By: Albert Vincent F. Barretto
“Bahay-kubo, kahit munti ang halaman doon ay sari-sari” is a line from the popular folk song, Bahay Kubo, that would aptly describe the life of Jose Rizal in Dapitan. The average Filipino knows that Rizal was a physician, writer and hero, but not many know that plants were part of his life. Rizal painted for us the quiet town of Dapitan as a place covered with a variety of plants that became meaningful to him. The plants in Dapitan would not only quench his hunger and impatience, but also serve as his tool, medium of imagination, occupation, landmark of his memory, and much more.
Rizal first saw the town of Dapitan on 17 July 1892 aboard a ship from Manila after he was sentenced to summary banishment by Governor General Eulogio Despujol. The first plant that Rizal saw was a mangrove tree as the boat that took him from the ship S/S Cebu to the coast of Dapitan was tied there. On 30 December 1892, Rizal taught his favorite former teacher of rhetoric and poetry at the Ateneo Municipal, Padre Francisco de Paula Sanchez, how to make putty from the fruit of mangroves, which was used to cover holes or whatever defect of a piece of wood. In Rizal’s letter to Padre Sanchez, we can read the method of preparing the mangrove mixture:
“Last night Don Antonio told me that you would like to know how bakhaw paste is prepared. I follow the following procedure: With a knife I remove the peel of the [mangrove] fruit until the pulp comes out. I boil the pulp until the water turns reddish. Then I crush the hot pulp. A small quantity of lime water mixed with the past prevents it from getting damp…”
Rizal initially lived at the Casa Real, the roof of which was made of cogon grass. A year later, he moved to the parcel of land that he bought in the area called Talisay, which is also under the jurisdiction of the town of Dapitan. The name of the place is derived from the Talisay tree. Rizal composed Himno Á Talisay, a hymn praising the place that became popular with his former students. The following excerpt from the hymn describes Talisay:
Of Dapitan, the sandy shore,
Rocks on the mountain’s lofty peak
Are your throne, oh, sacred retreat!
There my childhood days I pass.
On your vale adorned by flow’rs
‘Neath the fruit trees with shady bow’rs,
There our mind is formed at last
‘Long with our body and our soul
On his land in Talisay, he was able to build huts made of bamboo, wood, and nipa that would serve as his home, clinic, bedrooms for his patients and a school. Rizal also used bamboo as the frame of his lantern and as a bench for his students to sit upon.
Rizal studied plants that have health benefits, which was the reason why he was able to build a herbarium of medicinal plants. He used these to cure the illnesses of his patients.
Farming was not new to Rizal so it was easy for him to grow crops and take care of plants. In Talisay, his land already had plants and trees, namely: lanzones, mango, macopa, jackfruit, santol, baluno, mangosteen, pajo, coconut, coffee, cacao, pineapple, banana, guava, sugar apple, papaya, durian, corn, and rice.
The mango trees served as Rizal’s shade when he took baths. Rizal often sent the fruits of those mango trees, which were of the “pajo” variety, to his family in Manila to encourage them to stay with him in Dapitan. The tall baluno tree, on the other hand, witnessed Rizal’s confession of love to the Irish woman, Josephine Leopoldine Bracken, and even his conversation with Doctor Pio Valenzuela, who encouraged him to support the Katipunan organization. Rizal, in his February 1893 letter to his brother-in-law, Manuel Hidalgo, the husband of his sister, Saturnina Rizal, thought of calling the place Baluno instead of Talisay because he did not see any talisay trees:
“…My land, which is called here Talisay but has no talisay tree of any worth, is looking for a name. I am thinking of calling it Baluno or Bauno on account of a large tree with this name that grows here.”
At present, we can still see the tall and mighty tree, which is called today as the century-old baluno tree.
From the fruits of the coconut trees, Rizal sourced coconut oil that he used in cooking and even in lighting the Dapitan Plaza, which he planned and arranged after he received a large amount of money from an English patient. Until now, at the Dapitan Plaza, we can still see the acacia trees planted by Rizal that serve as shade for people taking a stroll.
Like the average Filipino, rice could not disappear from Rizal’s table. He had a paddy field in Talisay that gave him rice. Rizal’s nephew, Mauricio “Moris” Rizal Cruz, recovered from his illness after Rizal advised his sister, Maria Rizal-Cruz, to give his nephew “am” from the boiling water of the “sinaing.”
Abaca, which looks like a banana plant but with small fruits that cannot be eaten, became Rizal’s most successful commodity. Its durable fiber is used to make ropes and other products. Rizal bought abaca in Dapitan, which he exported to Manila to be sold at a high price. He earned as much as two hundred pesos from the abaca that he exported.
Rizal also crafted canes from kamuning and rattan trees. He used his imagination in sculpting hardwood such as narra and molave. One of his sculptures is the well-known image of Josephine Leopoldine Bracken. Looking at that sculpture, one will notice that the wood is partially covered with a mixture of crushed mangrove fruit to cover the defect of the wood, the process of which he described in his letter to Padre Sanchez.
In 1895, Rizal planned to plant abaca, coconut, coffee, sugarcane, and cocoa on the piece of land he saw in Ponot. He wanted to turn it into a settlement called “New Calamba.” In his letter to Jose Ma. Basa dated April 1895, Rizal wrote:
“…I hope that the Governor General will grant me permission one of these days, for I asked him for it more than a month ago.
In Ponot one can have four or five thousand cattle and plant some 40,000 coconut trees, etc. It has a good port, water, plain, etc.”
In the same month, Rizal also told his best friend, Ferdinand Blumentritt, about his planned agricultural venture:
“I have a plan, if they permit me, to open an agricultural colony on the coast in Ponot, near Sindangan. I intend to plant coconuts, coffee, and cacao.”
But Rizal’s plan to turn Ponot into a community was rejected by Governor General Ramon Blanco, because the latter thought that a revolution against the government could spring up from it. Although his plan in Ponot did not push through, in 1896, he bought land in Daanglungsod, part of Lubungan town, where he wanted to plant the same crops. Abaca, coffee, sugar cane, cacao, and coconut can be considered cash crops because Rizal planted them for their commercial value.
Rizal, on the other hand, sent cacao, durian, lanzones, pajo, and others to his family in Luzon as physical evidence of the fruits that he often mentioned in his letters. There also came a time when the supply of lanzones was so much that his land was covered with the said fruit that fell from the trees. Rizal sent ferns and sampaguita flowers to Blumentritt so that he could physically display those plants, especially the fragrant flower, in his garden. This was mentioned in Rizal’s letter to Blumentritt on 19 December 1893:
“I am sending you enclosed some ferns and sampaguitas gathered from my garden. Receive these fragrant breezes from my garden. They are the favorite of an idle exile…”
Rizal lived in a hut surrounded by plants that taught him, and now us, how to live simply with the grace of nature. He showed us that we can survive and even live in abundance if we know how to enrich our environment and make the most out of it. In doing so, he taught us how to be sustainable, which is key to our survival. Plants, are part of the identity of our country and our identity as Filipinos. Rizal’s focus on plants is not only important from the scientific point of view, but also in spreading our understanding and appreciation of our natural heritage.
Dapitanon, Noel G. Villaroman, 2018
The Foods of Jose Rizal, Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, 2012
Rizal’s Poems: 1869 – 1896, National Historical Institute, Fourth Printing, 1995