The thin, spiny but strong branches of nitu vines make them a perfect plant for making tight baskets.
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 is passed down through generations.
The nitu (Lygodium sp.) is a climbing fern that can be found creeping throughout the forests of Batanes to Mindanao, as well as neighboring parts of Southeast Asia. They are called lilit or didit in the Batanes Islands. Their thin, spiny but strong branches make these vines the perfect plant for making tight baskets. It can average a length of around 15 meters, which makes it helpful in making a continuous weave for the basket. Because it is widespread all over the Philippines, there are several genera that can be found throughout the country that evolved within their own environment.
The ferns have produced leaflets that resemble a hand. When collecting these for basket-making, these leaves are removed but will be used for other parts of handicrafts. The young leaves may also be used to cure stomach issues due to its medicinal properties. The epidermis of the leaves are commonly brown but may turn black by putting wax treatment, although many believe that this may also be due to the plant’s aging. The darker color of the nitu adds to the basket’s value when it is made since the darker colors are commonly partnered with lighter ferns such as the white buri (Arecaceae) to provide a stark contrast of decoration.
The basket makers know enough of the nitu plant characteristics that they choose the endoderm of the Lygodium for the weaving or active part of the basket-making, while the central xylem is utilized for the passive part. Even without knowing the basic biological components of plant anatomy, their observations and skills have allowed them to scrutinize and adapt to the plants’ capabilities in order to produce baskets. Nitu is highly prized in Itbayat, Batanes where the basket-makers use it to make their pasikin or backpack; however, people in Sabtang use other plants and hardly use nitu.
In Mindoro, however, nitu is highly used for their baskets and small packs called bay’on. These nitu are used to produce the cross designs against the white buri. The Hanonoo Mangyan highly prize these cross designs which are called pakudus. Several Mangyan groups, including the Hanonoo, Taubuid, and the Alangan also utilize the nitu for making hammocks for the children. However, as modernization spreads throughout the island, the forest environment from which these nitu are commonly is eventually disappearing. This adversely affects the caretakers of these plants, as they are forced to turn to other means of livelihood and let their cultural knowledge of making baskets disappear.
Fortunately, the Ayala Foundation and other organizations realized the importance of this traditional knowledge. They were especially attracted to the stark contrast between nitu and buri. Through the development of the Iraya-Mangyan program, many of the basket-makers started making their own products for selling and trading. They become more connected to other weavers, from whom they also learn new methods and forms of making baskets. In return, they also teach new apprentices, giving this basket-making tradition a chance to be passed on to the next generation.
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.
Kerfant, Céline. Comparative study of the craft traditions in the Batanes islands (Philippines) and Lanyu (Taiwan, Republic of China) based on plant anatomy-phytolith analysis and ethnobotany. Tarragona, Spain: Departament d’Història i Història de l’Art, Universitat Rovira i Virgili,, 2020.
Mandia, Emelina H. “The Alangan Mangyan of Mt. Halcon, Oriental Mindoro: Their Ethnobotany.” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 32, no. 2 (2004), 96-117.
Yadav, Esha, Munseh Mani, Phool Chandra, Neetu Sachan, and A.k. Gosh. “A review on therapeutic potential of Lygodium flexuosum Linn.” Pharmacognosy reviews 6, no. 12 (2012), 107-114.