In the Philippines, the Anahaw species is greatly valued for its economic potential and benefits.
When Pottery Barn, an international furniture shop, features a winnowing tray as a centerpiece, (yes, that bilâo which costs a whopping 15,000 pesos) it shows how local materials are seen as resourceful organic art in other parts of the world. Imagine how something utilitarian in the lives of the Filipinos can be treated as art, hung on the wall, and displayed to be admired.
But that is precisely what is happening, now that their use has relatively dwindled in our everyday lives. How often do the people who buy their rice in the giant supermarkets actually use the bilâo? When was the last time we’ve actually used one? Do we even have the skills to make these baskets?
In many ways, these organic materials have become a craft that showcases a cultural practice long past (just a friendly reminder that the 1980s was 40 years ago!). These wickers are still around, woven by master craftspeople whose knowledge and skills are being replaced by other common materials, primarily plastics. In this case, what was once an essential skill to survive has changed to become marketable artistic products. And like any craftspeople, basic knowledge of their materials—in this case, their environment and the plants they bear—is fundamental to their knowledge. Like anything that takes time, plants and people are entwined to produce skills and knowledge that are passed down through generations.
Philippine National Leaf, anahaw or anahau (Livistona rotundifolia) is an erect round-leaf fountain palm that grows natively and widely in the islands of the Philippines. It can reach a height of 15 to 27 meters and 25 centimeters in diameter. The trunk of the anahaw is straight, smooth, and marked with close, shallow obscure rings which are leaf scars. The stalk of the plant may have hard and dark spines and it supports the fan-shaped leaves which are crowded at the apex of the trunk. The plant’s dark and glossy green leaf blades build the shape or the roundedness of this palm.
Anahaw is a tropical palm that generally requires warm temperature or moist and humid conditions. However, it can also thrive in a wide range of climates. It flourishes on clay and clay-loam soils and prefers an area with an elevation ranging from 200 to 400 meters above sea level. The anahaw occurs in mixed-species and low to medium-altitude forests. It is often scattered around and may grow on areas covered with brush growth and under coconut plantations. It is endemic to the Philippines and can be mostly found in the provinces of Benguet, La Union, Cagayan, Pangasinan, Zambales, Pampanga, Laguna, Quezon, Camarines, Albay, Negros, Cagayan de Oro, and other areas in Mindanao.
In the Philippines, the Anahaw species is greatly valued for its economic potential and benefits. It is considered an ornamental plant for its ability to retain its bright green color even when subjected to dry environments. While its mature trunk may be used for flooring, siding, handles for tools, and in constructing low-cost houses. Shoots of the plant may be cooked as vegetables. The leaves may vary in its use depending on the age. For young plants, the leaves are harvested for weaving fans, hats, and containers for rice. While the more mature leaves are used for roofing purposes that may last up to 15 years with proper use.
At about two to three years of age, the anahaw stands at about one to two meters tall. The leaves, at this stage, may be harvested for flower arrangement and for weaving fans and basket containers. However, it must be noted that the first three years are crucial to the growth of the leaves. It should be regularly freed from competing weeds to allow it to expand. At this age, the young leaves have already grown at about 30 centimeters to one meter long which are often preferred in weaving.
Large leaves produced from the anahaw are often used when producing baskets. Similar to the Pandanus the flatness of the leaves makes the Anahaw easier to manipulate into the desired shape. In basketry, the Anahaw is dried and flattened from the crown and stripped. The stripped materials are weaved to fashion containers or baskets. For the Unoy rice farmers of Kalinga, the Anahaw leaves are used by men to make shades, hats (ligis) or weaving baskets (laga) during the ngilin. The ngilin is a period after all rice planting-related rituals are performed in the field and the farmer and his family must stay home to avoid going to places where bad spirits or anito are.
In Quezon province and Leyte, the Anahaw is most commonly used to weave fans. Fresh Anahaw leaves are selected and are divided into small equal strips. The leaves are segregated according to its size to achieve uniformly sized strips. The strips are then woven to achieve the desired shape for the fan, often paddle-like. When there is discoloration, the fan may be bleached for up to 12 hours. After weaving the fan is sun-dried that may take up to eight hours to make it less prone to molds.
Knowing the hundreds of varieties of baskets throughout the Philippines helps us appreciate the skills and scientific knowledge of the people, honed primarily by their observation and practice. Aside from being tradespeople dedicated to their craft, they are true scientists by weaving information on flora and applying them to an end product. This skill is particularly honed by continuous practice and experience perfected with the help of generational knowledge passed down through centuries. Baskets produced by these experts show how they critically entwine the discipline of understanding plant anatomy and characteristics to produce beautiful and soothing art. Basket art not only deserves to be placed on a wall to be admired, but art that is used and relevant to our culture, identity, and daily lives.
Department of Environmental and Natural Resources. “Trees and Their Management: Growing Anahaw.” New Zealand Digital Library. Accessed May 20, 2021. https://www.nzdl.org/cgi-bin/library.cgi?e=d-00000-00—off-0hdl–00-0—-0-10-0—0—0direct-10—4——-0-1l–11-en-50—20-about—00-0-1-00-0-0-11-1-0utfZz-8-00&cl=CL1.17&d=HASH01df274fb229ae826f6d2355.13&gc=1.
Ella, Arsenio B., and Emmanuel P. Domingo. Anahaw Production and Utilization- ITTO Project PD 448/07 REV.2 (I). International Tropical Timber Organization, n.d. http://www.itto.int/files/itto_project_db_input/2910/Promotional/Anahaw%20Production%20and%20Utilization%20[Compatibility%20Mode].pdf.
GREAT Women Project- Philippine Commission on Women. Weaving Dreams for Anahaw Craft Makers: Gender- Responsive Value Chain Analysis of Anahaw Enterprises in Capoocan, Leyte. Philippine Commission on Women, 2013. https://library.pcw.gov.ph/sites/default/files/case-report-wee-weaving-dreams-anahaw-craft-capoocan-leyte.pdf.
Naganag, Edgar M. “THE INDIGENOUS PRACTICES, BELIEFS, AND RITUALS OF THE UNOY RICE FARMERS OF KALINGA, NORTHERN PHILIPPINES – AN ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH.” International Journal of Advanced Research in Management and Social Sciences 2, no. 12 (December 2013). https://garph.co.uk/IJARMSS/Dec2013/23.pdf.