Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Garden - Living World in Microcosm


Nature keeps a dynamic order where unity resides in diversity.
Dr Abe V Rotor

We will never understand this mysterious order. Perhaps it is better not to probe it at all - for it is our deep faith in the Maker of that garden that we earn our place there to live in harmony with all creatures.



A view of the UST main building from the botanical garden
framed by a deciduous narra tree and climbing Phylodendron.


Century old dita (Alstonia scholaris) dominates the UST Botanical
Garden. It towers over the surrounding buidings on the campus.



“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.”


- William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

This verse captures the essence of the title of this article. It condenses the universe into its elemental symbols from which we take a full view of the world we live in. It reduces the complexities and vastness of both non- living and the living world into a microcosm that is complete in itself- a plantilla of creation all contained in the hand and experienced within a lifetime.

Lucky is the person who realizes this singular gift. Through this microcosm he can traverse the breadth of time and space, live with the myriad of life forms, and most important, he is blessed by the Great Maker to be part of the wonders and mysteries of creation.

So deep is the faith of the poet, William Blake, who wrote this verse more than two hundred years ago. Then, there were no computers, no television, no spacecraft and satellites. Could it be that in the absence of these modern tools that the mind could penetrate deeper, imagination soar higher, and faith stronger?


A fine arts student finds solace and subject at the UST Botanical Garden.


A. Garden as a Microcosm

The garden could have been the place where Newton formulated the laws of gravity and magnetism when an apple fell on his head, where Darwin developed his theory of evolution through natural selection, where Henry Fabre discovered organization intelligence among insects over and above mere instinctive behavior. It was in a garden where Claude Monet painted his masterpieces, capturing the essence of the natural beauty of wild flowers, such as the Nymphaea and the lotus.

We may not expect inventions and discoveries, and master’s arts, to creep into the mind of whoever spends time in a garden, or any similar microcosm of nature for that matter. But we are most certain that he finds enlightenment through the knowledge and experience he gains, and with these he develops in himself the discipline to discover new things, and to acquire values that help him live at peace with nature and himself. It is in keeping close to nature that we better understand the ways of the world in which we live.

When I conducted a lecture- demonstration at the UST Botanical Garden before my students, I was in effect simulating the scenario. Here I showed them the different parts of the Garden, starting with the basics such as, “ What makes a Garden?” I explained the composition of a typical rainforest ecosystem. The garden is precisely a pocket representation of this ecosystem, and, by dissecting it, we were in effect looking at its profile.


B. Deciduous Nature of Trees in Tropical Rainforest


Deciduous umbrella tree or talisay (Terminalia catappa) displays the color of autumn.

I gathered my students under a narra tree- Pterocarpus indicus. Trees belonging to the Dipterocrap group of family Legumonosae dominate the canopy of the tropical rainforest. Their leaves fall off completely at certain season so that the trees are bare for some time, thus allowing sunlight to penetrate and nourish the understory trees, ground plants, lianas and epiphytes.

The floor becomes covered with litter that nourishes insect, earthworms, fungi and bacteria. These decompose the leaves into humus that ultimately becomes soil while supplying nutrients to different plants in the forest. Because of the high precipitation throughout the year, the forest becomes lush and dense. The multi- story nature of the tropical rainforest makes it the richest biome in both diversity of species and number of inhabitants.


C. Gymnosperms and Angiosperms

These are cone-bearing and lowering plants, respectively. Gymnosperms are exemplified by pine cypress, and arios. I allowed my student to touch and examine these plants. Then they turned to examine the angiosperms that predominate the campus. Phylogeny shows that flowering plants are more “ modern “, which means that through evolution, the gymnosperms are older, and later gave way to the evolving angiosperms. Except in colder countries and in the taiga biome, the natural vegetation of forests is composed of flowering plants. The pine, cypress and cycad are the most common representatives of the cone-bearing plants in tropical gardens.

The oldest living organisms belong to gymnosperm - the Redwoods of California. And the Bristle Cone which is believed to be even older. Many of these trees were already bearing cones during the time of Christ. I have seen one in central Taiwan, estimated to have been two thousand years old, before it was struck by lightning. It still attracts many tourists who wonder at its massive size. One would associate it with legend or cartoon if he hadn't gone to the place. massive it is even after death. It takes


D. False flowers

Nature’s sweet lies have a purpose. The brightly colored leaves of poinsettia and bougainvillea attract insect pollinators and enhance fertilization and subsequent fruit and setting and seed formation, thus ensuring the perpetuation species how many plants are benefited by this special make-up.

The truth is that most flowering plant has designed attraction mechanisms. In general, flowers are made attractive, although the attraction that we know may not be the same as how insects perceive it. We know red as red, yellow as yellow, and so forth. But insect have different perception of colors. Nonetheless, the basic purpose is what counts - and is almost always achieved. Other means that guarantee pollination-fertilization are sometimes needed. For example insect are attracted by the obnoxious odor of Lantana camara, pollinating it in effect.


Pongapong flower is pollinated by flies

This is also in the cases of pongapong (Amorphophallus campanolatus), kalumpang or bangar tree - and, of course, the Rafflesia, the world largest flower that emits putrefying odor. They have one thing in common: they attract flies to pollinate their flowers.


E. Flowering Bamboo- Prophet of Doom

The old folks used to tell us, “Beware when the bamboo flowers.”

What is the connection of a flowering bamboo to a force majeure, such as drought? Old folks use it as a barometer of El Niño. Climatologists around the globe predict the coming of this phenomenon by observing plants, among them the flowering of bamboos. The cycle is ten years or closer. El Niño is accompanied by poor harvest, forest fires, death of livestock, spread of certain diseases that effect man, animals and plants.

Biologically, organisms subjected to stress tend to reach the reproductive stage earlier than usual. In fact, certain insects even skip molting just to be able to metamorphose into an adult and carry out reproduction while the environment allows. It is nature’s way of insuring the perpetuation of the species at the expense of the organism, so to speak.

So, when a bamboo flowers it ultimately dies. This is why the panda, which derives its food mainly on bamboo suffers. There are bamboo species that flower after fifty years or so, then die.

There are other plants that signal the coming of drought. One is kapok. A fruit-laden kapok tree means poor against harvest ahead. Even the sturdy kamagong or mabolo is stressed by drought. While it stops producing new leaves, the crown remains intact. This could be the reason why this tree produces the hardest wood. In the case of the narra, and mango, they show no apparent stress signal. It is because they have sturdy, long taproots that penetrate deep into the ground and into the bedrock. Old folks, however, warn us that no plant is spared from the worst kind of drought.


E. Trees are Sound and Wind Barriers

Have you noticed how the sound of traffic dies down in the dense vegetation of trees? Loud voice is muffled, blarring sound reduced to tolerable decibels, and music is more soothing to the ear. The trees at UST and in the Sunken Garden of UP Diliman are definitely for this purpose, in addition to being buffers against strong wind.
Windbreaks help reduce wind pressure. I saw a 10- row windbreak of different species of trees along the highway to the Beijing airport. Another windbreak made of agoho (Casuarina equisitifolia) is found along the coastline of Kaohsiung in Southern Taiwan which similarly serves to buffer winter wind. Woodland hedges along field boundaries in Europe serve the same purpose. The Indian tree is an effective sound breaker because of its thick, cone- shaped crown. It has also another advantage, that is, it grows tall and straight so that several trees can be planted close to each other.These man-made forests are a source of many valuable products and serve as a natural habitat of wildlife. It is no wonder why the Hanging Garden of Babylon was one of the wonders of the ancient World.



F. Hantik Ants - Biological Control Agents


Nest of hantik ants (Oecephalla smaragdina)

My students studied the nests of the giant green tree ants or hantik. The older nests were built on the upper branches of alagao, while a newly built nest was on a smaller tree Ficus pseudopalma. It is not easy to trace which nest an individual ant belongs to, but each colony has a specific chemical signal called pheromone. This prevents members from fighting, and allows the colonies to co-exist with defined territories assigned to each colony. Scientist calls this territory as niche.


Hantik ants are notorious killers of other insects. This could be the reason I have not seen any need to spray chemicals. Hantik ants feed on grubs, caterpillars, aphids, scale insects, and many others. They carry off morsels to their nest to feed their larvae. They scare organisms several times bigger than themselves. In fact, one who happens to get close to their domain is likely to get a bite or two, which is warning enough. But they do not hesitate to attack once they are threatened or disturbed.

I demonstrated the ferocity of the hantik by crushing a member of that colony. Sooner than I expected other members came to the rescue and pheromone was immediately put to use in the coordination and division of work, and in the strategy of war.


G. Common Medicinal Plants

A botanical garden is not complete without a good collection of medicinal plants. Here I showed to my students examples of medicinal plants with their uses. UST Botanical Garden was once the pharmaceutical garden of the university founded by Fr. Rodriguez a century ago. It is one of the oldest phamaceotical gardens in the world.

Here are typical examples of medicinal plants found in backyard and home gardens.

1. Lagundi - fever and flu
2. Pandakaki- minor wound or cuts
3. Oregano - sore throat and cough
4. Ikmo - mouth wash
5. Mountain tea - health drink
6. Guava - body odor and skin diseases
7. Pandan - beverage and food additive
8. Alagao - fever and cold
9. Avocado - diarrhea
10. Banana - kidney ailment


H. Poisonous Plants

I showed my students poisonous plants growing in the garden. But why do we have poisonous plants around?

There are plants which produce poisonous substances that are valuable as pesticide. Examples are neem tree, derris and makabuhay. These have been proved to be effective in controlling certain pests and disease of plants.

Botanical pesticides are generally safer than chemical pesticides. Studies have shown that neem (Azideracta asiatica), a native of India, has long been used as insecticide. It is widely used on field crops and against domestic pest like cockroaches, mosquitoes and bedbugs in many countries including the Philippines.

Makabuhay (Tinospora rhumpiana) is effective against a wide range of rice pests and the application is very simple. Fresh stems and leaves are finely chopped and directly broadcast in lowland ricefields. The active principle is also very effective on golden kohol, a major pest of rice of the Philippines.

Derris is the source of commercial rotenone insecticide. The concentration of its poison is in its enlarged roots.

Two poisonous plants grow in the garden. In fact they grow wild and have been persistent for a number of years now. Castor bean contains a poisonous substance - ricinin - for which reason castor oil is no longer prescribed as laxative. The other plant is Jatorpha curcas or tubang bakod. A few years ago a group of students from a Quezon City High School ate the seeds which taste like peanut. They were taken to the hospital for treatment.


Bangbangsit (Lantana camara) , insect repellant
------------------------------------A garden harbors the inquisitive mind, the seeking heart, the longing spirit. It is a place of peace and quiet. Here the seasons of the year are best observed. As an miniature ecosystem it defines basic relationships between and among living things, including man. Never is a garden idle, nothing is waste, and time is never prodding yet never dull.
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I. Conclusion

The microcosm is far from complete. But it is the framework that is important, like building replica of a dinosaur from pieces of recovered fossil. Knowledge is like that. It starts with principles, but, before that, one must be inspired and motivated to learn. There is no true learning unless one labors for it to some degree. Even frustration that may threaten learning itself, could be, at the end, a motivating factor, a challenge and test of what one is really made of. The Great Maker just gave us the Plantilla from which we follow the way to learning and understanding. ~


Bust of the founder of the former UST Pharmacy Garden, Fr. Rodriguez.

Symbols of the UST Pharmacy Garden. Both
monuments grace the garden's central area.

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