Less known but just as versatile and hardy as the legendary coconut is the pili tree. Both plants grow profusely in the Bicol region, where typhoons and volcanic eruptions frequently visit. Resistant to strong winds and hot weather conditions, the pili tree will cope better with the adverse impact of climate change than most plants.
An indigenous species (scientific name, Canarium Ovatum) that grows up to 100 years old and up to 35 meters in height, the pili tree starts bearing fruit at around age six. Upright with leaves and branches roundly spread, they are beautiful as shade trees lining up avenues or marking borders.
Like the coconut, harvesting of pili nuts is year-round. According to government argriculturists, a tree bears one to two thousands nuts per year, or around 33 kilos of kernel. Needing no chemical input, the pili nut is thus produced “organically.”
All parts of the pili tree are useful to humans. The hard shells of the nut are used for fuel, handicrafts and charcoal briquettes. Recently, we used it as additional filling material for soil eroded by typhoon Ondoy in our farm in Rizal. The pulp is eaten boiled, pickled, sweetened or sautéed; the surplus, fed to the pigs. Oil extracted from the pulps and kernels can be used as cooking oil, fuel oil for lamps, and for making insect repellants, moisturizers and perfumes. Pili oil is said to possess the high qualities of olive oil.
Everybody who has been to Albay and Sorsogon provinces, the country’s pili heartland, has tasted the caramelized pili nuts, turrones de pili, and pili tarts.
Other places in the Bicol region have their own delicacies, or at least their own names for the same products. In Tagalog-speaking Vinzons, Camarines Norte, one will find the alinamnam, caramelized candy made from condensed milk and whole pili kernels, wrapped in colorful cellophane sheets. Our friends also like the pandecillos bought from this Ferrer hometown as pasalubong. These are rectangular pastries filled with sweetened, chopped pili.
Another favorite is the pili roll called pianono: a delicious spread of chopped pili cooked in condensed milk and spread on a thin layer of chiffon-like cake and rolled.
Bottled santan is jam made from coconut milk and molasses, liberally sprinkled with whole pili kernels, and patiently stirred a long time over low fire. According to my 85-year mother-in-law, a special kind of binao (or coconut bowl)-shaped molasses called balikutsay is used to produce the jam’s soft, granule-free thickness.
Resin from the bark called Manila elemi is being exported to China and Europe for industrial uses such as transparent paper used as window panes, and as additives to plastic, plaster, printer ink and various paint products. Locally, the wood is used to caulk boats.
In Camarines Sur, now glamourously called “CamSur” after earning a place in the faddy tourist map, spas offer facial and body treatments using lotions made from the nut, which is rich in moisture and vitamin E..
Also rich in phosphorous, calcium, protein, and potassium, the pili nut is a good alternative to the expensive pine nut in pesto sauce, and can be thrown into all kinds of breads, pastries and sautéed food.
Interestingly, despite the highly commercial value of the pili nut, machines for depulping and shelling have yet to be commercially available. This must be because the country, including Bicol where 82 percent of pili production takes place, is rich in labor.
One prototype shelling machine developed by a Bicolano scientist and produced only upon order sells for around P15,000.
For small entrepreneurs, using several small, thick chopping knives, and mobilizing all the free hands in the household is more cost-effective. Our household help finds it easier to crack nuts with a piece of rock, a hammer or the geologist’s piko (rock pick).
Tree of life
Given the unmet demand for pili supplies, the pili tree is highly recommended for agroforestry projects, especially in typhoon-frequented areas. Since the nuts can be stored for long periods, it is also ideal for rural communities with poor roads and transportation facilities. Not surprisingly, the Samar Island Biodiversity Project that began in 2005 includes the planting of pili seedlings in about 100 hectares of nonproductive land.
On this, my 50th year, I have embarked on a mission of propagating pili seedlings using nuts harvested from our farm. As I watched each seed sprout, I pondered the mystery of how the pod manages to knock off a perfect almond-shaped hole from its hard shell to emerge as a delicate drooping bud. Then I follow with excitement its progress into a straight stem with two leaves outstretched like hands opened wide in joy.
In between deadlines, meetings and field research in different parts of the country and Asia the last 12 months, I have sprouted about a thousand seedlings of this great tree. I have been giving these out to friends or friends of friends who have space on which to grow even one single tree.
For colleagues in Mindanao like Fr. Bert Alejo and Irene “Inday” Santiago in Davao, and university professors Malou Nanaman, Radzma Suhaili, Samson Molao and Domingo Non from Iligan, Sulu, North Cotabato and General Santos, respectively, it was more practical to give out the newly harvested fruit, which they can easily soak to remove the pulp, and then plant. Planted within two days after depulping, the seeds are viable almost 100 percent.
The pili seedling bank I began this year is a small way of giving back life for the blessing of life that I have received. In this holiday season, I am pleased to share the seedlings to all those who want to spread the good news in the pili tree.
The offer is good while supplies last.