Sunday, September 25, 2011

Environment: Ecological Sanctuary Garden is a Microcosm of the Biosphere

Dr Abe V Rotor
The garden is Nature,s laboratory. Students learn more by appreciating nature.

A pond such as this is required to keep the garden green throughout the year.

Passion flower is named after the three nail like stigma of the flower.

“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

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 the 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 the mind could penetrate deeper, imagination soar higher, and faith stronger?

Garden as a Microcosm

The pocket garden of SPCQ could possibly be a 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, Henry Fabre discovered organizational intelligence among insects over and above their instinctive behavior. Claude Monet’s masterpieces were painted in a garden, 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, 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 SPUQC Botanical Garden before my students in ecology, 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 biome, which the Philippines is a part. The garden is precisely a pocket representation of this ecosystem, and, by dissecting it, we are in effect looking into its profile.

Deciduous Nature of Trees in Tropical Rainforest

I gathered my students under a narra tree - Pterocarpus indicus. Trees belonging to the Dipterocarp group of family Leguminosae dominate the canopy of the tropical rainforest. Their leaves fall off completely at certain seasons 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 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.

Gymnosperms and angiosperms

These are cone-bearing and flowering 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 is made up of flowering plants.

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 setting and seed formation, thus ensuring the perpetuation of the species. How many plants are benefited by this special make-up?

The truth is that most flowering plants have 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 insects have a different perception of colors. Nonetheless, the basic purpose is what counts - and is almost always achieved. Other means guarantee pollination-fertilization are sometimes needed. For example, insects are attracted by obnoxious odor like Lantana camara. This is also in the case of the 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.

Flowering Bamboo- Prophet of doom
The old folks used to tell us, “Beware if the bamboo flowers”.

What is the connection of a flowering bamboo to a force majeure, such as drought? Climatologists around the globe have predicted that this year is El nino year. The last time phenomenon struck was in 1991 and 1992. The cycle is ten years, but is could closer. El nino is accompanied by poor harvest, forest fires, death of livestock, spread of certain diseases that effect man, animals and plants.

Biological, 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 exclusively derives its because of the death of bamboo’s once they have flowered!

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 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, warm us that no plant is spared in the worst kind of drought. Many of them still remember.

Trees as sound and wind barriers
With the construction of the MRT tracks. Seedlings of molave and mahogany have been recently planted to augment the defense line.

In other countries windbreaks help reduces wind pressure. I saw the 10- row windbreak along the highway to the Beijing airport, the windbreak made agoho or Casuarina in Taiwan situated along the coastline to buffer winter wind. Woodlands along field boundaries in European countries serve the same purpose. 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.

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. Unfortunately city ordinance prohibit the planting of trees on the side walk outside of the school wall, other wise a thicker buffer zone of trees could be built between the MRT tracks and SPCQ.

Hantik Ants- Biological Control Agents
We saw five 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 Ficus pseudopalma. It is not easy to trace which nest an ant belongs to, but each colony has a specific chemical signal called pheromone. This prevents them from fighting, and allows the colonies to co-exist with defined territories assigned to each colony. Scientist calls this territory a niche.

Dr. Sel Cabigan introduced a hantik colony many years ago, and since then the SCQ garden has not been without this predators the hantik ant is a notorious killer of other insects this could be the reason why I have not seen any need to spray chemicals in the botanical garden. Hantik ant feed on grubs, caterpillar aphids, scale insects, and many others. They carry of morsels to their nest to feed their larvae. They scare organisms several times bigger than they. 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 an ant. Sooner than 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.

Common Medicinal Plants

A botanical garden is not complete without a good collection of medicinal plants. Here I showed to my students some examples of medicinal plants with their uses, as follows:

1. 1.Lagundi-fever and flu
2. Pandakaki-minor wound or cuts
3. 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

These are important things to know about medicinal plants, which I explained. These are:

1. There is no cure-all formula.
2. Do not follow self-medication
3. Consult a doctor before taking herbal medicine.
4. Herbal medicine should be independent of superstitious beliefs.

Poisonous plants

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

First, there are plants, which, by the poisonous substance they contain are valuable as pesticides. Examples are neem tree, derris and makabuhay. These have been proved effective in controlling certain pests and disease of plants.

Studies have shown that neem, 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 has been determined to be 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. Because it is botanical in origin, it is relatively safer than the chemical pesticides. 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 refine, a very poisonous substance known to have been the cause of death of children prescribed to take castor oil as laxative. The other plant is Jatorpha curcas or tubang bakod. A few years ago are student from a Quezon City High School ate the seeds that taste like peanut. They were taken to the hospital for treatment.


The microcosm is far from complete. But it is the framework that is important, like the 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 in 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 form which we follow the cause of learning and understanding.~

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