The pieces of green — no, jade — are luminous on the dark banks of the pool before Busay Falls. It is a balmy afternoon in late January. The air here is cool and cozy; the spray of mist from the waterfalls icy on the skin. On the cemented path alongside the falls where cottages and tables are found, I linger. Earlier, I handed four ₱5 coins to the elderly man at the front — entrance fee for two at ₱10 each. The coins were the new ones. The ones I remember criticizing for all looking the same.
The jade in our midst
In March 2018, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) released the New Generation Currency (NGC) Coin Series consisting of the 10-Piso, 5-Piso, 1-Piso, 25-Sentimo, 5-Sentimo and the 1-Sentimo into circulation. Later in December 2019, the bi-colored 20-Piso coin and the enhanced 5-Piso coin with nine sides were also released, completing the set.
A plant native to the Philippines adorns each of the coins.
Meanwhile, in January 2022, aboard a camper van, my spouse and I decided to see and document the depth and breadth of the natural wonders our country has to offer. This took us away from our hometown in Rizal all the way down to Bicolandia then over to Samar Island and eventually across Mindanao. But it is in Bicol, in the earliest part of this journey, that I had one of my most memorable wildlife encounters.
By the banks of Busay Falls, there is the enchanting jade vine — the plant gracing the reverse side of the 5-Piso NGC coin.
Except I didn’t know this yet. All I knew was that the jade vine was beautiful.
It is not my first time encountering this plant. In 2019, during a hike up Mt. Daguldol in Batangas, I saw it dangling far up a tree, radiant in the green and brown of the foliage. Here, in Busay Falls in the town of Malilipot in Albay, I stand right beneath luscious strings of it, led to this particular spot by the sprinkling of flowers on the moist ground, like discarded claws of turquoise and jade.
The jade vine, Strongylodon macrobotrys, is known locally as tayabak. It grows in damp forested ravines, usually along streams, from 110 to 1,000 meters above sea level. Aside from butterflies, it is also pollinated by bats. The young flowers of the tayabak are eaten the same way katuray (Sesbania grandiflora) is prepared, like in a salad. Endemic to the Philippines, it is cultivated all over the world as an ornamental because of its magnificent chandelier-like flowers.
To see it in the flesh — and in its natural habitat no less — felt like a blessing.
Come May, I walk the periphery of another body of water. This time, a lake: Lake Bulusan in my mother’s hometown of Sorsogon.
Birds are what I come here for, but in between sightings of endemics — creatures found only in a certain area and nowhere else — such as the Luzon bleeding-heart (Gallicolumba luzonica) and the spotted wood kingfisher (Actenoides lindsayi), there is this: a splash of turquoise in the solemn forest. Peeking from the canopy is the striking Tayabak, as if to say, “I am here, and so are you. We share this space.”
Fast forward to November, on our fifth month in Mindanao, living and traveling in our camper van. In the forested outskirts of Cagayan de Oro in Misamis Oriental, we are visiting a friend: Dr. Miguel de Leon, renowned vitreoretinal surgeon, botanist, and ornithologist extraordinaire.
We met by fate in September, during the penultimate chapter of our Philippine Eagle Quest, and immediately took a liking to each other. This time, de Leon will take us to the “living laboratory” of the Robert S. Kennedy Bird Conservancy, of which he is the director. But long before we step foot in the forest he and his team protects, a surprise already awaited us right at his front door.
On a huge pot before the entrance to his home, nicknamed the “House of Rustling Leaves,” a Xanthostemon verdugonianus grows. A magnificent mangkono.
Today, a pair of Olive-backed sunbirds (Cinnyris jugularis) darts upon its branches, feeding on its marvelous red blooms using their specialized curved beaks. It is an amazing sight. Two endemics interacting with each other, in a place where humans have mostly taken over the wild. It is no natural habitat, but it is still incredible to behold. I spend a good part of the morning photographing and basking in its beauty.
Found only in the Philippines, mangkono is one of the country’s known species of “ironwood.” It grows naturally on lowland and medium-elevation forests as well as on ultramafic and karst limestone landscapes. The wood is so hard, it takes two to four days to cut a tree with a 70-centimeter diameter, with diamond blades doused with water to counter overheating.
“For a time, it was thought all mangkonos were just one species,” Dr. Pastor Malabrigo, a botanist and taxonomist from the University of the Philippines Los Baños, would tell me almost a year later over Zoom. “We thought the ones in Palawan are also verdugonianus, but they are a different species.”
“After bearing the brunt of typhoons, some older stands of mangkono went abloom, and the flowers were noticeably different,” he would add. “Bago-adlau or X. philippinensis, for example, bore yellow flowers.”
Over dinner, de Leon shares that he got the plant as a seedling in exchange for a few premium koi — he knew the plant’s value to naturalists, being one himself. We do not discuss what he thought of the plant being featured on the 1-Sentimo coin. Mainly because, even at that time, I was not yet aware of this fact.
The “Elephant” in the churchyard
After more than a year on the road, we are back in Sorsogon — my mother’s hometown, where my spouse and I have decided to re-establish roots. It is June and I’m part of a fellowship for improving biodiversity reporting skills. By now, I know of the endemic plants featured on our coins, and with this knowledge, I propose a story on this; to embark on a quest to photograph and see these plants in the real world. This is eventually approved. And supported. Since then, I’ve been awaiting the blooming of a Philippine Native Tree.
Now, it is a morning in mid-September. From the house my late mother left me, I walk to the church. It doesn’t take me long to get there. Outside, right by the place where candles are lit, next to a statue of the Ten Commandments, is a katmon tree.
The tree is tall and lush, with shiny broad serrated leaves glinting in the early sun. In the midst of green are patches of white. Big, beautiful katmon flowers. I marvel at it, measuring the blooms. It is as big as my palm.
On the ground, some fruits have fallen. I pick them up, peel them and eat them. They are crunchy and subtly sour.
“Some use the fruits to season fish,” Noel Lacuen, the church caretaker, tells me. “Some of the kids also like eating them.”
Lacuen, more popularly known as “Inso," is 54 years old. He inherited his church job from his father. When I showed him the 25-Sentimo coin where a flower of the katmon is engraved, he just scratches his head. He then tells me the tree was probably planted by someone from the church back then, but he doesn’t know who it was. All he knows is that since he was a kid, the tree has always been there.
“Even when I was young, that katmon was already a katmon,” — meaning it was already as big then as it is now.
Katmon (Dillenia philippinensis), is found only in the Philippines. It grows throughout the country, in low- to medium-altitude forests. It does not like the cold, and cannot survive upland conditions. Its fruits are called elephant apple in English, a name shared by other species of the Dillenia genus.
The quest continues
Under this katmon tree, more than a year after my encounter with the tayabak, I am more deliberate.
The coins in my pocket, bearing reliefs of our natural heritage, are opportunities. Coins are accessible, and it is a great way to meet people where they are in terms of their knowledge about our wonderful native plants. And the BSP agrees.
“As coins are often used as a platform to feature culturally relevant iconography, the plants were chosen to provide awareness, as the majority of them are endangered,” says the BSP’s Mint and Refinery Operations Department in an email.
Indeed, the plants featured on our coins are classified as Near Threatened, Vulnerable, or Endangered. Threatened by habitat loss and poaching, without intervention, these plants could become a thing of the past, a mere memory engraved on nickel-plated steel.
“Having these plants on coins is a good start,” says Dr. Malabrigo. “But there is so much more that the government can do in terms of conservation. One is including native plants in our educational curriculum.”
He says he had been part of a group that worked on a module about teaching native flora in schools, but he is not aware of the initiative’s progress.
“But we really need to start in schools,” he reiterates. “Our kids need to start learning about our plants and trees at a young age.”
Dr. Jurgenne Primavera, an internationally recognized ecologist who currently serves as the Chief Mangrove Scientific Advisor of the Zoological Society of London, agrees.
"The coins that pass from hand to hand carry a value that goes beyond monetary. With careful attention, they become a gateway to our collective identity and national pride."
“We can even go as far as partnering environmental NGOs with SUCs (state universities and colleges) and other HEIs (higher educational institutions)," says Dr. Primavera. “The NGOs have funding and logistics — transport, security, access to lodging in their field sites — but sometimes not enough science. In contrast, students and their research advisers can provide the science, and experimental work, but are short of funding. A golden opportunity for student exposure to not just our flora but also the conservation efforts being done.”
Dr. Primavera also thinks that local leaders, particularly mayors, should have more knowledge of our natural treasures. They should be well-versed on the trees, plants, and animals that reside and occur within their domain.
“Mayors hold so much power over a place’s natural resources,” she says. “At the very least, it should be required that mayors have units related to environmental management. This could give them more to draw from when making decisions.”
In the end, it all boils down to the decisions we make, how informed they are and the kind of interests they are rooted in.
The BSP, the Monetary Board, and the Office of the President had made a decision about the design of the NGC coins. We, as a nation, must now decide on how to move forward with regards to the plants featured in them as well as the rest of our natural treasures.
The coins that pass from hand to hand carry a value that goes beyond monetary. With careful attention, they become a gateway to our collective identity and national pride. And so this quest is a decision, an undertaking to bring the wealth of Philippine forests closer to the Filipino public. It may not bear the same weight of legislation, but it banks on the irresistible pull of discovery and awe, on the infallible instinct to protect what we know and love, and — to borrow the words of one of my good friends — on the softness and wild power of hope.
This story has been produced through support from USAID SIBOL, in partnership with AYEJ, under the Green Beat Plus biodiversity journalism training program. The content and publication of the report are the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.