The molave bonsai, as the bonsai using the molave tree (Vitex parviflora) as a specimen is now popularly called, has evolved into one of the favorites among aficionados in the Philippines. It has now established a niche in the internet world. Its growing popularity was in fact obvious in the 7th Mindanao Open Bonsai Competition & Exhibit held in 2011 in General Santos City.
But up to 1994, my knowledge about bonsai was only restricted to balete (Ficus), which Cebuanos also call “dakit” and the Ilonggos “lonok.” My initiation into the pursuit of this living art in fact started with my mother’s two balete trees which she grew in deep, ornamental clay pots at home. These trees remained in those pots for years without repotting, and the roots just kept on rotating around the inside of the pots. The soil inside had long been depleted, and continuing root growth pushed the trees upward so that much of enlarged bases of roots were visible. She proudly called these bonsai, anyway.
Until then I never heard, neither read nor otherwise learned of anything with reference to molave bonsai. I was a daily subscriber of a national newspaper for the past few years who read just about everything including the ads. I also collected clippings of the Agriculture section, but there just was nothing on molave bonsai, at least to my recollection.
Then I left for Laguna. I started collecting literature on bonsai. I also participated in educational trips in landscaping, one to a UPLB professor’s residence with a collection of bonsai, mostly miniatures. In another occassion, we visited Mang Modesto Maclicmot’s residence, the first time that I met and personally talked to him, reputedly one of the pillars of bonsai development in the Philippines. But still, I had no recollection whatsoever of molave bonsai.
The Evolution Of Molave Bonsai
It happened after I returned to General Santos City in late 1996. I started applying at home what little I learned and discovered that bonsai making had become a craze. The highway connecting the city to the southern parts of Sarangani was already concreted and the road expansion made those naturally dwarf molave trees visible to the public eye. And accessible too!
But funny, the term bonsai then was mostly understood as trees growing on rocks. It does not matter whether or not the tree has the replica of a mature tree, the common hesitant, sometimes arrogant, question was, “If it is a bonsai, why is there no rock?”
Then I conducted a seminar at the GSC Garden Center in which I introduced the rules in the judging of bonsai which I retrieved from my collection of literature. It was to be followed by many more seminars. I learned that TESDA had a program on bonsai propagation, and so it soon got involved.
To be clear, however, I am not the first to engage in bonsai making in the city. Neither did I had monopoly of the technology, or art. Cocoy, the late Bernard, and Richie came to see me and thereafter we exhibited at the outside premises of East Asia Royale Hotel. They could easily have done it without me, but they needed me anyhow. To my knowledge, it was the first of such exhibits to be held in General Santos City.
Then, in 2001, the 6th Philippine Floriculture Congress was held in this city. The four of us again presented an exhibit of bonsai specimens under training, mainly molave. The program included a competition on bonsai and, at the last minute, I decided to enter a semi-cascade, on-the-rock molave bonsai which I separated from the exhibit. I remember that the other entries, from outside of General Santos City, included bougainvilla and tamarind, but no molave. I was awakened by a call from my sister congratulating me that my entry was adjudged as the best bonsai.
There were only a few entries. Nevertheless, the exhibit and the competition transformed the molave tree, particularly the tugas lanhan, from a virtual unknown into a respectable species in the world of bonsai. The judge for the competition, Prof. Serafin Metilla, made it so.
What Made the Molave Bonsai One of the Favorites Now
The many stunted but aged trees; the gnarled and twisted trunks; its ability to remain alive with only a thin strip of live bark left, as when it is salvaged after a bush fire; the resistance of shari and jin to rotting; its tolerance to harsh climatic conditions; its ability to grow from the crevices or on top of limestone rocks without any help from man; its various growth habit in the wild which permits its transformation into many styles of bonsai; the ease in its propagation; its relatively pliant stems; and its natural ability to miniaturize in response to shallow potting, continuous shoot trimming and periodic root pruning.
Without doubt, these characteristics are responsible for the emergence of this tree as a favorite bonsai specimen in the Philippines. But these are not all. There’s the bantigui (Pemphis acidula) which is even more popular and well sought worldwide.
In my view, it is mainly because they are easily available at little cost. Freshly uprooted materials for bonsai making are continuously traded, even reaching far-flung regions as ukay-ukay. It does not matter that the old hunting grounds are already depleted, they are still available though in more distant sites. It does not matter too that the hunted materials are artistically unfit or otherwise heavily pruned for ease in transport. Most of the materials delivered just leave little for imagination, but still, these materials find willing receivers. Online trading also evolved.
Indeed, it appears that there exists an eminent danger of total elimination due to indescriminate harvesting. For the molave bonsai lovers in General Santos City and Sarangani, these grotesque, gnarled, rotted, stunted molave trees, these living symbols of survival amidst harsh onslaught of nature, these are a rare resource worthy of being multiplied instead of being depleted without end.
Quite an easy proposition. Easily stated than done. For the less schooled, the poorest of the poor gatherers and suppliers of bonsai materials, the question that really matters is, “Who will give us the little rice for the table if the supply route is suddenly and totally closed?” To those who are at the other end of the road, it’s “That’s why we cannot close this road.” So who really invented the first question?
(Ben G. Bareja 2013, edited Apr. 26, 2019)
Update July 29, 2019: According to multiple sources, freight carriers in the city have been notified not to engage in the transport of bonsai and bonsai materials without the necessary permits.