Michael Tan: Pinoy Kasi

Pinoy Kasi: the UNOFFICIAL website of anthropologist Michael Tan's Philippine Daily Inquirer opinion column. For more information, visit his official web site at: http://pinoykasi.homestead.com/

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Monday, May 07, 2007

UP’s sunflowers


UP’s sunflowers
By Michael Tan

Last updated 02:40am (Mla time) 04/20/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- There’s an event-filled weekend coming up, with Earth Day on the 22nd and several schools, notably the University of the Philippines (UP), holding their graduation exercises.

The graduating students at UP in Diliman, Quezon City, and their families are in for a treat, with sunflowers blooming all along University Avenue, the main road that brings you into the campus from Commonwealth Avenue and Quezon Memorial Circle.

The sunflowers are planted only in the summer, timed to bloom around the third weekend of April, when the different colleges hold their recognition ceremonies on a Saturday, culminating in one grand university commencement exercise the following day.

I have to hand it to UP’s seasoned gardeners, who have perfected their schedules for the sunflowers, planting them in a way that they bloom right in time for the graduation ceremonies. That’s why it’s important for you to catch the sunflowers, which will stay on one or two weeks after the commencement exercises. As the flowers droop and wilt, the gardeners will step in to uproot the plants and harvest the sunflower heads for the seeds.

Teaching plants

These plants are more than beautiful ornamentals. They’re in a way teacher plants, offering many lessons about nature, so appropriate for Earth Day.

We could start with its botanical aspects. The sunflower is intriguing in that its attractive yellow flowers aren’t quite flowers. The plant belongs to the family Compositae, so called because its members have composite flowers. What you see are golden heads with more than a thousand small, individual florets.

Let me confuse you some more: When the mature florets mature, they take on a different appearance and people tend to call them sunflower seeds. Not quite correct again. The mature florets are actually fruits (achenes), and the seeds are actually inside, covered by an inedible husk.

The scientific name for sunflowers is Helianthus, from “Helios,” the Greek god of the sun, and “anthos” for flower. The plants are heliotropic, meaning they track the sun’s movements. When you visit the sunflowers, look for the buds or immature heads, which start the day facing east, where the sun rises, and then follows the sun’s rays through the day moving to the west. After the sun sets though, the buds turn eastward again, waiting for the sun to rise the next day.

The heliotropism itself is an adaptation for survival, the plant maximizing sunlight. Not only that, their flower heads become five-star resorts that attract insects, who fly in and land to sunbathe and play (smile), all to the advantage again of the plant since the insects help pollinate.

The sunflowers’ heliotropism provides a case study for those interested in fluid mechanics. There’s a small plant “muscle” involved and a fine regulation of potassium exchange that allows this heliotropism. Once the flower head blooms, it can no longer move with the sun’s rays—“paralyzed” in an eastward direction.

The sunflower has been studied by chemists and agronomists and a host of other researchers because it has so many uses. The sunflower seeds are used as a snack food, while the plant itself yields sunflower oil, animal feed, various industrial chemicals and, lately, it’s even been formulated into a biofuel, a substitute for gasoline.

If your interest is mathematics, the sunflowers provide an example of Fibonacci numbers. I won’t go into details about these numbers except to say that they follow a certain formula. The sunflower’s florets are arranged in a spiral, usually 34 in one direction and 55 in the other. Other Fibonacci numerical patterns are found throughout nature, from the branching of some trees to the curves of waves.

The sunflowers are for our artists as well. Vincent Van Gogh’s famous sunflower paintings were intended to decorate a room for his friend and fellow impressionist Paul Gauguin. I don’t know if they ever really ended up decorating Gauguin’s room, considering that the two’s short stay together was, to say the least, turbulent.

Historians should look, too, into the sunflowers. They were originally cultivated in the Americas, but were eventually introduced to the rest of the world by explorers and colonizers. I suspect they came to the Philippines through the galleon trade.

Watching the sunflowers thrive so well in UP and knowing of their many uses make me wonder why they aren’t cultivated more widely. Even without economic considerations, they are dramatic ornamentals: a few stalks are enough to provide a heartwarming accent for a city backyard garden.

And here’s an idea for UP with its centennial coming up next year. Maybe we can have special sunflower fields in all campuses, spinning off all kinds of other products from colorful postcards to packets of seeds, certified to be authentic UP.

Earth Day, Book Day

Those who won’t be at UP for its Earth Day graduation have a choice of other activities. Over at the Sidcor Sunday Flea Market at the Lung Center, there will be a special Earth Day affair called “Baga’t Hangin Musikahan 2007,” to include a concert from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. with performing groups like Orange & Lemons, Pinikpikan, Brownman Revival, Akafellas, Paolo Santos, Aiza Seguerra, Lou Bonnevie and her band, and hey, the Singing Doctors of the Lung Center. Besides singing, the Lung Center will also offer free pulmonary work-ups, and lectures on alternative fuels. The concert is free, sponsored by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. There’s also an on-the-spot poster contest on the theme “Give your lungs a chance” at 7:30. So, go, go enjoy the flea market ... and all the bonus events.

At the other end of Metro Manila, at the Cultural Center, the environmental group Haribon is organizing Sibol 2007 with several activities, mainly art and multi-media exhibits and a showing of “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s documentary about global warming. The activities go through the entire day but the film showing is from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the Dream Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

The weekend has still another unexpected treat. Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish cultural center, will celebrate International Book Day on Saturday, with an entire day of activities from 10 a.m. 11 p.m., including, hold your breath, concerts, film showings, wine and cheese tasting, Latin dancing, photo and declamation contests, a book market, even free Spanish lessons! Instituto Cervantes is on 855 T.M. Kalaw St. in Ermita, Manila. Visit the website (www.manila.cervantes.es) for more information or call +632 5261482 to 85.

The International Day of the Book is actually April 23, but Instituto Cervantes wisely thought of celebrating it this Saturday. The Spaniards started it all, marking Miguel Cervantes’ death anniversary. In Catalonia, people would give each other a rose in exchange for a book. In Ireland and the United Kingdom, the government celebrates by giving schoolchildren a token that can be used toward buying a book.

Don’t forget your hats, sunglasses and sun block this weekend. And here’s hoping that in a few years, Earth Day and the International Day of the Book will be in the consciousness of every Filipino.


Blogger Romualda Villalon said...

wow! your piece on the UP sunflowers really got me more interested to have sunflowers planted in all the vacant areas/lot in our barangay. Any info on how i can get in touch with the people who plant those sunflowers? Thanks

12:08 PM  

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