What can our native flora tell us about our history?

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The fifth edition of “Flora de Filipinas” is the first that’s widely available to the public. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The flora and fauna can tell you a lot about an environment. Earlier this year, Vibal released the fifth edition of Fr. Manuel Blanco’s “Flora de Filipinas,” originally a herculean collection of indigenous plants he encountered during his stay in the Philippines. Fr. Blanco was an Augustinian botanist who published the first 887-page iteration of “Flora de Filipinas” in 1837, followed by several posthumous editions with additional plants, corrections, as well as full-color botanical illustrations.

flora de filipinas Edited by Domingo A. Madulid, Ph.D., the fifth edition of “Flora de Filipinas” is the first that’s widely available to the public. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Unlike the original version and the ones that came after — all of which (even the 1993 facsimile published “for the benefit of modern readers”) are now considered rarities — the fifth edition presents a selection of about 150 plants, each spread dedicated to representing its full-color, realistic likeness, the plants’ known uses, as well as the names each goes by, depending on the region or place. Juxtaposed with more specific and scientific notes are Blanco’s original notes.

flora de filipinas The book is also a work of art, a joy to leaf through and savor one plant at a time. Photo by JL JAVIER  

The illustrations, which are awe-inspiring in their detail and precision, especially given the time at which they were rendered, were made by a few artists commissioned by the Augustinians, though they have been previously misattributed to Fr. Blanco himself. The 245 colored plates were done by 12 Filipino and five Spanish artists, though over a hundred of the plates were done by Regino García y Basa, the chief illustrator, with some plates even made by Félix Resurección Hidalgo.

Betel-stained teeth was even considered a mark of beauty back then by some communities like the T’bolis who believed white teeth to be ugly, as “only ghosts and animals go around with teeth unstained.”

 

This edition is the first that’s widely available to the public. Edited by Domingo A. Madulid, Ph.D., the fifth edition of “Flora de Filipinas” includes an introduction, both to Fr. Manuel Blanco and the illustrious history of the book, as well as a foreword by Fr. Ricky B. Villar, OSA, the San Agustin Museum Director. Madulid also updated the information in the book, according to present-day data such as the plants’ “accepted Latin name, original and precise botanical descriptions, and assiduous notes on their medicinal properties as collated from other classic botanical texts of the twentieth century.” Much of it has also been contextualized in terms of Fr. Blanco’s role, as well as the help and insight provided by the curanderos (folk healers) at the time, and all of the people known to be involved in making the book what it is today.

flora de filipinas That Fr. Manuel Blanco calls the makahiya a “love-herb,” where he likens it to “a lady who is ashamed of the feel of a strange hand” points to the degree of conservatism that can be found in Filipino culture, which dates many centuries back. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Flora de Filipinas” belongs to Vibal’s Filipiniana Clásica collection, which “aims to uphold the continuity of the Filipino reading canon by keeping culturally significant books in print.” More than a survey of plants found in the Philippines, “Flora de Filipinas” also provides a history lesson of sorts, where the native flora — and how the people around it respond to it — tells another side of the story of the people and the different places they inhabit. That Blanco calls the makahiya a “love-herb,” where he likens it to “a lady who is ashamed of the feel of a strange hand,” for example, points to the degree of conservatism that can be found in Filipino culture, which dates many centuries back.

The bunga (areca or betel nut) links together the archipelago — “from the Cordilleras to Sulu” — by way of betel nut chewing or nga-nga, a practice observed by the Spaniards as early as the 17th century and is still prevalent to this day. Betel-stained teeth was even considered a mark of beauty back then by some communities like the T’bolis who believed white teeth to be ugly, as “only ghosts and animals go around with teeth unstained.”

flora de filipinas The 245 colored plates were done by 12 Filipino and five Spanish artists. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Many of the featured plants come with short anecdotes that have to do with their mythical origin stories and local folklore. There’s the story of the tabako, where Bathala flies enraged at his servant, Tabar, who got married to a vice god’s niece, and that of the kalumpang or wild almond tree, which stars a melancholic tikbalang, a kapre, a nuno sa punso, a manananggal, and a tiyanak.

The book is also a work of art, a joy to leaf through and savor one plant at a time. Although there are only 150 plants out of over a thousand included in this edition, it’s sure to provide insight on Filipino culture and heritage, as well as its native geography and biodiversity.

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Flora de Filipinas” is available in paperback (₱2,000) and as a hardbound book (₱2,500) through the Vibal online store.