Friday, July 07, 2006

josef george kamel, s.j. drawing of nipa

Nipa [Nipa fruticans or Nypa fruticans]

“Bahay kubo, kahit munti.” The cube-shaped ubiquitous bahay or balay was a staple of countryside scenery. Today, the balay is disappearing replaced by reinforced concrete, glass and galvanized iron sheet houses in pseudo-Mediterranean or neo-Spanish colonial style, the fruit of hard-earned cash by overseas Filipino workers. But these results of “katas ng Saudi” or Japan, Kuwait, or wherever Filipinos are (and that’s everywhere on the planet) has not erased the mythic aura of the simple and small one-room bahay. It is still part of the national imaginary, resurrected whenever there is need to look Filipino and rural.

This bahay, this dwelling, is truly the fruit of the land, as it is built completely of vegetable matter: bamboo, vines, coconut trunks, timber and—nipa. (Of course, there are those to take short cuts by replacing bamboo dowels with nails, but that’s not how the traditional bahay was built).

Nipa or sasa is known as attap palm, mangrove palm or nipah in the Malaysian Peninsula. Attap in Melayu simply means roof. Nipa grows near the shore often in association with mangrove. Its habitat are the tidal swamps surrounding islands and the banks of waterways leading to the sea. Nipa grows best where tidal and river currents are slow and where there is a generous layer of soft black nutrient rich mud. Part of the plant is submarine, as its roots and short trunk are submerged under water. What rises above the water are the leaves and the flower stalks.

Kamel presents a set of drawings of the nipa, capturing quite accurately the globular inflorescence of the female flowers and the catkin-like male flowers below.

The leaves can grow as high as 9 meters and the flowers mature into a globular cluster of seeds about 25 cm across. As seeds ripen they fall one by one and are dispersed by the tide.

Architectural use: The compound leaf of the nipa produces broad but elongated leaflets. These are separated then folded over a bamboo stick and sewn together with rattan, vine or the outer sheath of the bamboo, drawn thin and fine like a cord. These shingles about a meter in length (width depends on the nipa leaf used) are laid on top of each other for roofing. The distance between shingles depends how thick (therefore how waterproof and long-lasting) the roof is meant to be. Closely shingled roofs with each shingle about an inch apart can last a decade, unless damaged by a strong typhoon or by fire.

In Capiz province, a folk unit used for measuring distances of shingles is the matchbox (approximately 1.25 in x 2.00 in). Closely shingled roofs are distant for the space of isa ka posporo nga nagahigda, that is, a matchbox laid horizontally, while the more distant measure is posporo nga nagatindog, that is, a matchbox laid vertically.

Culinary note: The nipa inflorescence like the coconut’s is tapped before blossoming and yields a sweet sap that is fermented to make tuba sa nipa, an alcoholic drink. In Quezon province, the tuba is processed by distillation to make the potent lambanog (pure alcohol 80 to 90 proof). This is lambanog sa sasa, commonly found in Infanta and Polilio Island. Other sources of lambanog are coconut tuba and sugar cane, but the last named is considered an inferior source.

If allowed to ferment through the action of yeasts, tuba begins to sour by late afternoon. Kept in covered earthen jars, called tapayan, tuba becomes a vinegar known for its sourness and distinct flavor notes that cannot be found in vinegar from other sources like rice wine and sugar. Paombong, Bulacan is noted for its tuba vinegar, called eponymously, sukang Paombong.

josef george kamel, s.j. drawing of duhat or lumboy

Duhat Syn. lumboy, longboy.
Another fruit that evokes childhood memories, duhat or lomboy. English is Java plum (Syzygium cumini L.).

Like the santol duhat is a summer fruit. The fruit comes in clusters, has a thin purple skin and white pulp. Like the santol there is hardly anything to eat, as it has a big seed relative to the size of the fruit. Duhat is eaten by being dipped in salt and sugar because the fruit is generally sour and tart. It is also shaken in a glass container with salt and sugar. The resulting mash is a child’s summer delight. The trees leathery leaves are rolled and dried as cigarette wrapping or as substitute for tobacco.

Worth noting: Kamel uses the Visayan word for duhat, which is longboy or lumboy rather than the Tagalog word. This suggests that he was acquainted with Visayan plants, which he probably knew from reports submitted by Jesuit missionaries in the Visayan islands of Samar, Leyte, Panay, Cebu and Bohol. He may have also visited these islands.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

josef george kamel, s.j. drawing of a male antipolo leaf

Antipolo also atipolo, tipolo (Artocarpus blancoi (Elm.) Merr.). Except for shade and occasional use for lumber, this member of the breadfruit family bears fruit, which is not eaten—usually. The tree is dimorphic, the male recognized by its parted leaf and the female by its obovate leaf.

But the tree is the stuff of legend and gave its name to hilltop town now a city in the ‘burbs of Manila. Antipolo is the site of the shrine to the Virgin Mary under the title of Nuestra Señora de la Paz y Buenviaje. The name refers to a small ebony statue of the Immaculate Conception given as a gift to the Jesuits by Gov. Gen Juan Niño de Tabora in 1626. The Jesuits took the gift to a mission station they were running and enshrined it in the mission church.

Not long afterwards, the image was chosen as the patron of the galleon, which plied the Manila-Acapulco trade route. The voyages, where this image was carried and where the passengers and crew evoked the intercession of the Virgin Mary, did the round trip successfully. No violent storms, no dangerous shoals, no pirates or armadas of Spain’s enemies for a total of 14 voyages.

In gratitude, the image was returned to its mountain shrine in a fluvial procession through the Pasig River. Beginning in Manila, the procession wove through Pasig’s meandering stream until it reached Laguna de Ba-e and the lakeshore town of Taytay, whence the procession proceeded on foot for the rest of the journey. This processional route would be traced annually by pilgrims who went to visit the shrine during the month of May. In colonial times, it was de rigueur to visit the shrine for anyone about to embark on a long journey. For being patroness of successful ocean voyages, the image earned the title Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage.

Oral tradition has it that the first Mass, and subsequently the first church of Antipolo, was at a site now called Pinagmisahan. But after the return of the image, the image would disappear from the altar time and again and after diligent search was found again and again on top of an antipolo or tipolo tree. This mysterious translation of the image, which generally happened at night, was read as a sign that the Virgin wanted a bigger church built on the spot where the image was found.

Heeding this divine missive, the townspeople built a sumptuous shrine at the new site in the 17th century. By 1715, the church was lavishly decorated, thanks to the donations of numerous patrons who believed that the image was miraculous.

The annual summer pilgrimage to Antipolo is vibrant as ever. But the old riverine processional route is no longer followed. Instead pilgrims go to Antipolo by car or by foot through two roads about 18 kilometers long, that lead up the hill. The volume of pilgrims has so increased that the official “pilgrimage month” begins in late March and extends to mid-July.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

josef george kamel, s.j. drawing of saint ignatius bean

Igasud [Strychnos ignatii Berg.] also known as katalonga, katbalonga, katbalongan, agwason, dankagi, gasud, kanlara. Faba Sancti Ignatii (Portuguese). Nux vomicae.

July is the month of St. Ignatius Loyola. This year is special because it is the 450th anniversary of his death; he died 31 July 1556. A medicinal plant was named after him known in the Visayas as igasud.

Before there was Prozac or Valium, there was igasud, listed in the ancient medicinal books as a remedy for emotional distress such as grief and anxiety, and the physical symptoms these cause like insomnia and bedwetting. It is also recommended in homeopathic medicine as a remedy for those afflicted with the “3 S’s … sitting, sighing, sobbing” sure sign of the broken hearted ( Homeopathic Remedies for the 21st century).

The Jesuits introduced the seed of this plant to Europe and gave it the name St. Ignatius bean. Franz Seidenschwarz describes the plant as “a large, woody vine with opposite leaves, white flowers and globose yellowish fruits.” The seed is used as a folk cure for stomach pain (Seidenschwarz, 1994. Plant world of the Philippines, p. 122). It is said that the plant was discovered in the Philippines whence it was disseminated throughout the medical world. The eminent Philippine historian Fr. Horacio dela Costa, S.J. suggests so; he writes: “Brother Kamel seems to have been the first to call the attention of European pharmacologists to the Saint Ignatius bean … one of the plants from which strychnine is derived. The ‘bean’ is really the seed of a vine known to the Visayans as igasud, and probably got its Spanish name from the Jesuits of Catbalogan, where it was common” (Dela Costa, 1961, Jesuits in the Philippines: 1581-1768 [Cambridge: Harvard University Press], p. 557).

However, Kamel’s notation that the term was from Portuguese (Lusitanis) suggests that the nut was discovered elsewhere. Spanish rather than the Portuguese Jesuits were assigned to the Philippines; if the Spanish Jesuits introduced the plant to the pharmacological world, why would Kamel ascribe the obviously Latin name to the Portuguese and not to the Spanish? Why then is the bean’s naming ascribed to the Portuguese?

It is possible that the bean may have indeed originated in the Philippines and was discovered by the Portuguese Jesuits through the lively Asian trade. They may have known the seed first before the plant. Prior to European colonization goods have been brought to and from the Philippines—to as far as the Middle East, thanks to the sailing prowess of Muslim traders from the Arabian peninsula. The loose ovate seeds of about 25 mm length, rather than the fruit, which contained about 10 to 15 tough seeds, were probably traded in the Asian market as medicine. Perhaps, the Jesuits were already familiar with the seed before they landed in the Philippines, where the botanist Kamel would learn about the plant from which this marvelous seed came. This would then be similar to the introduction of Jesuit bark or quinine to the European market. Powdered bark was first traded in the market and only subsequently did the tree from which it came became known to Europe. Jesuits are not even credited with introducing this medicine to Europe but they did have a lively trade in the bark, procuring it from their mission stations, so that they had a virtual monopoly of the trade, hence the name.

The active mood-changing ingredient, which makes the Ignatius bean still an important ingredient in homeopathic medicine is Strychnine, hence, the scientific name Strychnos Ignatii or iganita amara.

Now I wonder if the Jesuits of old used this wonder drug to arrive at consolation or whether they prescribed it to retreatants, who were in spiritual doldrums. Hard to know and hard to check this days because the bean has been eased out of the market by more efficient ways of extracting strychnine from other sources.

Monday, July 03, 2006

josef george kamel, s.j. drawing of narra

Narra [Pterocarpus indicus Wild] Syn: nara, naga, dungos, asana. This is a large tree growing to 25 m. If left to grow apart from other trees it develops a wide crown, but in dense tropical forests it grows straight and tall and has a crown at the very top. The trunk is supported by buttress roots called dalig in Tagalog. The tree is indigenous to Southeast Asia. It sheds its leaves after the cold season and quickly shoots young leaves better adapted to the coming summer months. Around March or April, narra blooms profusely but for a short time. After one day its small bright yellow flowers fall to the ground. After that seed pods develop.

Narra also known as Philippine mahogany is treasured for its fine-grained reddish brown or blond hardwood (narrang-pula and narrang-puti or narra blanca, respectively). Tindalo or balayong (Afzelia rhomboides Vidal) is often mistaken for red narra, which it resembles. Tindalo as the scientific name points out belongs to an altogether different genus from narra. The confusion is further exacerbated because tindalo is also known as mahogany. The term “mahogany” does not designate a particular tree; mahogany rather is a trade name for lumber that may come from various hardwood trees like narra or balayong or yakal (Shorea astylosa) or the South American mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) introduced as landscaping material by the Americans early in the 20th century. Mahogany’s characteristics are that it close-grained, tropical in origin and has a reddish brown hue.

Polished to a shine narra is used for furniture, floor and wall boards. The lumber tends to retain its natural oil for years and hence is easy to maintain. It is hardly used as structural members of a house that being answered by harder woods like molave, dungon and the like.

The narra is the Philippine national tree.

josef george kamel, s.j. drawing of molave

Molave [Vitex parviflora] Syn: mulawin, mulawun, tugas

This resilient tree can compete with kamagong for hardness. The appeal of its lumber, however, is its light blond color. This hardy tree grows even in rocky soil. Its tough roots can slowly crack stone as the tree seeks for nourishing water. Molave grows to 15 meters. It sends out small blue flowers before or during the summer months, which mature into globose berries up to 6 cm in diameter.

Molave lumber is used for posts, floor boards, furniture and for contrasting wood inlay. For furniture, molave is not highly recommended because the lumber is “malikot”, that is, it shrinks and expands with changes in weather. It is also hard to work because, carpenter’s say, its grains are not straight but curve like rivulets.

“Like the Molave” is well-known literary piece by Rafael Zulueta da Costa. It won the Commonwealth Literary Award for Poetry. Ironically, it was an anti-American piece, and how it passed the judges is a big question. It challenges the Filipino to grow like the molave.

The poem begins by calling national hero José Rizal to rise once more and lead his people grown weak and dependent on a new set of colonial masters and ends with the stirring conclusion:

I want our people to grow and be
like the molave, strong and resilient,
rising on the hillside, unafraid,
of the raging flood, the lightning or
the storm, confident of its own strength.
Lines attributed to Manuel L. Quezon, the president of the Commonwealth.