HERE is one more good reason to protect our forests: The Philippines now holds the record with the most diverse species of pitcher plants (Nepenthes) in the world, topping competitors, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
With more than 53 different pitcher-plant species having been recorded so far, the Philippines may now lay claim to the title as the “center of diversity of Nepenthes,” an official of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said.
Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) is urging Filipino botanists to continue their research and explorations in the forest, with the hope of finding more unique and rare plant species, like pitcher plants, which can be included in the DENR-BMB’s database.
Pitcher plants belong to a family of plants that are carnivorous. They grow and thrive in natural forests. They have modified leaves called pitfall traps, shaped like a pitcher, which served as prey-trapping mechanism that features a deep cavity filled with digestive fluid or liquid.
The pitfall traps lure preys, mostly insects, and in some cases, small amphibians, such as frogs and reptiles, and even small mammals, which the plant “digests.” The plant absorbs the prey’s nutrients like it is actually eating or digesting like food to man and animals. Because of its carnivorous nature, pitcher plants are ecologically important, Lim said.
“They help control the population of insects, preventing overpopulation,” she added.
Lim is pushing to build a data base of Philippine plants in partnership with various stakeholders.
One particular partnership is maintaining the web site Co’s Digital Flora of the Philippines. Co is renowned Filipino botanist Leonard L. Co, who was killed in a crossfire between government soldiers and Communist rebels in Kananga, Southern Leyte on November 15, 2010.
Co’s Digital Flora of the Philippines is a checklist of vascular plants native to the Philippine archipelago. The web site is “a continuation of the works of Elmer D. Merrill (1876-1956) and Leonardo L. Co (1953-2010). Merrill and Co were authorities on the Philippine vascular Flora.
The plants in the web site are described based on the studies conducted by those who discovered them, including their location and distribution. Digital photos of the plants were also uploaded in the web site.
A wide variety of pitcher plants exist in the Philippines and they come in different size and color.
Previous “record holders” of having the most number of pitcher plants, like Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, have more than 30 varieties of pitcher plants on record. The Philippines has less number two decades ago, according to Lim.
Over the past decade, however, explorations conducted by Filipino botanists, individually, as a group, independently or in collaboration with the DENR-BMB, have doubled the number of this unique and rare plant on record, exceeding that of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
“There is one pitcher plant named after a mayor of a town where the plant was discovered. We have a wide variety of these pitcher plants. Before, we only have 27 on our record. Now, we have 53 species in our data base,” Lim said.
A Filipino botanist said almost half of the 53 pitcher-plant species in the Philippines are found in Mindanao.
A total of 26 species of the recorded pitcher plants in the Philippines can be found on Mindanao island.
Palawan, a province considered as the country’s last ecological frontier in Luzon, is also home to a good number of pitcher plants.
Some areas in the Visayas also have pitcher plants unique to specific areas or locations.
Victor B. Amoroso, director of the Center for Biodiversity Research and Extension in Mindanao, and Higher Education Regional Research Center of the Central Mindanao University based in Musuan, Bukidnon, said some of the pitcher plants recorded in the Philippines are site-endemic species, which means that they can only be found in a specific area or location, such as in Mount Hamiguitan. One of the recent articles on pitcher plants was linked with the mayor of San Isidro town in Davao Oriental.
“We have the new species of Nepentheses named after the mayor. It was named Nepenthes justinae,” Amoroso said, referring to the plant discovered in Mount Hamiguitan that was named in honor of Justina Yu.
In 2014 and 2016 Amoroso coauthored reports on Nepenthes found in Mindanao. In the latest publication, the authors concluded that Mount Hamiguitan is home to four endemic species (N. peltata, N. micramphora, N.hamiguitanensis, N. justina esp. nov.).
Amoroso also coauthored a publication, entitled Field Guide on Pitcher Plants, which was printed outside the Philippines. Incidentally, Yu helped the Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary (MHRWS) earn the title as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site in 2014.
The reports described the new pitcher plants as unique from those already described in other areas.
A protected area known for its rich biodiversity, MHRWS is also home to the Philippine Eagle and other unique wildlife.
Many of the pitcher plants recorded in the Philippines are considered “threatened” because of massive habitat loss and the unchecked collection from the forest.
According to Lim, harvesting of any plant species in the forest is allowed only upon the issuance of necessary permits by the DENR as mandated by the Republic Act (RA) 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act. In the case of harvesting within a protected area, it is under RA 7586, or the National Integrated and Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act.
“We have to make sure that harvesting of these plant species is sustainable,” Lim said.
Because of its uniquely shaped modified leaves, pitcher plants are now being collected like other ornamental plants or orchids for commercial purposes.
Picher plants sell as much as P2,000 per plant, depending on the variety.
“Most of these species are in the critically endangered category in the sense that many are endemic to our country. Sometimes, they are site endemic. It means it is only found in one place, and nowhere else. The moment they are gone, they are gone forever,” Amoroso said.
He added that site-endemic species should be conserved by protecting their habitats, or collecting the species from the wild to propagate outside their habitats.
In Bukidnon he said there is a botanical garden where species of the pitcher plants are propagated and are now commercialized.
“In Mount Hamiguitan there are six pitcher plants, but four of them are site-endemic species,” he said. Lim encourages hobbyists to learn to propagate pitcher plants to help save the species from extinction and, at the same time, benefit from its potential economic benefits.
“In Malaysia they are now propagating pitcher plants for commercial use as ornamental plants,” she said.
Taken for granted
“Sometimes, these plants are taken for granted. For the longest time, the DENR is focused on trees,” Lim said.
She added that, along with trees, local vegetation is also lost. She said no amount of tree-planting as part of reforestation or forest rehabilitation will replace the uniqueness of local vegetation that will be forever lost.
“We lose the local vegetation that goes along with the trees that are lost. Documentation [of plant species] will help us know what we stand to lose if we lose our native trees,” she said.
According to Lim, much needs to be learned about pitcher plants, which have enzymes that have never been researched for their potential medicinal value from which local communities may benefit.
Lim said an inventory of these unique plants is important for the future benefit of local communities who are protecting them.
Pharmaceutical companies spend millions in search of raw materials for medicines, which the Philippines should benefit from as “owner” of the raw material, particularly if the plant is site endemic, Lim explained.
Many areas in the Philippines, particularly those identified as key biodiversity areas, are home to unique plant species, such as pitcher plants, she added.
“We are anticipating more species to be described. In my last visit in one of the islands in Mindanao, a botanist told me that there are potential new pitcher plants that can be added to our database,” Lim said.
Knowing what the country stands to lose in letting go its natural forests, Lim reiterated, is “a must” to serve as guide to various stakeholders so that a plan and policy can be developed on how to best protect and conserve the country’s rich biodiversity.