Friday, February 25, 2011

Trees with Ghosts Who Love Women

[5th of a series on folk beliefs associated with trees and forests]

If you get to see certain patches of forest with large trees that appear incongruous or out of place in their generally tree-less or desolate surrounding, chances are that they have been spared from the logger’s axe or saved from being converted into farms due to the belief in unfit or disfavored trees.
Mangoes are certainly magnetic and saliva-inducing fruits be they ripe or green. But did you know that in some communities, single ladies are warned not to go near a big mango tree because it is believed to be the home of a spirit who loves to waylay unescorted women? In Thailand, too, house builders are cautioned not to use the wood from mango trees because it is believed to bring illness and bad luck to the house-owners.

s a young forester in the 1970s, I happened to be part of the UP Los Baños College of Forestry team of resource persons sent out to public elementary schools to teach teachers certain concepts about trees and forests. One of the things I loved to share -- and which almost always became eureka moments among the Grades 1 to 3 science teachers I handled in Metro Manila, Nueva Ecija, Mindoro, Lubang, Antique, Iloilo, and Cotabato -- was that of a grotesque tree that usually starts as a tiny dropping of a bird on the branch of another tree. 

The Tree-Killing Tree

That grotesque tree is the balete. 

Indeed, as a plant, the balete starts out as a bird dropping that with the aid of rain and sun soon becomes an epiphyte or a virtual orchid. Available moisture and leaf litter in its perch high up on the host tree would next make the plant turn into a vine that sprouts forth several roots that seem to race though very slowly towards the ground. 

Once anchored on soil, the said roots would next become fast-growing stems whose branches and secondary roots, though not exactly sucking the host tree’s blood, as it were, would soon join one another to wrap themselves tightly around the host tree’s trunk. 

As the years go by, the trunk of the host tree gets strangled slowly but surely by the parasite plant’s fast-growing and intertwining stems. Not only that. Its branches that once served as cradle to the parasite, protecting it from wind and the scorching sun, soon become smothered by huge ingrate branches.
And finally, despite valiant efforts to survive, the poor host tree withers and dies -- and its place under the sun taken over by a multi-stemmed and dreadful-looking tree they call strangler fig or balete.

But that’s not the end of our story. 

The balete would later become a huge and wide-trunked tree especially if no one would dare prune or thin its prop roots or nip the “aerial” ones in the tip. When the tree bears flowers, a lot of insects would be attracted – bees, butterflies, ants. When the fruits start to become crimson then purple, several kinds of birds would come feed of the seemingly endless supply of luscious figs. 

At night, people who happen to pass by the tree would get startled by the flapping of wings, the swaying of branches, the shower of falling figs, and tiny squeaking screams as the fruit bats they call paniki would come once darkness has set in, sometimes in pairs, at times in droves, to chew the ripe figs and in the process often jostling one another for vantage among the tree’s fruit-laden twigs.

This activity of nocturnal mammals on fruiting balete trees, the tree’s propensity to grow in Spanish-era churches and brick-cum-lime towers, and the imaginative add-on stories about white ladies, smoking kapre, horse-headed tikbalang, and forest fairies dwelling on their boughs, all contribute to making the balete a tree to avoid and let live.
This old balete in Siquijor Island, Visayas, is believed to be enchanted. Note the hundreds of roots going down the ground, which in due time will become massive stems that strangle the host tree. Photo from

But certainly the balete is not the only dreaded tree we have in the Philippines.

Other Haunted Trees

For obvious reasons, in many areas of the Philippines the most avoided trees apart from balete are century-old members of the following trees:
  •  Acacia (a.k.a. Raintree) -- Scientific name: Albizzia saman
  • Achuete (Appatot in Ilocano) -- Bixa orellana
  • Kalumpang (Bangar in Ilocano) – Sterculia foetida
  • Binuang – Octomeles sumatrana
  • Bitaog (a.k.a. Palo Maria) – Calophyllum innophylum
  • Bulala – Nephelium phippinensis
  • Mabolo (a.k.a. Kamagong) – Diospyros philippinensis
  • Mango –Mangifera indica
  • Narra – Pterocarpus indicus
  • Tamarind – Tamarindus indicus
  • Tuai – Biscofia javanica
Interestingly, they are avoided not as trees per se but more because of their big trunks, gnarled bark, mossy or lichen-covered branches, and dark cavities – all said to be indicators that they harbor malevolent spirits that one in his right mind should not disturb.

If these old trees happen to be found on the grounds of Spanish-period churches, the more that people would become wary of them. No one would dare cut them down unless exorcized by a priest. 

For instance, as a boy, I heard that when a large bangar/kalumpang tree in a church property was being felled to give space for a Netherlands-assisted piggery project, the handle of the axe being used broke several times even as the tree had a relatively soft trunk. It was only when the Dutch priest was asked to sprinkle holy water on the tree that the cutting went on smoothly. 

Trees Belonging to the Dead

Whether geriatric or not, no one would normally lay the axe or the chainsaw on trees growing in old cemeteries as they are said to be the playground or favorite siesta area of the ghosts of people who have not yet left their burial area. 

The same holds true for trees where somebody died or committed suicide. Also avoided are trees underneath which certain bodies, say Japanese soldiers or Filipino guerillas, have been buried. 

Such trees would easily become the subject of betting among gin-emboldened drinking buddies who would dare the supposedly bravest among them all to spend the night alone under their boughs or even take a nap under their shade during high noon when ghosts are said to be roaming.

Trees with Women-Loving Beings

There are trees whose “resident beings” are said to have a special liking to women. In the coastal towns of Western Pangasinan, for example, unmarried women are cautioned not to get near big mango trees especially if they are unescorted and if the trees are laden with fruit. Dante N. Pecson (pers. comm., 1990) says that in his hometown Agno, such mango trees are believed to be the hideout of the pugot, a male supernatural being that is said to have a strong penchant for  courting women and waylaying them for several days. Similarly avoided in the area are mabolo trees believed to be favorite shelters of hideous beings called lampong.

Trees with Chicken-Loving Guards

In the remote upland villages of Mankayan, Benguet, men and women alike are wary of the tree they locally call tiwwi (scientific name: Biscofia javanica; tuai in Tagalog; kanarem in Ilocano). Villagers are cautioned not to cut the tree or even urinate under it lest its tumungaw (guardian spirit) will be offended and will bring harm to the intruder. There have been persistent accounts of locals who fell ill for not observing this belief and who got freed from the tumungaw’s punishment only after their relatives made offerings of chicken and blankets (Michael Dapdapig, pers. comm., 1995).

This taboo imposed on the tuai tree probably explains why in many parts of the Cordilleras you get to see a number of several members of this broad-leaf species standing huge and tall among the needle-leaf pine trees. It certainly is more prudent to heed the warning of the elders rather than get sick and, equally bad, spend money for buying white chicken and a new blanket.

Trees Guarded by Fireflies

The presence of fireflies in trees has also proved useful in protecting their host trees from destruction. This is because fireflies (called kulalanti in Ilocano; i^irung in Isinay; aninipot in Cebuano; alitaptap in Tagalog) are often associated with a tree-dwelling diwata (fairy), engkantada (enchantress), or other such supernatural beings. Thus, trees that glow like Christmas trees with such tiny luminescent beetles at night are consciously avoided even during daytime.

Even the adjoining smaller trees and shrubs of such firefly-inhabited trees are often included as part of the taboo and are thefore off-limits to tree harmers. At times too, birds, lizards and other animals dwelling in them are secured from unnecessary disturbance.

Trees with Bad Character

There are of course certain trees that are spared by tree-cutters not because of the belief in the supernatural but more because of the so-called “bad” characteristics that such trees have. For example, in Agusan, newcomers used to wonder why there are giant trees (over 100 centimeters in diameter and taller than the tallest coconut palms) left standing like lone sentinels near the highway or in the middle of ricefields. 

These trees, called toog (Combretodendron quadrialatum), were unwittingly left there not so much because previous loggers adhered to some belief systems that warned against cutting the trees but more because such trees are considered “unfit” or “unwanted.” Indeed, mature toog trees contain huge amounts of sand like deposits in their wood that easily dull or bring rust axes and saws used on them. If by chance some foolhardy fellow is able to convert a toog log into lumber, the dried lumber is said to be super tough against nails and against ordinary carpentry tools.

Another example exists among firewood gatherers in Dupax del Sur, Nueva Vizcaya. In this case, trees belonging to the Leeaceae plant family are considered unsuitable for use as firewood, thus, who cut and bring them home to fuel the erathen stove are laughed. This is because the species – particularly the one we call ang-ang in Ilocano (mali-mali in Tagalog) brings nothing but ash and smoke. Worse, they are said to cause kettles and claypots to break.

In Kalinga and Apayao, firewood gatherers are also cautioned from hauling downhill wood of trees that, when used to cook rice, cause the rice to spoil easily and sometimes emit poisonous smoke (Henry Aliten, pers. comm., 1995).

Trees Struck by Lightning

Perhaps in defiance of the notion that lightning doesn’t strike twice, standing trees that had been struck by lightning are considered a symbol of bad luck and are therefore avoided or are not used as lumber especially for building houses no matter how good the quality of the tree’s wood would be. 

In some cases too, the place where the lightning-victim tree still stands is avoided because it is believed that the site is cursed and that lightning might strike it again.

Disfavored Trees in Thailand

Those of you who think that the beliefs I’m describing in this essay exist only in the Philippines would do well to know that people of one of our neighbor countries, Thailand, also share the same taboo as regards trees growing in burial grounds and trees hit by lightning. 

In addition, the Thais also believe in “unfit” or “disfavored” trees. An inventory of such trees was, in fact, done by Khon Kaen University researchers led by Dr. Pagarat Rathakette (1985) and their list included the following trees:
  • Po (Ficus religiosa) – Regarded as the most sacred tree in the eyes of Buddhists, it is considered sacrilegious to cut it.
  • Kabok (Irvingia malayana) – This tree’s local name means “not fulfilled” and, thus, its use is believed to cause poverty in the family.
  • Poey (Irvingia species) – A bitter-tasting tree, this is believed to bring bitterness in life to the family that uses it. The local Thai name means “naked” and so it may bring nothingness or emptiness to its users.
  • Ai (Ficus species) – Considered parasitic, this tree is said to lead its users to become dependent upon others for their living.
  • Loem (Canarium subulatum) – This tree is said to bring bad luck and illness to its users.
  • Ma Moung Paa (Mangifera indica) – This is the mango tree whose fruits are okay for eating; however, the use of its wood for housing is believed to bring bad luck and illness to the house-owner.

…[Next: What’s Next for Folk Beliefs?]...


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