Wednesday, April 6, 2016

El Niño Triggers Flowering of Plants


Dr Abe V Rotor
 Profuse flowering of kapok (Ceiba pentandra) predicts extreme drought condition. 
 Flowering of bamboo is another indication of El Niño, which comes in a cycle of 7 years, hence the biblical dream  of the Pharaoh of Egypt which Joseph interpreted as 7 years of plenty, followed by 7 years of famine.  For  prediction the Pharoah appointed Joseph governor of Egypt.  He introduced the concept and practice of maintaining buffer stock, the mainstay of food security today.

"The chestnut has a flower!” My friend Dr. Sel Cabigan called, his word breaking the dry and warm morning air.

There I saw a single bud, the size and shape of a pencil, off-white, shy, peeping from under the tree’s palm shaped leaves, and bearing a glistening dewdrop. Frankly, it was the first time I had seen a chestnut, and flowering at that, on Philippine soil - and blooming at a very early age. Dr. Cabigan and I, who are both agriculturists, just stood beside the breast-high tree, silent as we pondered.

That year was an El Niño year. El Niño starts on the equator west of Peru when warm water accumulates on the surface and sets the current to move down south along the edge of Peru, only to be blocked by the El Niño current moving up from the south pole. The standstill exacerbates warming, causing heavy precipitation in the region, depriving the other half of the globe of sufficient rainfall, and setting aberrations in climatic patterns in different parts of the world. This phenomenon - together its counterpart, La Niña (opposite pattern)- arises from geographic patterns of land masses. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans are blocked by the Isthmus of Panama down the tip of South America. It is only near the Antarctic where they exchange warm and cool water before flowing back to the equator. But for other reasons heretofore unknown, this "bridge" is blocked. This phenomenon occurs in cycle and each time it does, it is on Christmas eve, for which it got its name, Child Jesus.

This climatic phenomenon was approaching its main stage which spans two to three years, then comes back after seven years normal years. That’s why some people call it the seven-year itch, and science summed up the cycle into a ten-year period, with a rare sub-cycle in between. El Niño is characterized by extreme dry and hot weather conditions, the rains coming late and very little, thus farmers fail to plant on time or harvest so little, sending the economy to its knees. It precipitated the declaration of Martial Law in the country in 1971 plagued by acute food shortage and widespread unrest. El Niño had another episode in the early eighties which caused a loss of billions of dollars worldwide. The nineties were equally bad, and now came the twenties which caused the highest deficit in rice production forcing the country to import rice, ten percent of its annual consumption, translated into one million metric tons.

El Niño triggers a number of botanical phenomena. The red Passiflora vine carpeting the Grotto in a garden at St. Paul University QC bore a full-grown fruit. Although it is a relative of the edible passion fruit, this species has sterile flowers, but stress must have stimulated the plant to produce fruit and ultimately seeds, a way of preserving the species. There was a rare species of Pandanus that produced curious fruits resembling breadfruit. I suppose that in the wild, the fruits split open upon maturity in order to disseminate the seeds. Animals feed on them and scatter the seeds in the process.

The climbing Derris does not normally flower, but here it displayed a bouquet of bright pink flowers arranged like a huge lei. In many respects, the flowers resemble those of legume including madre de cacao and katuray. Derris is a legume that contains a toxic principle, rotenone, which makes it useful to farmers as natural insecticide.

One of the five rambutan seedlings now three years ago suddenly bloomed, indeed too young to reproduce. Just like any maiden flower, it did not develop into fruit. Neither did the flowers of the lone pili standing near the pond and the Chico. In the case of the two, being monoecious plants, their flowers settle only in the presence of a male counterpart. “But who knows, some busy bees can bring in the pollen from a far place?”  Sel said, short of betting for his hypothesis. There’s no doubt pollinators cross kilometers to deliver their goods, riding of wind and water, the nocturnal ones like moths and skippers navigate accurately in the night to reach their destination by dawn, and by morning the receptive female flowers get their prize.

To an observant eye and sensitive olfactory sense, the garden had a cinnamon whose flowers exude the characteristic condiment odor. Alagao, lagundi, dita, molave – and of course, ilang-ilang, make the morning air naturally scented. The only date palm then in this garden flowered for the first time, mocked by a much taller and older neighboring fishtail palm in having profuse flowers, littering the surrounding grounds. Mature nuts that fell to the ground germinated into numerous seedlings.


 Kalumpang blooms full in extreme dry summer, QC


Gardens at this time of the year are at their best looking form, brandishing varied colors, not only of their flowers but leaves, young and old, and other parts. Let me cite the red palm (bright red leaf sheaths), bunga de Jolo (bright red ripe nuts in clusters), croton or San Franscisco (variegated and multicolored leaves), bougainvillea (false flowers, actually specialized leaves, are white, red, pink, and shades of different combination). The talisay or umbrella tree demonstrates a classical example of deciduousness, its leaves turning to yellow, orange, red and purple before dropping to the ground.

Even the champagne palm, betel nut, McArthur palm respond to the dry spell with forced inflorescences. The shingle tree, relative of nangka and other relatives – the figs (Ficus spp) are abloom.

Pond plants respond to El Niño, especially on shallow area, dried mudflats and along the banks. Cattails (Typha) and papyrus bend to the weight of their flowers. Waterlies – Nynmphaea and Eichornia may appear to have more flowers than leaves. So with the lotus. There are many annual plants that are also full of flowers.

But the most classical of the El Niño phenomenon is the flowering of the bamboo. Yes, bamboos do bear flowers. Since it is a grass its inflorescence is similar to that of rice, corn and grass weeds. According to the old folks, and validated by science, a bamboo flowers only in hard times. Extreme drought triggers the plants to save its own species. As predicted by its flowering, surely the economic crisis is with us.

The the peak of El Niño in China, panda bears face food shortage because the bamboos either remain dormant or die, so that supplemental feed coming from areas not affected by drought becomes necessary. Otherwise the bears starve and die, or migrate to other areas where they become vulnerable to various danger.

These are mainly indigenous, how about the exotic ones which have yet to adjust to their new environment? Dr. Cabigan and I could not agree on what a tree was, claimed to have been brought from Rome by a religious sister. I said it is similar to that of a locquat, which I had seen in China. Some say it is fig, others, nut – like chestnut.

One morning, Dr. Cabigan called me again, this time to tell me that the mystery tree had flowered. Every morning we visited the buds to see if they had opened. One by one the buds shrank and fell to the ground, leaving a mystery to us. By its buds, we concluded it is neither Smyrna nor locquat. Both of us just told any inquirer it is a St. Agnes tree, the name of the religious sister who inrtroduced the plant.

Indeed, El Niño holds many mysteries, the botanical garden the arena of awe and respect to the One who make all these possible. More than anything in difficult times, the preparation for death is also a preparation for rebirth and resurrection. And this is what makes the garden truly beautiful.~

* Reprint of previous article of the same title published in Paulinews, circa 1998. This is a tribute to the former gardeners of the EcoSanctuary of the St Paul University, then College, the only botanical garden of its kind.  New and high rise buildings have ensconced the once spacious garden, which as a consequence, lost its ecological significance.        Dr Abe V Rotor
 Profuse flowering of kapok (Ceiba pentandra) predicts extreme drought condition. 
 Flowering of bamboo is another indication of El Niño, which comes in a cycle of 7 years, hence the biblical dream  of the Pharaoh of Egypt which Joseph interpreted as 7 years of plenty, followed by 7 years of famine.  For  prediction the Pharoah appointed Joseph governor of Egypt.  He introduced the concept and practice of maintaining buffer stock, the mainstay of food security today.

"The chestnut has a flower!” My friend Dr. Sel Cabigan called, his word breaking the dry and warm morning air.

There I saw a single bud, the size and shape of a pencil, off-white, shy, peeping from under the tree’s palm shaped leaves, and bearing a glistening dewdrop. Frankly, it was the first time I had seen a chestnut, and flowering at that, on Philippine soil - and blooming at a very early age. Dr. Cabigan and I, who are both agriculturists, just stood beside the breast-high tree, silent as we pondered.

That year was an El Niño year. El Niño starts on the equator west of Peru when warm water accumulates on the surface and sets the current to move down south along the edge of Peru, only to be blocked by the El Niño current moving up from the south pole. The standstill exacerbates warming, causing heavy precipitation in the region, depriving the other half of the globe of sufficient rainfall, and setting aberrations in climatic patterns in different parts of the world. This phenomenon - together its counterpart, La Niña (opposite pattern)- arises from geographic patterns of land masses. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans are blocked by the Isthmus of Panama down the tip of South America. It is only near the Antarctic where they exchange warm and cool water before flowing back to the equator. But for other reasons heretofore unknown, this "bridge" is blocked. This phenomenon occurs in cycle and each time it does, it is on Christmas eve, for which it got its name, Child Jesus.

This climatic phenomenon was approaching its main stage which spans two to three years, then comes back after seven years normal years. That’s why some people call it the seven-year itch, and science summed up the cycle into a ten-year period, with a rare sub-cycle in between. El Niño is characterized by extreme dry and hot weather conditions, the rains coming late and very little, thus farmers fail to plant on time or harvest so little, sending the economy to its knees. It precipitated the declaration of Martial Law in the country in 1971 plagued by acute food shortage and widespread unrest. El Niño had another episode in the early eighties which caused a loss of billions of dollars worldwide. The nineties were equally bad, and now came the twenties which caused the highest deficit in rice production forcing the country to import rice, ten percent of its annual consumption, translated into one million metric tons.

El Niño triggers a number of botanical phenomena. The red Passiflora vine carpeting the Grotto in a garden at St. Paul University QC bore a full-grown fruit. Although it is a relative of the edible passion fruit, this species has sterile flowers, but stress must have stimulated the plant to produce fruit and ultimately seeds, a way of preserving the species. There was a rare species of Pandanus that produced curious fruits resembling breadfruit. I suppose that in the wild, the fruits split open upon maturity in order to disseminate the seeds. Animals feed on them and scatter the seeds in the process.

The climbing Derris does not normally flower, but here it displayed a bouquet of bright pink flowers arranged like a huge lei. In many respects, the flowers resemble those of legume including madre de cacao and katuray. Derris is a legume that contains a toxic principle, rotenone, which makes it useful to farmers as natural insecticide.

One of the five rambutan seedlings now three years ago suddenly bloomed, indeed too young to reproduce. Just like any maiden flower, it did not develop into fruit. Neither did the flowers of the lone pili standing near the pond and the Chico. In the case of the two, being monoecious plants, their flowers settle only in the presence of a male counterpart. “But who knows, some busy bees can bring in the pollen from a far place?”  Sel said, short of betting for his hypothesis. There’s no doubt pollinators cross kilometers to deliver their goods, riding of wind and water, the nocturnal ones like moths and skippers navigate accurately in the night to reach their destination by dawn, and by morning the receptive female flowers get their prize.

To an observant eye and sensitive olfactory sense, the garden had a cinnamon whose flowers exude the characteristic condiment odor. Alagao, lagundi, dita, molave – and of course, ilang-ilang, make the morning air naturally scented. The only date palm then in this garden flowered for the first time, mocked by a much taller and older neighboring fishtail palm in having profuse flowers, littering the surrounding grounds. Mature nuts that fell to the ground germinated into numerous seedlings.


 Kalumpang blooms full in extreme dry summer, QC


Gardens at this time of the year are at their best looking form, brandishing varied colors, not only of their flowers but leaves, young and old, and other parts. Let me cite the red palm (bright red leaf sheaths), bunga de Jolo (bright red ripe nuts in clusters), croton or San Franscisco (variegated and multicolored leaves), bougainvillea (false flowers, actually specialized leaves, are white, red, pink, and shades of different combination). The talisay or umbrella tree demonstrates a classical example of deciduousness, its leaves turning to yellow, orange, red and purple before dropping to the ground.

Even the champagne palm, betel nut, McArthur palm respond to the dry spell with forced inflorescences. The shingle tree, relative of nangka and other relatives – the figs (Ficus spp) are abloom.

Pond plants respond to El Niño, especially on shallow area, dried mudflats and along the banks. Cattails (Typha) and papyrus bend to the weight of their flowers. Waterlies – Nynmphaea and Eichornia may appear to have more flowers than leaves. So with the lotus. There are many annual plants that are also full of flowers.

But the most classical of the El Niño phenomenon is the flowering of the bamboo. Yes, bamboos do bear flowers. Since it is a grass its inflorescence is similar to that of rice, corn and grass weeds. According to the old folks, and validated by science, a bamboo flowers only in hard times. Extreme drought triggers the plants to save its own species. As predicted by its flowering, surely the economic crisis is with us.

The the peak of El Niño in China, panda bears face food shortage because the bamboos either remain dormant or die, so that supplemental feed coming from areas not affected by drought becomes necessary. Otherwise the bears starve and die, or migrate to other areas where they become vulnerable to various danger.

These are mainly indigenous, how about the exotic ones which have yet to adjust to their new environment? Dr. Cabigan and I could not agree on what a tree was, claimed to have been brought from Rome by a religious sister. I said it is similar to that of a locquat, which I had seen in China. Some say it is fig, others, nut – like chestnut.

One morning, Dr. Cabigan called me again, this time to tell me that the mystery tree had flowered. Every morning we visited the buds to see if they had opened. One by one the buds shrank and fell to the ground, leaving a mystery to us. By its buds, we concluded it is neither Smyrna nor locquat. Both of us just told any inquirer it is a St. Agnes tree, the name of the religious sister who inrtroduced the plant.

Indeed, El Niño holds many mysteries, the botanical garden the arena of awe and respect to the One who make all these possible. More than anything in difficult times, the preparation for death is also a preparation for rebirth and resurrection. And this is what makes the garden truly beautiful.~

* Reprint of previous article of the same title published in Paulinews, circa 1998. This is a tribute to the former gardeners of the EcoSanctuary of the St Paul University, then College, the only botanical garden of its kind.  New and high rise buildings have ensconced the once spacious garden, which as a consequence, lost its ecological significance.       

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