August 17, 2020

My Childhood with Plants

Childhood plants

Having a mom with a green thumb, I grew up surrounded by plants.

I thought it was completely normal to have plants everywhere, both outside and inside the house.

My big sister and me beside one of my mom's houseplants.

I remember large, tropical plants in our living room. I got a kick out of wiping each deep green leaf until it was shiny, polishing it as if it were a piece of furniture.

Outside, there were even more plants. And because I grew up in the tropics, plants flourished outdoors all year round.

The front of our house was bordered by ornamental plants. Like the ubiquitous santan (Jungle flame) with their yellow and orange flowers. In the summers, we would pick the stamen and suck the sweet nectar out of the filaments.

There were deep pink and red gumamela (hibiscus) that we crushed and mixed with water to make a solution for blowing bubbles. (I was confused many years later when, as a mom myself, I saw bubble solution being sold in bottles in the grocery!)

… Showy and feminine bougainvillea plants that seemed to be in a permanent state of bloom.

Yard picnic

Behind my baby cousin and me is the corner where an avocado tree would one day grow.

… Shrubs of roses and sampaguita (Arabian jasmine) that we would thread into fragrant necklaces.

… Unassuming malunggay (moringga) trees whose stems and leaves we pinched off and pretend to cook in our clay pots.

… Dark green shrubs whose names I never learned. We would pluck off long stems and decorate them for Palm Sunday. I felt extra-special as I waved branches that looked different than everyone else’s.

My mom grew many edible plants.

Like the calamansi (Philippine lime) we children largely ignored. However, this was indispensable to the cook, who relied on the plant to flavor everything from pansit (noodles) to arroz caldo (rice and chicken soup).

I also recall the siling labuyo (red hot chili) plant, small and inconsequential looking. Someone convinced my second sister to taste it. To this day, she doesn’t like spicy food!

My mom, the green thumb

In front of the house with my mom, the green thumb

At the back of the house, we had fruit trees.

A langka (jackfruit) tree that produced giant fruits. We would wait impatiently for each one to ripen. And when the time finally came, it was like a small celebration. Someone would slice the monstrous jackfruit open. And we would all dig in to free the sweet, fleshy arils. We saved the large seeds to be boiled and eaten the next day.

There was the kamias (tree sorrel) tree right outside my bedroom. It would bear so many bunches of fruits that our housemaids would freeze them, then give them away to neighbors for the asking. We didn’t snack on these because they were mouth-puckeringly sour.

Outside my sisters’ bedroom grew the chesa (canistel) tree. Its fruits were round and orange, and nobody wanted them! As a child, I found the taste chalky and just plain weird. I don’t know why we even kept this tree.

Many plants came and went in our garden.

My first garden

My first garden was a neglected patch of dirt.

In one corner of the front yard, we used to have an avocado tree. It grew large and wide and bore delicious purple fruits. But one night, a robber tried to get inside the property by climbing the fence and then the avocado tree. It was chopped down the very next day.

I guess my mom had her own gardening experiments.

They included growing several Bangkok santol (cotton fruit) trees. They only grew up to about five or six feet tall, but bore lots of fruits. They were so sweet that my sister and I called dibs on them by labelling the fruits with our names. No, we didn’t write on the fruits. We used the plant labels my mom had for her orchids.

For reasons unknown to me, the santol trees were cut down. Maybe it was because that yard was turned into a second carport.

But not before my mom’s other experiment: grapes.

We all soon learned that grapes don’t like the tropics. Our grape plants bore teeny, tiny fruits that rivaled the kamias in tartness.

But the most amazing part of our garden was my mom’s greenhouse of orchids. At first, it was on the south side of the house and later was moved to the north side to make way for a basketball court for my nephew.

Either way, it was a large structure with steel posts and a metal grid roof my mom would cover with mesh to shade the orchids from the harsh summer sun. Dozens of driftwood set in cement stands filled the greenhouse.

Several orchids grew on each driftwood, encased in a coconut husk. Everywhere we went, my mom was on the lookout for driftwood. Out on the beach, she would drag one home. Everywhere else, she would ask for them or, if she had to, she would buy them.

My mom used to spend hours and hours tending to her garden. So much so that we teased her saying we, her children, were underweight but her orchids were robust and healthy.

My mom's orchids

Compare skinny me with my mom's healthy orchids.

And the orchids thrived under my mom’s care. They bloomed like magic … vandas … dendrobiums … and the coveted cattleyas. I loved to weave my way through the driftwoods, admiring each lady-like flower and trying to memorize their names.

They were my favorite subjects to photograph. They made great and impressive gifts. And when a dear friend of mine died, I brought orchids to his wake almost every day.

But then one night, robbers did get inside. They climbed the wall, cut through the barbed wire, and stole most of my mom’s orchid flowers. After that, my mom never grew orchids with as much fervor anymore.

Let’s not end my reminiscing on a sad note.

In my early 20s, the political situation in the Philippines was extremely unstable. Rebels were staging one coup d’etat after another against then President Corazon Aquino. During one of the worst ones, I heard on the news that people had gone panic buying.

I called home to ask my mom if I should stop by the grocery and buy food on my way home.
“Just come home straight,” she replied, “Don’t worry about food. We have plenty of kamote (sweet potatoes) and malunggay (moringga) in the backyard.”

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Alexis Rodrigo