A Trip to the Philippines
Keywords: field trip: Nepenthes, Philippines
Our three week trip to the Philippines was the result
of many months planning (involving correspondence back and forth between
Australia, Germany and the Philippines), numerous delays, minor obstacles,
and a fair degree of research. While the logistics were difficult, by
some miracle it all came together midway through 1996. My travel partners
were Thomas Alt (with whom I had previously travelled in southeast Asia)
and Trent Smith who was living and working in Manila.
I met Thomas and Trent at the Manila airport on 25 September
1996. Thomas had arrived in the Philippines a few days earlier and had
already travelled down to Mindanao in the south of the country to check
out some good locations for our investigations. Trent was the best of
hosts and made us feel at home in the unbelievable city of Manila while
we prepared for the first leg of our journey. He also provided us with
a useful update on the law and order situation in the parts of the Philippines
we were to visit.
Upon our arrival in Davao City, Mindanao, we travelled
by jeepney (a modified Jeep) to the town of Magwab, and then northeast
to an area we hoped would give us access to high ground and natural forest.
As we quickly discovered, natural forest in the Philippines is rare. Less
than 5% of the countrys rainforest remains untouched by axe or fire.
The habitat of many Nepenthes species is rapidly diminishing.
While the road we had chosen looked promising on the
map, it turned out that it led to a still-operating gold mine, and the
security guards refused us entry to scout for plants. As this is sometimes
referred to as the land of "Goons, Guns, and Gold" we did not
press the point and turned back. Back in Magwab we tried another approach
and asked at a local orchid nursery if they knew locations of pitcher
plants (referred to locally as the "pitchel pitchel plant").
He replied that he had seen many but they were on the other side of the
mountain towards the sea and after a walk of many days. With our enthusiasm
severely dented we swapped our jeepney for the bus north to the town of
The next day we travelled south to a small village and
then set off by foot to climb Mt. Hilong hilong. From the village, the
climb was along a very steep, open track which offered no shade. It was
hot in the full tropical sun, and even our guide felt the heat. At about
1600 m altitude, Thomas found our first Nepenthes, a seedling most
likely to be N. alata. We found more seedlings than anything else,
due to the constant slash and burn farming in this area. As a result of
this destructive form of farming, the creepers and weeds of the jungle
had over taken most of the ground, and only areas of thin cane grass offered
habitat where Nepenthes seeds could germinate and survive. The
constant burning ensures that most adult plants live in a precarious existence.
Inspired by the discovery of our first plants we set
off again, finally resting on a ridge in the late afternoon. While we
caught our breath our guides returned with two plants in hand. One was
a juvenile plant of N. truncata about 3-4 years old. It
was huge with leaves that were 40 X 40 cm and had a beautiful pitcher
42 cm tall with a striped peristome (Figure 1). The other seedling
was of a very hairy plant with dark green thick leaves and a bright red
pitcher about 10 cm tall (Figure 2). It was unlike anything I had seen
but was a definite highland species and reminded me of a juvenile N.
macrophylla. I later compared this with the description and especially
the drawing of N. petiolata in Danser (1928). I am convinced this
is the true form of N. petiolata, not seen since the early 1900s.
We spent the rest of what was a very wet afternoon in
a torrential downpour looking for more plants but only found a few N.
truncata specimens. The next morning revealed more of the same
hidden in the cane grass. We also found what I think was N. alata,
but the pitchers were so variable and hairy it was hard to be sure. It
was while searching through this 3 meter high cane grass that Thomas suffered
the bad luck of having one of the grass leaves puncture his eardrum. This
accident proved a big problem for Thomas in the following days. With time
running out, the increasing heat of the day and the thought of the long
hot journey back, we left the mountain to return to our air-conditioned
hotel and cold beers in Surigao.
The next day our attentions turned towards the Mt. Legaspi
area, a destination that proved to be full of dangers. After our jeepney
broke down for the fourth time we told our driver to find us later once
his jeepney was repaired, and we hitched a ride with a bus. At the next
village, four heavily armed soldiers boarded our bus. Shortly thereafter,
when we stopped the bus near an area which looked promising the soldiers
became very tense and tried to prevent our leaving. Not understanding
their intentions, we disembarked and began exploring the surrounding hills.
The terrain here was not the landscape you would expect
to harbor Nepenthes. The ground was a very dry powdery red loam,
and our feet sank as we walked. There were no trees and the surrounding
bushes were stunted, thin and under three meters tall; all looked as though
they were suffering with the heat. Erosion cut deep gullies into the sloping
hills. In many ways it reminded me of the desert country in Western Australia.
Many Nepenthes plants survived here, particularly in the gullies
where the extra moisture could be found. As we began setting up our cameras,
someone not more than several hundred meters away began firing with an
automatic rifle. Shots whistled across the valley. With this we headed
further around the hills as quickly as we could.
It took some time for our hearts to stop pounding and
for our attentions to return to the plants. We found numerous beautiful
forms and colours of N. alata. Variations in these plants only
added to our confusion as to whether they were N. alata, N.
petiolata, or hybrids between the two. The fluid in the N. alata
pitchers growing in the full sun was actually hot (it must have been 25-30°
C and did not burn the plant).
One of our aims for the trip was to find seed, but although
we found many plants here none contained mature fruit. Also, it appeared
many of the seedlings had perished with the heat. In one of the gullies
I found a large N. merrilliana X alata hybrid plant with huge green
pitchers and red peristome; N. alata was the predominant
parent in this hybrid. Although large its pitchers were plain in colour.
The N. alata plants varied in colour from bright green to dark
red with brown blotches. Another very nice small plant with large pitchers
was N. truncata X alata (Figure 3). It was struggling against
the heat under a sparse bush. Strangely, under these bushes with the Nepenthes
grew a type of slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum).
As we moved further around the hills we realised that
that most of the plants were clinging to what little extra moisture remained
in the gullies. It was in one of these gullies that we found mature N.
merrilliana plants. They were impressive with huge leaves 40-50 cm
long and 15 cm wide. The largest of the pitchers was 35 cm long and 12
cm wide, and was green with dark red mottling. I found several very good
mature seed spikes and this made my day. Although I failed to locate the
N. globamphora plants that Thomas had previously found in this
area, I was happy with the days discoveries.
The next day we took a different approach in our search
for plants. No jeepney this time--instead we tried an outrigger boat.
Our guide had convinced us that Nepenthes plants could be found
on nearby islands, so early in the morning on a flat sea we set out for
a two hour voyage. It was extremely pleasant, the water was calm and the
breeze was a cool respite. As we neared our destination a coral reef outcrop
sheared the propeller off the boat, even though we were still several
kilometers from shore. It looked quite amusing that the owner was standing
waist deep in water so far from shore. It was a minor job for him and
was obviously a common occurrence.
When we arrived the tide was out; this meant wading through
the mud of the mangroves. Amazingly, on the shore line behind the mangroves,
growing not more than a meter from the salt water level were many large
plants of N. merrilliana (Figure 4) and N. merrilliana
X alata. This was another area that had been logged hard and burnt
so many times that there were no trees remaining--only shrubs 2-3 metres
tall remained. The Nepenthes were just hanging on to existence
and the area gave the impression that in ten years or so, or after several
dry years, N. merrilliana would disappear and only the stronger
hybrids would remain. I managed to collect some seeds and take many photos
before the heat got the better of us. We headed back to the mainland to
catch a flight back to the smog and crowds of Manila.
The next leg of our trip involved a journey to an isolated
island in the central part of Philippines called Sibuyan. Trent had flown
over the island a couple of years earlier and was taken with the rugged
mountains, and was very keen to travel there. It took us several days
to organize a trip to Sibuyan Island, as there was no available information
on how to get there. Trent managed to find a newly formed airline that
would to fly us to Tablas Island which is near Sibuyan Island. We subsequently
departed without Thomas. His ear had become infected and he was ordered
by a doctor not to fly. Thomas was not pleased.
After jeepney rides on Tablas Island (some spent sitting
on the roof, the best way to ride), we left for Sibuyan Island by ferry.
As we approached, I could see how others had described it as 2000 meters
of mountain rising straight out of the ocean. Covered in clouds and looking
like the picture set for the King Kong movies, it was an impressive site.
I was very lucky to have Trent with me; his knowledge of customs and the
native languages helped immensely. We docked at the port of Magdiwan and
left for the village of Lontok. We met with the village captain and were
privileged to be invited to dine with him and camp the night in his house.
Unfortunately he informed us that to reach the mountains from his village
would involve many days of hiking down and over steep gullies. As we were
short of time, we backtracked to a small village close to Magdiwan where
we hired guides and porters. We set off with the almost unnerving sight
of this steep mountain in front of us. It was not long before we entered
what was the closest to real virgin forest we saw on the entire trip.
It was a pleasure to be walking in the forest--even as hot as it was--and
we quickly gained altitude. The rain that fell in the next few hours was
some of the heaviest tropical rain I have experienced and it gave the
forest a strange atmosphere. The strange sounds of the frogs, birds, and
other animals added to the prehistoric feeling. When the jungle floor
became rainsoaked, bright blue earthworms 25 cm long appeared everywhere.
In time we located the remains of the camp made by an
expedition from Kew Gardens some two years before. Not much further on
Trent found a Nepenthes pitcher. It was an unusually spotted upper
pitcher and its stem was trigonal, with corners. The lower pitchers were
squat, bulbous, 10-12 cm tall and mostly a deep purple colour. This is
possibly a form of N. alata but the typical keel under the pitcher
lid was missing. This species appeared at about the 1000 m altitude.
After setting up camp in the afternoon, we found N.
sibuyanensis (see Front Cover). This species has only recently been
described (see Nerz et al., 1998). Growing in the steep grassy
slopes, we could see its large Nepenthes seed racemes, but getting
to them was very dangerous. With a great deal of engineering and hanging
on tightly to anything he could, Trent manoeuvred out and what he found
was amazing. It was obviously a close relative of N. ventricosa
and N. burkei but the pitchers achieved very large proportions.
The largest of these pitchers were 25 cm high and 15 cm wide, cylindrical,
green coloured with purple flecks and had wavy peristomes similar to that
of N. ventricosa. The peristome was dark red to purple-black, 2
cm wide and perfectly symmetrical in the mouth shape. This plant was a
stunted highland form with grey-green leaves 15-18 cm long, 4-5 cm wide
wrapped to the stem and had virtually no internodes. The plants never
attained a height over 1.5 m. Hidden among the surrounding shrubs, the
pitchers were very rarely exposed to full sun. Later Trent found a plant
with pitchers in the full sun and these were vivid red in colour. There
were very few plants that could be reached in safety, but we managed to
get some good photos and some nearly mature seeds before the fading light
sent us back to camp.
The next morning we set off for the grassy slopes of
an upper alpine area. The nearly vertical path was tough and perilous.
The footing was slippery, and most of the time you could not see your
feet in the thick ferns and heath. It was on one of these climbs that
I noticed what appeared to be a Nepenthes rosette. When
I looked closer at this dark green, very hairy plant, I noticed that although
the rosette was only 10-12 cm wide it was mature and had a male flower
spike and the remains of last years flowers. These plants appear
to send their stems along under the heath for up to a metre before forming
the rosette, acting like a rhizomatous shoot. When I lifted out one of
the extremely hairy tendrils I knew I had a new species, which was recently
described as N. argentii (Jebb & Cheek, 1997).
The tendrils reminded me of the arms of an orangutan, thickly covered
with red-brown hairs. The pitcher was also very hairy and purple brown.
It was 4 cm tall, narrow at the base, and widened to 2.5-3 cm at the top
with a predominant shoulder just under the peristome. The peristome was
finely ribbed, 1-2 mm wide and dark purple-black in colour. The most unusual
aspect of the pitcher was that the peristome widened to 6-7 mm at the
neck and had its teeth facing forward, and then flared up and out in a
"Y" shape under the lid. They were 5-6 mm high and wide. Many
other Nepenthes have the peristome arranged up the neck in similar
fashion but none have the "Y" shape. I spent about three hours
searching this area but only located four plants as the slopes made it
too dangerous to venture far. One plant eight meters away took me nearly
an hour to reach--the slope was about 65 degrees with nothing to stop
your fall for 400 meters. At this altitude (approximately 1800 m) flower
spikes of Nepenthes sibuyanensis were visible in many areas
of the grassy heath so it appears relatively common. Having finished with
the photographs and collecting some seeds, we headed back.
Our last journey was to Palawan Island. Trent had located
Nepenthes here while exploring during a holiday weekend. Palawan
Island is the last land mass between Borneo and the Philippines and is
described as the last wilderness. It is famous for its mountains with
vertical white limestone walls up to 2000 m tall. It has an underground
river and many beautiful white beaches. It is also very, very hot. I found
that even standing by the ocean did not provide relief from the heat.
During a four-hour jeepney ride from Puerto Princesa to our beach destination
we located an area with many large plants of what may have been N.
alata. The pitchers were variable in shape and colour. The area had
been cleared when the road was constructed and the plants had managed
to take advantage of the clearing. There were many mature plants climbing
through the trees. After many photographs and seed collecting we continued
We booked our chalets and meals for the night and left
for our final Nepenthes site. After tripping and falling over rocks
for a kilometer we came across a waterfall which created a miniature cool
environment. Here the Nepenthes plants were surviving at sea level.
We had to climb the nearly vertical slopes alongside the waterfall. It
was exhausting with the heat and thick jungle. The plants grew amongst
the trees at the top of the waterfall. The river flowing all around them
kept them cool. Although similar to N. alata, these plants appeared
very striking and the red colours were beautiful (Figure 5). The upper
pitchers which were mostly green in colour, grew to be 20-22 cm long,
and developed a broad peristome. We managed to find one mature plant with
a couple of spikes so I collected some seeds.
The next day we headed back to Manila to prepare for
the trip home, after three great weeks away. When I returned home I learned
that most of the old original specimens of Philippine Nepenthes
had been destroyed many years ago, and I should have collected some herbarium
material. I suppose it will be an excuse to one day revisit the area.
Two of the Nepenthes from Sibuyan Island (N.
argentii and N. sibuyanensis) are new to science. The identity
of the plants we found at the second Palawan Island site is a mystery.
The plants fit neither the description of N. deaniana nor that
of N. alata. These plants may warrant the resurrection of N.
philippinensis--the debate is continuing.
Sibuyan Island is a wonderful area that hopefully will
be preserved in its natural form and is well worth further study--we hardly
touched on the main areas. With the correct equipment and plenty of time,
who knows what could be found there. Mt. Sibuyan and Guiting guiting have
now been named by presidential decree as Guiting guiting National Park.
Commercial logging has been halted in this park area. Logging is still
going on around the perimeter and occasionally into the Park area by locals
for housing materials. I hope that it is not too late to save this ecological
Danser, B.H. 1928, The Nepenthaceae of the Netherland
Indies, Bull. Jard. Bot. Buitenzorg, Serie III, Vol. IX, 3-4.
Jebb, M. and M. Cheek, 1997, A Skeletal Revision of Nepenthes
(Nepenthaceae), Blumea, Vol. 42, 1-106.
Nerz, J., Mann, P., Alt, T. and T. Smith, 1998, Nepenthes
sibuyanensis, a new Nepenthes from Sibuyan, a remote island
of the Philippines, Carniv. Pl. Newslett. Vol. 27, 18-23.
Front Cover: Nepenthes sibuyanensis. Photo by Phill Mann.