouragement. Garden Clubs will contribute a great deal in arousing a better appreciation of the wonders and the bounties which nature has to offer and thus make life in our rural communities more appealing.”

  First Lady Leonila Garcia was a key sponsor at the birth of the UP Garden Club.

The pamphlet included several articles on ferns, endemic plants, and how to plan a garden show, as well as letters from other garden clubs and prominent garden enthusiasts in the country and overseas. Interestingly, a number of plants were mentioned that have since been widely used in landscape designs from the 1970s onwards. These include the Mussaenda Philippincas (Doña Auroras), azaleas, Medinilla magnificas, banabas, cassia javanicas, and the balitbitan (Cunometra ramiflora).

From the mid-1960s, the efforts of these garden clubs increased and brought about an awareness of the importance of greening Philippine cities. It was also at this time that pioneer designers IP Santos and Dolly Perez acquainted the public with the relatively unheard-of profession of landscape architecture.

The efforts of the club and the emerging new profession merged with initiatives like the Rizal Park and Paco Park. The two sites were the focus of garden clubs and garden enthusiasts’ efforts before professional landscape architects were brought in to finalize and move forward with greening programs for these parks.

 Clubs visited each other’s gardens to exchange notes and plant material in the 1960s.

Garden clubs continued to grow all through the last quarter of the 20th century. Today gardening has seen a new surge provided by the realities of the pandemic. A new generation of plantitos and plantitas has emerged.

Hopefully this new generation will push for re-greening beyond condominium balconies and suburban lots. What is needed is the re-greening of our mountains and valleys to help address the problems of flooding and climate change. What the future needs is to make all Filipinos plantitos and plantitas, so the new normal will be one that is both green and sustainable.

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Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at [email protected].

Banner Photo by Brianna Martinez from Pexels