In pursuit of Nila

Or is it Nilad? Fray Manuel Blanco of Flora de Filipinas fame may have been a learned botanist but he was a poor linguist, according to Filipino historian Carlos Quirino (National Artist Award for Historical Literature), he added the letter “d” to the plant’s name. So, Manila’s original name is not Maynilad but Maynila, a place where the plant grows in abundance. Had Fray Blanco been English, Manila would have been pronounced Maynilar.

Last Saturday was Dia Internacional del Libro at the Instituto Cervantes; that falls on the day when William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes died; speaking of celebrating deaths instead of victories! Vibal Foundation launched another addition to its “Filipiniana Clásica” line, Fray Manuel Blanco’s Flora de Filipinas which was first published in 1837 by the Augustinian Order to which he belonged. Vibal’s handsome publication was edited by Dr. Domingo A. Madulid, erstwhile director of the Divisiion of Botany of the National Museum.

This 5th edition makes it easier to read and study Fray Blanco’s astounding contribution to Philippine botany because the colored plates and descriptions are face to face; there is an English translation and an add-on section, “Other Notes,” which contains legends and cultural vignettes related to each plant.

I had never come across such a frightful legend of the Nilad until I read researcher Damiana Eugenio’s piece: In the kingdom of Lusong (Luzon, probably) there ruled a datu called Nikoy who married the lady Nilad; of course she was beautiful, as in all fables of this type. They had two sons, Kanduliang Magdala who was his mother’s favorite. For unknown reasons, Datu Nikoy ordered Magdala killed to the horror of his mother who fled to Macati and hid in a cave there. The evil Nikoy sent his warriors to look for Nilad and when she was dragged to his presence, he slit her throat and threw her body into the river (the Pasig, most likely). Remorse gripped the datu immediately after, so he jumped into the river and drowned. A plant with delicate white flowers grew on the spot where Nilad perished, so people named the flower in her honor. Kanduli succeeded his father and as it turned out, he was a wiser and more compassionate ruler. In memory of his unfortunate mother, he would always wear a garland of Nilad blossoms. After Kanduli’s death, the natives called their settlement Maynila.

In the Philippines, there are 35 known species of the Nilad (Seyphiphora Hydrophyllacea) and the entire range is in the IUCN Red List of of Threatened Species. We have been killing our mangroves! Since 1980, there has been a 20% decline in our mangrove areas due to coastal land reclamations and development coupled with climate change. On the other hand, Nilad seems to be thriving around Freedom Island, at the border of Las Piñas and Parañaque off the Manila-Cavite Expressway. There is a gorgeous Nilad tree on that tiny island at the center of the lagoon of the Manila Zoo. It is endangered, threatened by the Manila mayor’s plans to turn the zoo into yet another complex of shopping malls and high-rise buildings. Go there and take photos and selfies before it’s too late.

I bought two other books on International Book Day, also by Vibal Foundation: The Life and Times of Damián Domingo by Luciano P.R. Santiago and Santo Niño de Cebu (1565-2015) by Fr. Pedro G. Galende, OSA. At a previous launch that took place at the Rizal Library of the Ateneo de Manila University, I acquired Knowledge and Pacification (On the US Conquest and the Writing of Philippine History) by Dr. Reynaldo Clemeña Ileto and Interrogations in Philippine Cultural History by Dr. Resil B. Mojares, whom I had always wanted to meet, but because he lives in Cebu, never had the chance, until that evening during the double launch at the Rizal library.

I am now happily grazing on this pasture of new books, though I am reading them at the same time, putting one aside after a few chapters and picking up another, you can be sure I always finish reading a book.