June 1, 2023

Baguio City has been celebrating the Saleng Festival annually since 2021 to raise awareness of and to encourage its constituents to be active partners in urban forest stewardship, environmental management, and the protection and conservation of biodiversity in general. This May to June would be the third staging of the festival. Also known as the City of Pines, its festival flag species is the pine tree, locally called the Benguet pine or saleng (Ilocano and Pilipino). Saleng in the Ibaloy language refers to the resinous aromatic honey-colored woody part called pitch pine and often used as kindling material while the tree is called belbel. The Benguet pine or saleng – not just pine tree because there are two endemic pine species in the Philippines, the other being the Mindoro pine or tapulao – is also naturally distributed in mainland Southeast Asia (except Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Indonesia) and India and its international common name is Kesiya pine. The pine trees of Bukidnon originated from Benguet, being transplanted in 1929.
The Kesiya pine of the Philippines was first described by the Spanish botanist and Augustinian Friar Francisco Manuel Blanco (1778-1845) in his book, Flora de Filipinas, published in Manila in 1837. The type specimen he described was from the Ilocos region but he also stated that Zambales is another locality. He designated the pine specimen as Pinus taeda (pino tea). The British botanist Dr. John Forbes Royle collected a pine specimen from Khasi Hill, India and was given the scientific name, Pinus kesiya Royle. Its description from the holotype specimen collected by Royle was published in 1840, three years after the publication of Blanco’s book. In 1857, the Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher (1804-1849) published a description of a pine specimen collected in the Philippines by the English naturalist Hugh Cuming (1791-1865), initially named as Pinus timorensis and later corrected as Pinus insularis. In 1966 following an international expert review led by the British Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Pinus kesiya was adopted as the correct name and is synonymous to Pinus insularis. So how come Friar Blanco’s pine species was consigned to oblivion?
Unlike Germany, Great Britain and France, scientific enlightenment in 19th century Spain was tempered by strong religious conservatism. Scientific works, except perhaps medicine, were in the hands of members of the religious orders like Friar Blanco and rarely communicated outside of the Spanish territories. There was some comfort in such a state of affairs, being unintended guardians against potential heterodoxy. Moreover, the maritime dominance of Spain was slowly being eclipsed by British naval power and among European empires, Great Britain dominated global scientific exploration and development. In the case of Friar Blanco’s work, the publication of his book in Manila, a distant colonial city, may have limited its circulation. For the Kesiya pine, there was no way it could be verified in the absence of the holotype specimen, which may have been lost or destroyed in fire, earthquake or typhoons that affected Manila in the 19th century. While there was poor appreciation of scientific thoughts in Spain, humanities and philosophy were flourishing, filtering into the colonies as in the case of the Philippines. Our national heroes, notably Jose Rizal, were very much influenced by these ideas and even though he travelled widely in Europe, science was not attractive to him, like many of his contemporary Filipino expatriates in Spain. The low appreciation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in our present educational recruitment is perhaps the consequence of Spanish colonial policies on education in the Philippines and hardly changed during the American colonial period. In the third edition of the Flora de Filipinas published posthumously, a beautiful illustration of the Kesiya pine was included but named it Pinus insularis (P. taeda) after Endlicher.
The cool environment of the Cordillera highlands is due its high elevation, rugged terrain, and expansive peaks with extensive vegetation. Unlike the high mountains of Mindanao or the Sierra Madre, the presence of pure stands of Kesiya pine in the Cordillera highlands with its affinity for cooler environments lent a special landscape unique in tropical islands. The habitability of the Gran Cordillera Central is attributed in part to the presence of the Kesiya pine and compared to vegetation in other mountain ranges, the understory of pure stands is relatively open. The Kesiya pine is a special tree in symbiosis with the geography of the Cordillera highlands and deserving of protection, respect, management, and conservation. Let us celebrate its presence. — JAMES PAW