The Pandan is of immense cultural and economic importance in the Philippines and to its various indigenous groups.
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.
There are about 700 known species of the Pandanus. It is a genus of monocots and is from the screwpine family, the Pandanaceae. The Pandanus varies in size from a shrub to a tree which will depend on the height it attains. The trunk of the Pandan bears prop roots and its leaves are spirally crowded toward the ends of the branches. The leaves are elongated and slender which may measure up to one and a half meters long and three to five centimeters wide. It also has sharp spiny teeth on its leaves.
An estimated 48 species of Pandan are found in the Philippines. Many of the species are endemic to the islands and can grow in various types of environments. It is resilient to most hostile habitat conditions. The plant can generally withstand drought, strong winds, and salt spray. It adapted to a wide range of soil types from light to heavy. The Pandanus spreads naturally into coastal plant communities and is not considered to be invasive when growing. It can grow in thickets or in dense groups on seashores in the Philippines. It may also thrive in mangroves and low-lying forests which makes it relatively easy to grow and cultivate. It can be propagated readily from seed but may also be through branch cutting.
The pandan is of immense cultural and economic importance in the Philippines and to its various indigenous groups. The Batak who are found scattered in the north-central portion of the Palawan Island are known to value two species of wild Pandanus, barasan, and bankuang. The plants surrounding the islands, as well as the soil characteristics, are used as criteria for selecting lands in propagation. They have developed categories for the suitability of an area for the cultivation of various crops. The growth of the barasan (panadanus sp.) is an indicator for the category Pangras (mid-uplands) where most of the food-seeking activities such as hunting with dogs, digging for tubers, trapping flying squirrels, collecting honey and farming takes place. Other than as a tree-indicator, the Batak value the Pandanus for its leaves used in weaving sleeping mats and baskets or multi-purpose containers
Per plant, the Pandanus yields 10-300 leaves per year. Harvesting the Pandanus leaves and preparing this raw material for weaving may differ based on its use and forms. In general, for basketry, the gatherers or weavers tend to select and cut the young leaves of the plant. The edges and middle sections of the leaves are stripped away and the cuttings are dried out. Weavers select and cut sections of the dried harvest to the sizes and shapes necessary in weaving the basket. Leaves of the Pandanus may be dyed to produce colors to befit basket designs.
In Luisiana Laguna, Harden de Boro is working with pandan farmers and basket weavers to produce sustainable plant holders made from pandan and lessen the use of plastic pots. According to the weavers, pandan undergoes a process prior to weaving and each step has a specific term to it. They refer to the gathering of the leaves as pananagpas, while the removal of the thorny edges is known as paghihininik, and the process of cutting the leaves into desired sizes and shapes is called paglilinas. To further soften the leaves and make them more suitable for weaving they press and flatten them in a process called pagyuyupi.
The Philippines value the Pandanus for its wide range of uses. The ability of various indigenous groups to enhance and maximize the use of the pandan to its full capacity is testaments and implications of their deep understanding of the plant and materials.
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.
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