An hour and a half trek up the trail on the UPLB-guarded forest area of Mt. Makiling and the weary explorer may be well-rewarded with a rare show that only Mother Nature herself can conjure—a sight of one of the tropical world’s most beautiful flowering plants, the elusive jade vine.
Botanically classified as Strongylodon macrobotrys A. Gray, it belongs to the family Leguminosae, the same family as that of the peas and beans. It is a woody vine which can grow as long as 18 meters. Its leaves have three leaflets and grow to a maximum size of 25 centimeters. The showiest parts of the plant, which it is especially prized for throughout the world by horticulturists and exotic plants collectors alike, are its inflorescences which are comprised of translucent jade or blue-green flowers. Collectively, these rare colored flowers hang like a bunch of jade pendants forming a luminescent chandelier, effortlessly decorating the forest canopy during flowering season which comes around April.
Sought for its undeniable ornamental value, the jade vine or tayabak as it is locally known can be seen naturally inhabiting the damp tropical forests of the Philippines. It can also be spotted thriving along rivers and ravines, albeit restricted to the rainforests of Luzon, Mindoro, and Catanduanes Islands. Not only is it native to the Philippines; it is also endemic. Unlike the country’s national flower, sampaguita (Jasminum sambac L.), which is indeed found naturally in the Philippines as well as in other South and Southeast Asian countries, the jade vine is both native and endemic, meaning it originated from the country and no other place had it before the advent of exportation and introduction by man or animal pollinators. But the jade vine is only one among the 20,000 and more endemic plant and animal species the country has been endowed with.
Hosting 70-80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, the Philippines is regarded as being one of the biodiversity-richest countries on the planet by Conservation International, a nonprofit environmental organization aiming to protect nature and its biodiversity for the benefit of humanity. Biodiversity is defined by the National Wildlife Federation as “the variety of life which includes the full range of species that live in an area.” According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, a square kilometre of tropical moist forest, like that which is found in the Philippines, would contain more plant species than a square metre of European chalk grassland. Such is the regard for the country’s biodiversity that in 2005 the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), an intergovernmental regional center of excellence aiming to facilitate coordination and cooperation among the ASEAN states in sustaining and conserving of their biodiversity, was established in it. The creation of the centre was supported by a host of countries which include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The ACB headquarters has been set up inside the Forestry Campus, University of the Philippines Los Baños, a few meters before the start of the forest trail in Mt. Makiling.
But what is the significance of biodiversity and why is it necessary to conserve it? The National Wildlife Federation gives a number of clear and practical reasons for the importance of biodiversity: Biodiversity ensures that we have a wider selection of food and materials, both of which contribute to the economy. Biodiversity is elemental in making medical discoveries to cure diseases and lengthen life spans since these discoveries arise from research in plant and animal biology and genetics—the more species being studied, the higher probability of making medical discoveries. Biodiversity also plays an essential role in providing ecological services—everything from potable water to providing oxygen for us to breathe—that make life livable on Earth. Furthermore, it enables the ecosystems to adjust to various weather disturbances like extreme fires. For instance, in the event that a reptile species goes extinct, a forest with 20 other reptiles is likely to adapt better to that weather disturbance than a forest with only one reptile species. Biodiversity also ensures genetic diversity, and genetic diversity prevents diseases and helps species adjust to changes in their environment. Of course, these are generalized and simplified reasons which various biodiversity conservation organizations like ACB and Conservation International have based their goals and mission. On a global scale, there are now more than 183 organizations dealing with biodiversity conservation.
Even with these biodiversity concerned organizations sprouting left and right, the country has found itself seriously lagging behind its goal of biodiversity protection. In fact, based on the 2012 report issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) titled “Communities in Nature: State of Protected Areas Management in the Philippines”, the country’s biodiversity has remained threatened. The report goes on to state that “the Philippines is still losing its remaining forest and coastal ecosystems at an alarming rate.” This could only mean two things: either the government and its biodiversity conservation programs are ineffective, or the pace at which these programs are implemented is not fast enough in protecting determined threatened areas. This “slow” pace, according to DENR Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) Director Dr. Mundita Lim, can be rooted in problems such as gaps in the identification of protected areas nationwide, funding constraints which is a usual issue for biodiversity conservation projects, as well as gaps among people including DENR employees themselves. She points out that management is a problem itself and that there is a growing need for the participation of stakeholders including local governments to pitch in financially in the Department’s conservation efforts.
Aside from the protection of threatened areas, there is also the issue of rehabilitation of degraded sites such as the mined-out areas. DENR Secretary Ramon Paje addresses this, saying that the Department has actually rehabilitated and restored degraded ecosystems as well as develop a system of protected areas for biodiversity conservation.
Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)–Philippines said in an October 2012 interview by the Philippine Daily Inquirer that although there have been successes as in the case of the Tubbataha Reef in Palawan and the Mt. Iglit-Baco National Park in Mindoro Occidental which has been the home of the endangered tamaraw, there is an enormous room for improvement in the conservation and protection of other key places such as the Peñablanca protected area in Cagayan, the Agusan Marsh in Agusan del Sur and even the Mt. Makiling which is one of the few places in the country where the jade vine naturally flourishes.
Surprisingly and a tad shameful to some extent, this loss of Philippine rainforests where thousands of plant and animal species reside is a well-known fact to international organizations concerned. The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London, England where researchers have met growing jade vine in controlled greenhouses with success, reports that the Philippines’ rainforests are disappearing at an alarming rate, citing a 1988 survey which estimated that only 20 percent of the forests remained. They have placed the jade vine species under the conservation status “VULNERABLE” (VU). This pushes their researchers to prioritize the study of the jade vine over other species and research on the plant’s phenology and floral biology, especially its flowering, pollination, and seed production. So far, they have learned that the jade vine’s natural pollinators are the bats. Apparently, these nocturnal winged mammals hang upside down to sample the flower’s nectar as the plant gently brushes pollen onto their head while they drink. The pollen that adhered on their heads will then be transported to the flowers they visit next. Of course, all of this happens naturally in the wild. But in Kew, artificial methods had to be employed to mimic this to pollinate and fertilize the plant, producing viable seeds for the species reproduction. In a 1995 experiment using this artificial method, Chrissie Prychid at Kew successfully pollinated their jade vine resulting to fruiting and, eventually, production of viable seeds.
Back in its country of origin, a different method of propagation for the jade vine was used in the nursery by Dr. Jose Sargento, head of the Forests and Watershed Division of the Makiling Center for Mountain Ecosystem. He used marcotting, a propagation method which induces a plant part, usually the vegetative stem, to root while it is still intact with the whole plant. A portion of the plant is “wounded” or scraped until its bark and a sticky layer of phloem and cambium is removed, this would prevent the wound from healing. Moist soil or coconut coir dust is then wrapped around the wound and covered by plastic to retain moisture until roots develop.
One of the successfully rooted jade vine propagules was given to Dr. Angel Lambio, a UPLB Agriculturist and professor and friend of Dr. Sargento. He has planted it in his garden at home in 2007 and to this day photosynthesizes by their front porch.
With the past years’ salient efforts in research both in reproduction and conservation of the natural habitat of the jade vine, there is little doubt that this unique plant species, a source of pride for our country, can most likely be taken off the list of VU species in a short period of time. With new propagation techniques which can yield to faster reproduction of the species as with marcotting, the hope for mass production of jade vine is not too dim. Of course, when there is mass production, a market would definitely follow suit. It would not be hard to imagine then to see more jade vine plantings in people’s residential gardens or plant nurseries, no longer necessitating a need for an hour and a half trek up Mt. Makiling if ever a desire to be wondered by Mother Nature comes. And maybe the once vulnerable jade vine species would prove to be not so elusive anymore.
As the night grew older, so did the lines grow shorter. Headed behind the last person in line, I started my slow walk down the aisle. The red carpet felt like velvet under my dirty Chucks and I suddenly wished I had worn leather shoes instead. I gazed at the subject of this gathering. What connection my family had with this Saint, I tried to remember. I fixed my collar and kept my slow pace, fearing that increasing it would lessen the tenderness of the moment to come—the moment which had happened only once, more than a decade ago.
* * *
I was born in 1989, barely a year after my older brother was born. We grew up to be two mischievous boys—more than a handful for our petite mother. Years passed and though my parents longed for a baby girl, the two of us were never followed by another child. When I was already 11 years old and my brother 12, we made Mama upset by showcasing our best frowns in front of Sister Mila, a nun, who asked us if we wanted to become sacristans for our parish. Mama was a very religious woman and had prayed fervently to God to make us, her two sons, pursue a holy path to becoming priests. For her, the first step to this would be to have us become members of the Knights of the Altars as sacristans, of course. Seeing the disappointment that Mama’s face failed to hide, Sister Mila said she would pray for her to bear a child, a baby girl who would later become a nun just like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of our parish. Mama, who had once dreamed of becoming a nun herself, thanked Sister Mila and then smiled both at the pleasant idea and the improbability of it.
It was in 1994 when Mama was found to have endometriosis which meant that cells from the lining of her womb were growing in another area of her body—her ovaries. On November 15 that same year, after discovering that her ovaries had tumors already, she underwent an operation to excise them. At the end of the successful surgery, the surgeon, Dr. Tomacruz, informed my parents that he had decided to leave intact one-fourth of Mama’s left ovary so that she could still have a chance to bear children in the future, however slim that chance may be. Naturally, at the time, they didn’t know that Dr. Tomacruz’s decision, whether just by plain logical reasoning or some divine intervention, would prove to be a blessing.
Just a month before Sister Mila said she would pray for Mama, St. Thérèse’s pilgrim relics visited the Philippines for the first time. In Catholicism, relics are venerated objects or part of the body or clothes of a departed holy person. The relics toured the whole world, visiting countries and churches where the faithful can come and venerate. Our parish was one of the stopovers. I remember the crowd, the long lines, the bright lights, the handkerchiefs being wiped on the clear glass housing the reliquary. I remember being close to it and being overwhelmed by the grandeur of its ornate, gold trimmings. I also remember feeling overwhelmed—an inexplicable kind of peace.
When she was still alive, St. Thérèse entered the convent at the tender age of 15 after seeking special permission from the Pope himself for she had not yet reached the minimum age. In the convent in Lisieux, Normandy, she lived a secluded life as a Carmelite nun and devoted most of her time in prayer and contemplation, writing her thoughts and prayers in a journal. This paved the way for her intimacy with God. After suffering tuberculosis, St. Thérèse passed away with her last words being, “My God! I love you!” She was only 24. About a year after she died, her journal writings were collated and published as her autobiography titled “The Story of the Soul.” In there, it was found that she had a deep belief in the message of love and how without it, even the most brilliant works count as nothing. She also expressed her great confidence and trust in God’s love when she wrote in there, “In order to remain a little child, we must expect everything from our good Lord, as a child expects everything from his father, without worrying about anything.”
Her life, works, and spirituality which were all marked by confidence and love for God became well-known throughout France and to the world. She was beatified in 1923 and canonized two years later. In 1997, despite her being young, unscholarly and simple, Pope John Paul II, because of the great impact and influence her writings and spirituality have had on the Church, the faithful, and the world at large, honored her as the 33rd Doctor of the Church. This made her the fourth woman to be named so and the only Doctor of the Church during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. Of course, at the time when her relics visited, I didn’t know much about her life, but I stood there anyway. I stood there, closed my eyes, and prayed.
Months went on and Mama was invited to Australia for a short training program on distance education. When she returned she decided to see her OB because her period had suddenly stopped. She supposed that she might have gone into early menopause which was most probable since it runs in the family. She was already 41 years old at the time.
“Your mother’s pregnant,” Papa said in an expression that was both quizzical and overjoyed that afternoon when they came home from the doctor. Though highly improbable, we knew it wasn’t impossible. Nevertheless, my parents were shocked and, after that wore off, elated. Our family’s joy was completed when we learned that she was carrying a girl. We saw Sister Mila’s word as a prophecy and the fulfilment of it, a miracle. Mama gave birth to a healthy baby girl on February 22, 2001. Three months later, she was christened “Gloria Therese” after Mama’s sister who had passed away and, of course, our patroness Saint Thérèse. It wasn’t even a year after my sister was born when Mama finally went into menopause.
Before 2012 ended, it was announced that the relics of St. Thérèse will again visit our parish and will stay for public viewing from January 31 to February 2, 2013. Our family, now completely devoted to the parish and its different ministries, was ecstatic with the news. The visit of the pilgrim relics was an anticipated occasion, not just for our family, but for the whole parish as well. So, when January 31st came, I immediately went to see the relics after my class. I drove to our church and parked a few blocks from it since I expected that the parking area would be already full. I was right.
A brush of cold wind greeted my cheeks as I stepped out of the car. The night was so still that, even from afar, I could hear the on-going Mass with the choir singing a familiar liturgical song. As I walked to the Church, I could make out the bright lights inside it and the glow it cast on the trees and bushes just outside. Above me was the black sky peppered with dainty stars. It felt like Christmas. At first I thought it must have been the breeze that had me getting goosebumps, but when I started to cry I knew it was different. I haven’t even seen the relics yet and somehow it had this effect on me.
“Whenever we enter cathedrals and churches such as this, we’re always greeted with people in tears and smiles. That is the effect that St. Thérèse has on the faithful,” Monsignor Siongco said in his remarks at the end of the welcome Mass. I nudged Mama who had already been inside the church soon after her work hours ended, and told her I cried outside the parking lot.
It felt quite surreal that the actual remains of a great saint, one who completely devoted her life to God and in prayer, who wrote everyday speaking of this confidence she had in God and His love, and who has been dubbed as the “greatest saint of modern times”, was here. And it wasn’t just that, people were actually flocking to come near her relics, so much so that the only parking space left for me was a few blocks away.
“There are many church activities that you can see similar to this, for example, going to Our Lady of Manaoag, but this is very special because it is a relic, a part of the body of a saint. Millions have been inspired by her life, Christian or non-Christian. That’s why Pope John Paul II declared her as the Millenium Saint. Devotees would go visit her relics, why? Because they know her life. People, especially Filipinos, are drawn to St. Thérèse because they are touched by the message of her life—the message of love of which the world is in need today,” Bro. Carl Pua, a seminarian, shared his insights with me.
I took my place next to Mama and from where I was, I could view the sea of people and the distinct two long lines that moved in a glacial pace towards the reliquary. I noticed a lot of youth were there, too. I wondered what their motivation was for being there. I chanced upon one of them, Camille Joy, who said, “Not only peace, but also the assurance that God would answer my prayers through the help of St. Thérèse.” She also told me that a lot of her prayers have been answered through St. Therese’s intercession ever since she was a young girl. She has been a faithful parishioner.
Of course, not only people from our parish were there. People from all over the province came. One of them was Ryan de Mesa, an on-call youth facilitator, who had travelled several towns away to pay a visit to the relics of the Saint he has been devoted to since his teenage years. “I invoked her name,” he shared with me, “during the time we were undergoing problems in the family.” He said he didn’t realize it at the time, but the effect was instant.
But not everyone who came had answered prayers. Jess and Linda Benoza, a couple from New Jersey who were just spending some time with their relatives when the relics came, realized that they were blessed to be in town. Though they are still awaiting answers to their prayers, both of them believed that paying a visit to the relics of St. Thérèse was enough. As they said, it is a way of “praising God.” Norma Fandiñano-Eusebio shared the Benozas’ thoughts. For her, being there was already enough of a service to the Lord—a blessing in itself. She didn’t feel that it was right to ask for anything more than that. It was her calling to serve, without it she wouldn’t be complete.
* * *
As the night grew older, so did the lines grow shorter. I held out my right hand and pressed my palm on the clear glass in front of me, closed my eyes and prayed.
A profound moment of peace came to me. It was like everything would be fine, like everything in the past made sense. I was led to experience this moment. I tried to think of all the concerns I wanted to utter earlier, but my mind had become too calm to remember and all I could think of saying was “thank you.” And so I whispered that. It was as if all my unsaid intentions didn’t need saying and this loss for other words to say was her great assurance that God had already heard them.
Perhaps, what I had experienced was St. Thérèse sharing her complete confidence in God’s love and providence. And this confidence—the same thing she had extraordinarily lived with, the same thing Sister Mila had when she prayed for my mother to get pregnant, and the very same thing that drew all of the faithful that night to line up to her relics and pray—can only be infectious.