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The once-and-future plantito

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Oct 05, 2020 5:00 am

The local garden I most envied decades ago was sculptor Jerry Araos’ impishly-named “The Garden of Two Dragons F**king.” Laid out over a spread of land in lower Antipolo, it had ponds, pools and confabulations of stone trails, rock circles and megaliths that inspired the landscapist to compose a book about his evolving creations.

I recall that Jerry’s favorite plant was the cycad, of which he had a score bursting up as spirals in several areas. He once explained why it was his favorite: something about its age in history. When Jerry left us in 2012, hundreds of friends bade him farewell by lining up all around the plant-strewn mazes and mini-forests he had composed as a dragon slayer.

Abroad, memorable moments still stand out — of traipsing around Walden Pond with its cushy beds of fallen autumn leaves, or driving through the routes of color change in Michigan, elated at the season’s munificence.

Of man-made forests and tended gardens, there have been the botanical gardens of London and Sydney, the Japanese tributes to austere aesthetic principles, the topiary at Thai temple courtyards, and formal layouts of greenery that led to poets’ mausoleums in Tehran. And there’s the fabulous place where I’d love to wander about often despite the ticket cost, if I lived there: the 101-hectare Gardens By The Bay at Singapore’s Marina.

Affinity with foliage had me picking up dried seeds of cosmos in Tehran, as I had done elsewhere, and slipping them inside my coat pocket. Weeks later, in my own garden, the colorful blooms turned cosmic indeed.

The Brazilian annatto tree I most miss

I’ve sowed hundreds of seeds and replanted just as many seedlings, stalks and grafted branches for much of my life. For someone who has never been part of landed gentry, I’m pretty proud of that.

It started half-a-century ago with tomatoes and cannabis in a side plot by an apartment in Teachers’ Village, QC. Both flourished and led to happy harvests.

Reading up on the subject, I learned how to develop a compost pit, and transferred its produce to a streetside plot by the driveway, where I replanted a three-foot-high eucalyptus purchased from the Manila Seedling Bank by EDSA. The tree I called “Freddie” shot up in no time, and turned into the tallest in the block in two years’ time.

This blue gum wasn’t only pretty with its camouflage-pattern bark and stately bearing. Its leaves could also be steeped in a hot tub for inhaling or immersing in when beset with cough or a flu. It worked very well with kids too, while ladies loved its fragrance.

When our young family was privileged to take over a cabin in Bangaan, a town off Sagada, dropping by a German-run plant station in Baguio meant coming away with a jacaranda sapling. Planting it outside the cabin’s kitchen, I hoped for blooms in a few years, expecting it to be blue and not pink flowers. As a litmus-test tree, the jacaranda would confirm the acidity in soil plagued by pine needles.

I never did get to see that jacaranda bloom. But decades later, I found myself standing on the top of a hill street in Pretoria, South Africa, marveling at the rows of blue jacarandas leading to the center of town.

Back in the late ’80s, I became aware of the neem tree’s supposed capacity to repel mosquitoes. So I lined up four fast-growing trees to front a modest house in UP Village. Moving to Valle Verde in the mid-’90s, I made sure to bring neem seeds, which I propagated in empty lots close to ours in the village. The thing is, I never did see its expected effect on mosquitoes.

Valle Verde 5’s roadsides were mostly planted to acacia magnium, which sent out yellow flower clusters. I added a giant caballero from the seedling bank, which grew fast in our front pavement. But an overzealous driver chopped off the spreading higher branches, so that it never did recover from its sulk.

What I became gratified with were a traveler’s palm that shielded a bedroom balcony, stands of lobster-claw heliconias that provided gorgeous cut-flower arrangements, brown torch ginger, a Buddha Belly dwarf bamboo, monstera adansonii or Swiss cheese long before it gained its current popularity, a podocarpus that I prune-trained by our facade, and a few meters away, to frame our front doors, a Mary Palmer bougainvillea with pink and white attractions.

I also grew golden pothos, dieffenbachia, philodendron, caladiums, ferns, hanging plants, succulents led by aloe vera, bromeliads, and varieties of tillandsia strung up on bark and deadwood.

What I never managed to keep was staghorn fern, and the pitcher plants brought down from the roadside crags on the road to Danom Lake from Sagada. Oh, and the passion fruit from the highlands, just like the milflores — bulbs of which I smuggled in from the Netherlands — didn’t thrive either.

But that’s how it is with gardening: win some, lose some — unless one had a budget comparable to Singapore’s, in which case we’d enjoy rows of baobabs in a farm.

Another species that couldn’t thrive in the metropolis was that curious-looking shrub incorrectly called the Mickey Mouse plant for the yellow fruits that appeared to have ears. It’s actually the nipple plant, Solanum mammosum — decorative sprigs of which are sold as long-lasting cut flowers at yearend.

We found out that it preferred the higher altitude in Indang, Cavite, from where we kept harvesting the colorful stems rife with bulbs in time for Christmas decor on our grill gate.

By the way, what’s correctly called the Mickey Mouse bush with small red flowers and black-eye centers I eventually found in another Valle Verde village. It’s the same one I had to relocate from last year as an empty nest. And the move to my present townhouse resulted in the loss of much of the flora I had cultivated — among them the Brazilian annatto tree I had transplanted from a politico’s garden in Puerto Princesa. That, and a potted pink caladium as well as garlic vine given by amiga Edna Manlapaz, and much more. 

Now, I just tend to about three dozen pots on a balcony — of hibiscus, yellow bell, snake plants, sinamomo, aglaonema, Thai basil, fishtail fern, mayana, bluewings, and a dama de noche I’m hoping will bloom in its large pot.

But I’m happy that the lockdown has spawned countless plantitas and plantitos, despite the rising prices and poaching. I imagine my friends happy with their gardens: BenCab with his prolific farm in Baguio, replete with jade vines, coffee et al.; Butz Abad personally pruning the topiary in his backyard in Batanes; Valentine Willie in his lush garden in Ubud; Beng Dalisay who somehow grows red torch ginger in her UP Diliman garden; Wig Tysmans and Milo Sogueco ratcheting up their potted collections; Cesar Aljama with his garden of fragrance; Little Wing the “caladium queen”; Ginny Mata with her varieties of basil plus other herbs; Rose Marie Bautista with her magical trellis; Rica Bolipata Santos, Felice Sta. Maria, Karen Berthelsen Cardenas and Phyllis Zaballero with their expansive gardens; poet Merlie Alunan’s green thumb in Tacloban; Marj Evasco’s bamboo grove guarding her front door; and Marilen Espino with her enviable Saraca tree, the “king of flowering trees,” and Brownea, or Rose of Venezuela, in her Alabang garden.

Us plant lovers will always have our day in the sun.