On Monuments of Nature (and of Men)

The memory refuses to go away and begs to be written about.

One night during our last vacation in Catanduanes two years ago, my husband and I were walking back to our inn in the capital town of Virac, when a distinct smell wafted through the air. I found it fragrant; the hubby said it was pungent. On a middle ground, we both thought it was intoxicatingly strong! The smell emanated from a huge tree.

The morning after, as we went out to go about the day’s business, we passed by the same tree. The smell was gone, but on the ground was a carpet of tiny white flowers – the source of the previous night’s sensory experience. The blooms fell from a huge dita tree which, judging from its height and thick, gnarled trunk, must really be old. Nearby, a middle-aged man wielding a broom was ridding the ground of the fallen leaves and blooms. I had to ask him if he knew how long the tree has been there. He smiled and said he didn’t know, but that it has been there even before he was born. But one thing he knew for sure: the tree provided wood used for building coffins.

The tree trunk, gnarled with age
The tree, profuse with blooms
The carpet of fallen flowers

The mighty dita looms tall and strong beside a molave tree (designated as the Belmonte Tree) in the municipal plaza, dwarfing the nearby Juan M. Alberto Memorial Building which, in contrast, is now abandoned and largely dilapidated. On the same ground stands a bust dedicated to the late provincial Governor Juan M. Alberto, who rose to national prominence during the Marcos regime, along with his brothers, Jose (Congressman, 1957 – 1972) and Vicente (Governor, 1967 – 1986).

The molave and dita trees are hardy landmarks
The dita tree next to the JMA Memorial Building
A tribute to the late Governor from his friend, the island poet Jose A. Tablizo.
The corroded dedication plaque from a former leader.
The marker on this molave tree says: “The seedling of this tree was planted by the Hon. Gov. Deogracias Belmonte of the Sub-province of Catanduanes on December 15, 1937 in the observance of Arbor Day.”

Sometime later, I had the chance to trawl the internet for some information on the dita tree. There must be more to it than just being a coffin material. What I found proved that it is a very interesting tree, a great natural gift to men. A true monument by any standards.

Origin and other names

The tree is known botanically as Alstonia scholaris, in honor of the English botanist Professor Charles Alston. The word scholaris was added because the bark of the tree is used for writing tables and blackboards; thus, it is also called the Blackboard Tree. In India, it is widely known as Saptaparni, from the Sanskrit words, Sapta (meaning seven) and parni (meaning leaves) because its leaves are often in bunches of seven around the stem, forming a star-like pattern.

It is also infamously called the Devil’s Tree in Western India, where tribes believe that the tree is home to evil spirits. Sitting or even passing under its shade is often shunned.

The tree is believed to originate from India and other Southeast Asian countries. In the Philippines, it can be found far north in Cagayan up to Palawan and Mindanao, and in almost all islands and forested provinces.

Medicinal Properties

The bark, leaves, and roots of the dita are reported to have antioxidant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and many other curative properties. In some parts of India, there is an annual ritual involving mass drinking of the decoction of its bitter bark, which is believed to boost the immune system and prevent diseases.

Nuisance Tree or Tree of Life?

The dita may have earned a bad name as the Devil’s Tree and is considered a nuisance by many for dumping dried leaves on the ground that need back-breaking cleaning. But to some families in Bagong Silang, Quezon City, the tree became a lifeline during the onslaught of Ondoy in 2009. To avoid being swept away by floodwaters, 37 persons clung to a dita tree. All seven families – including a two-month-old baby — were saved.  Read the full story here. 

Quezon City councilor Alfred Vargas proposed a resolution recognizing the tree as “a tree of life.” “It was just a tree but it now stands for the people’s hope and ability to move on. I think they have moved on and have accepted what happened before,” the councilor said.

This story stoked my interest back to that tree in the Virac plaza after the serious damage of super typhoon Rolly on Catanduanes. Seeing photos of the typhoon aftermath, I wondered if it was able to withstand nature’s wrath this time. Three weeks after Rolly’s landfall, I talked to a friend based in Virac to know how things are holding up. Still weary after the harrowing experience, she nevertheless assured me that greening has started;  trees all over are developing new sprouts.

And that dita tree?

She said it’s still there. A little shaken, but still standing strong.

Like a true heritage tree.

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