Native plant enthusiast Anthony Arbias believes in love at first sight, because that’s what happened the first time he encountered a type of tree fern called the Cythaea. “Ang ganda-ganda ng hitsura niya,” he says. He liked the plant so much he named his first daughter after it. By the way, he also named his second daughter after another fern family. Her name is Marrattia.
Plant collectors usually go for the exotic types, usually those that are imported from a different geographic location or country, but Arbias, former president of the Philippine Native Plant Conservation Society Inc. (PNPCI), is simply enamored by the beauty of ferns—the native ones to be specific. A plant is considered native or indigenous if it had been growing on Philippine soil even before we were even colonized.
Ferns were among the first plants Arbias bought when he started the hobby of plant collecting back in 1994—that’s right, more than two decades before the term “plantito” was invented. “I saw an ad in one of the broadsheets about an annual sale at the Manila Seedling Bank,” he recalls. When he checked the sale out, he was pleasantly surprised to see the “jungle-looking” plants he was looking for. “I thought, andito lang pala ang gusto kong mga halaman within my reach,” he says. “I bought my first plant there called the pteris tripartite, and then dire-diretso na.”
An added attraction to the native ferns was they were pretty cheap. Back in the day, his P500 could get him a carload of native pako, because they usually cost anywhere from P20 to P50. A small exotic plant, on the other hand, would set him back about P1,000. “Value for money siya at the same time, nasa-satisfy ko ang gusto ko,” he says about certain local ferns. His other initial buys were the microsorum and drynaria—both native ferns. Suffice it to say, Mr. Arbias is a big fern geek.
The man’s gardening hobby evolved thru the years. Aside from ferns, he also started collecting a variety of herbaceous plants (those with non-woody stems). These are the ones that can be found in a natural forest such as vines, orchids, weeds, and aquatic plants. “Yung first half ng garden life ko (1994 to 2007) I’m growing herbaceous plants,” he tells ANCX.
This changed when Arbias met Filipino botanist and plant taxonomist Leonard Co, then considered the foremost authority in ethnobotany in the Philippines. Ethnobotany is the science that deals with the interrelationship between plants and humans. Thru Co, Arbias found out more about the importance of native plants. Co’s influence impacted the plant collector so much that he eventually converted himself into a hardcore native plant enthusiast.
There was a time when Arbias had about 100 species of native trees and about the same number of native plants species growing in his backyard. He had since trimmed this down to 30 tree species and about 50 plants in recent years. He had “rehomed”—or find another shelter—and donated some of his plants to friends’ gardens.
“If you are a plant lover, you will reach this maturity stage na kahit na madami ka pang mga wants and desires, you will have to learn to let go,” he says, smiling. “Now all my trees are all fully grown and I’m happy with what I have.”
Among his trees—some of which are about five or seven storeys high—include the red balete, red lauan, dao, kalamansanay, hawili, amugis and bayok. He also has plant species like hoya multiflora, leea manillensis, Philippine teak.
If you think this native plant collector has a hacienda somewhere in the province, you are in for a surprise. All his plants are found in a 250-square meter residential lot in Cubao, Quezon City. “We have a very small house,” he says laughing. “The bigger part of the lot is our garden space.”
For this reason, their mini-forest gets visited by different wild animals such as crows, the Philippine hanging parrot (kulasisi), bats, a red-keeled flowerpecker, the Philippine pygmy woodpecker, as well as insects like butterflies, moths, bugs, and worms.
“Nagiging sanctuary siya sa medyo magulong siyudad,” he says. “Our garden serves as a food provider. Gaya ng mga figs namin or balete, almost all year long meron syang mga bunga. Yung mga animals, they are not like pets na aalagaan mo pa or bibilhan mo pa ng food. Ito sustainable setup na sya.”
Arbias’ friendship with Co blossomed into an important advocacy work via the PNPCSI, which the botanist founded in 2007. “Back in the day, the concept of environmentalism in the Philippines was specific to the preservation of our fauna. But no one was creating awareness about native plants,” he tells ANCX. “Pero kung iisipin mo, saan ba nakatira ang mga endangered Philippine animals na ito? So it’s very practical to take care of our native plants, which in turn will provide food and shelter to the animals.”
The botanist’s biggest contribution, says Arbias, is spreading awareness about native plants and emphasizing their value to humans and to the society. “[Leonard] was able to put native plants on the right pedestal,” he says. The efforts of the society began to have a multiplier effect, even with the organization’s limited number of members. “Yung advocacy na sinasabi ng ibang groups is basically the same as what Leonard was advocating which is giving value to native plants, protecting the natural habitat, and utilizing our resources responsibly.”
Co also propagated the concept of ethnobotany, which highlights the importance of plants to humans—as a source of food, raw materials for handicrafts or construction, medicine, etc. “Hindi napapansin ng marami na ang buhay natin actually naka-tie in sa halaman. If we lose it, madaming hindi magandang mangyayari gaya ng mga kalamidad,” he says.
Currently, the PNPCSI has more than 500 members all over the country. They are comprised of experts from the academe, the horticulture industry, and plant enthusiasts. They had been doing “Tree Walks” across the country—providing talks about the trees they see along the way. The said project aims to educate the public about our different native trees and their uses.
Now working as an ecotourism and biodiversity trainer, Arbias works with the Department of Tourism in spreading the information handed over by Co. “Yung voice ni Leonard, naririnig na siya sa grassroots level. Parang nag-plant na kami ng madaming seeds all over the country,” he says. (Co was killed in the forests of Kananga, Leyte in 2010 with his two assistants while at work on a reforestation project “in what the military initially claimed was crossfire during a clash with communist rebels.”)
Threatened native plants
Arbias was part of the group that made the latest list of threatened plants in the Philippines. He says that out of our 10,000 species of native plants, over 900 are already considered threatened. “They are categorized into critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, other threatened species,” he says.
“Now, it’s 2021. Pagdating kaya ng 2050, meron pa kaya tayo ng mga puno at halaman na yan? Pag pumunta ka ba sa provinces, makakakita ka pa ba ng bundok na may gubat? So yun ang mga challenges ahead of us,” he points out. The biodiversity advocate encourages the public to do their share by planting native plants and trees in their own backyard. He says this is even better than joining tree-planting activities elsewhere.
“You plant 10,000 trees in one day pero hindi mo naman alam kung ilan ang nabuhay doon dahil hindi mo naman nabalikan. Kung sa bakuran mo, masusubaybayan mo. Kahit isa lang sya versus 10,000, pero nabuhay naman yung isa, winner ka na,” he explains. “Exponential kasi sya. Pag nag-grow na sya and it bears a lot of fruits, madaming tutulong na wildlife to distribute them naturally, like bats, birds and insects.”
One of the ultimate joys of having a wildlife sanctuary in the city is getting to meet a variety of garden visitors, says Arbias, referring to the different animal and insect species he rarely encounters or haven’t even met in his lifetime until they paid his garden a visit.
The Arbias garden may just be a small fraction in the whole Metro Manila but if combined with the efforts of other plantitos and plantitas, a green corridor can be created that would connect with the greens of the University of the Philippines, the gardens of private subdivisions, ecoparks, Camp Aguinaldo, and many more. For this plant collector, every little patch of green counts.
[All photos courtesy of Anthony Arbias]