By Henrylito D. Tacio
“The flowers are flat, to eight centimeters across; the sepals and peals are obovate, bluish pink, with buff-yellow stain, and dull-crimson reticulations on the lateral sepals; the lip is small and concave, purple-red at base, strongly recurved and brownish purple at apex; with three prominent keels.”
That is how the book, ‘A Pictorial Cyclopedia of Philippine Ornamental Plants,’ describes the exotic waling-waling, known in the science world as ‘Vanda sanderiana.’
Notes Jose Mari M. Lacandula, who once wrote an ornamental column for ‘The Manila Times,’: “For its sheer magnificence, the waling-waling was thought by various scholars to be a separate genus altogether, but is now regarded as a Vanda subgenus called Euanthe by Christensen in 1993. This sub-grouping was prompted by the conspicuous absence of a saccate spur appendage at the base of the lip sidelobes, giving prominence to a cleft impression at its center, which is typical in all true vandas.”
Waling-waling – named in “allusion to a moth in flight” – used to grow on tree trunks in the rainforests of Davao, Sultan Kudarat and other parts of Mindanao. It blooms only once a year, between July and October.
Today, “the waling-waling is almost extinct in the wildlife,” according to Dr. Domingo A. Madulid, the senior botanist of the National Museum. “Rarer varieties of this plant can only be found in expensive nurseries.”
Recent surveys show that the waling-waling can be found in abundance no longer in the Philippines but in other countries, particularly Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Hawaii.
The waling-waling was named after Frederick Sander of London. It was German taxonomist Heinrich Gustav Reicheinback who gave it its name. In the Philippines, waling-waling is touted as the “Queen of Philippine flowers” and is worshipped as “diwata” by the native Bagobos.
In the 1950s, the ''systematic plunder'' of wild plants, including orchids, started. As Dr. Madulid said, long before the country was sending maids to Singapore and Hong Kong, upland farmers had been despoiling the forests and selling rare orchid varieties, such as the waling-waling, abroad.
Since Sanders introduced the waling-waling to orchid enthusiasts and lovers in London in 1882, it has influenced another thousand or more colorful and attractive vandaceous hybrids that are now part of the world's multibillion-dollar orchid and cutflower industry.
Waling-waling “is one of the finest orchid species endemic to the Philippines, desired by orchid growers and breeders alike for its showy and attractive flowers and ability to impart its vigor and floral characteristics to its progeny,” wrote Dr. Helen Valmayor in her book, ‘Orchidiana Philippiniana.’
Recent reports showed that due to habitat destruction – particularly the Mount Apo rainforests – the waling-waling disappeared in the Davao gardens for almost a century. But thanks to Charita Puentespina, waling-waling has “returned” to its native home.
In 1985, Puentespina – then a neophyte orchidist – successfully pioneered in mass-producing the waling-waling through embryo culture. During the 48th Araw ng Dabaw, the first waling-waling seedlings in compots (community pots) were sold to the public, which in no time generated interest among hobbyists and commercial orchid growers.
Since then, the waling-waling has become a fixture in almost every garden in Davao. “The return of the waling-waling to every home garden in Davao and elsewhere in the country is one thing,” noted one Davao journalist. “It is another thing to see it bloom in its habitat at the foothills of Mount Apo.”
The waling-waling is just one of several Philippine plant species that are in danger of vanishing due to the destruction of their natural forest habitat.
According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Philippines has about 12,000 species of plants, with more than 8,000 of the flowering type.
The rest are ferns, fern allies, mosses, hepatics, liverworts, fungi, and algae. Of this total, 3,500 are endemic or found only in the Philippines.
Human activities, like deforestation, trade and excessive extraction, have been blamed for their present status. Deforestation is mainly caused by destructive logging, fires, slash-and-burn farming (“kaingin”), and pests and diseases.
Although historical deforestation rates are difficult to estimate accurately, experts claim that the country's forest cover has been destroyed at a rate of
2.5 percent annually during the last 20 years.
“Our deforestation rate is three times the worldwide rate of devastation of tropical forests,” said Dr.
Warlito A. Laquihon, former associate director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center.
The environmentalist group Haribon Foundation says it is “very difficult to make a census of killed or destroyed species of forest trees, epiphytes and other plants on the ground. But anyone who happens to be in cutting areas in the country will be frightened and scandalized by the sight of various plants killed and trees felled.”
In an attempt to save, protect and regulate the trade of the country's wild flowers and plants, the government passed Republic Act No. 3983, which “prescribe conditions under which (wild flowers and
plants) may be collected, kept, sold, exported, and for other purposes.”
While the country is moving toward the conservation of its endemic plants, many environmentalists believe it is too slow. “But with the full support of both the government and the public, we can be optimistic that significant results can be achieved within the next decade or so,” said Haribon.
“Only when the stage is reached can the present generation come to pause and breathe with relief that the bounties and richness of Philippine flora are still theirs to enjoy.”