WE REMEMBER: The Exciting Aglaonema Days!

This is a new Aglaonema hybrid. When there was no more native Aglaonema that could be collected from the wild, plant breeders took over in producing exciting new colors.

THE LATE 1970s is what we would personally consider as the start of the Exciting Aglaonema Days for us in the Philippines who are involved in ornamental plants, whether as a hobby or as a business, or both. At that time there was an Aglaonema craze in Thailand, Singapore, the United States and elsewhere. And the Philippines, having the most numerous Aglaonema species, was the darling of Aglaonema hunters. Aglaonema, by the way, is popularly known as La Suerte because it is believed to be a good luck plant.

DEEWAN OF THAILAND – We remember Deewan Ragardee of Phuket, Thailand, a plant trader who frequently visited the Philippines looking for pink-petioled Aglaonema. At that time, pink aglaonema was a rarity and people did not mind paying a high price for whatever was available.

CRAZY OVER PINK – There was a craze for pink-petioled Aglaonema in Thailand, according to Deewan, perhaps triggered by so many junior army officers who longed to be gifted with even just one plant. They had a belief that whoever received a gift of pink Aglaonema would become very lucky. A colonel, for instance, could be promoted to general. Or one could win in the lottery. That prompted plant traders like Deewan to go around Asia looking for supplies.

OUR SINGAPORE TRIP – A trip to Singapore in late 1977 had a significant influence in sparking great interest in Aglaonemas and other ornamentals in the Philippines. At that time we were agriculture editor of the now defunct Business Day and also a garden columnist in the Daily Express, also now defunct. 

GARDEN STALLS IN FRONT OF HOTEL – The United Nations gave us a travel grant to observe population programs in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore at that time was not the concrete metropolis that it is today. We stayed at the Equatorial Hotel, one of the best hotels at that time. Along the road right in front of the hotel was a long row of small plant shops. There we met Daren Ng who operated Dow Flora, a nursery with 24 acres in Singapore and a bigger growing area in Malaysia.

HURRY BACK TO  SINGAPORE – Daren told me that he had never gone to Manila. If he came, could we show him around plant nurseries? He came just a couple of days before Christmas 1977. But he was in a hurry to go back to Singapore because he had to supervise a big shipment of Norfolk pine seedlings to Europe.

WE REMEMBER BANGKAL ST. – In the two days that he was in Manila, we brought him to Bangkal St. in Los Baños where the households grew ornamental plants for sale. There were no other nurseries in Los Baños at that time. Daren asked me to buy for him all the Aglaonema and other aroids that he saw in Bangkal and send them to Singapore. I eventually became his buyer and I had to register a small business so I can legitimately export plants to him.

PLANT HUNTING – After sending all the available Aglaonemas varieties in the market, he asked for new ones. And that set us to do our plant hunting with friends. One of the most memorable plant hunting trips was during Christmas break in December 1978. Armando Cruz, another plant nut, invited us to join him in plant hunting in Daraitan, Tanay, Rizal. He had a logger friend who operated there and we proceeded to his place. There, alongside the river, we were able to collect a lot of what are now different variants of the species with silver leaves.

2000 PROPAGATIONS – We multiplied the materials we collected and by September the following year, we had no less than 2,000 propagations. When Daren visited us, he got everything that we had at $3 apiece. Subsequent trips to Daraitan included other plant aficionados like Dr. Romeo Gutierrez and other Aglaonema freaks.

DINNER  WITH DOC GUTIERREZ – One evening, we brought Daren to the home of Romy and Ela Gutierrez for dinner. At the entrance was a potted low-growing Aglaonema that attracted Daren so much. He had to sit down to examine the leaves with a leaf pattern that was new to him. It was later named the Aglaonema Manila Whorl.

DOC ROMY GOT CURIOUS – Dr. Gutierrez must have noticed how much interest Daren had in their Manila Whorl. And we are sure that this triggered his long lasting interest in Aglaonemas. Romy did not only collect Aglaonemas, he studied them seriously. A number of times he visited plant breeders at the University of Florida to learn how to breed aroids so he can produce his own crosses or varieties. 

FIRST FILIPINO BREEDER – The fact is, he is the first fellow who succeeded in producing a number of notable Aglaonema varieties. These include Illumination, the first Philippine-bred Aglaonema patented in the United States. Others include varieties named after President Cory Aquino, Miriam (after Sen. Miriam Defensor), Ela after his wife, and Sonya after his daughter.

MEMORABLE PLANT HUNTING TRIPS – One Aglaonema hunting trip  with Dr. Gutierrez that we can’t forget was to Mindoro one rainy month which could be August. We lodged in the house of Romy’s patient in San Jose, Occidental where we set out to look for Aglaonema Tamaraw. No, there was no such Aglaonema but we intended to give that name to the species we would discover in Mindoro. 

UNSUCCESSFUL  We hired a jeep for P1,500 which was no small amount at that time. The road was slippery so the wheels of the jeep had to be chained. The road was unpaved so the ride was not exactly comfortable. For almost a day of searching, we failed to find our target. We took the unsuccessful trip gamely. We did not complain. Anyway, we brought home a lot of beef from the public market that was very cheap compared to the price of the same in Manila.

SUCCESSFUL HUNTING TRIPS – There were more successful plant hunting trips, however. One was the one we took covering the entire length of the Bicol Peninsula with the late Dr. Vic Saplala, former PHSI president. He was mainly into orchids but he was infected with the Aglaonema bug.

BROUGHT FOR FIERA – He brought with us his Ford Fiera so we had enough space for loading our collection. The great fun started when we arrived at the national park in Camarines Norte where we started our search for new Aglaonema species. There we found a lot of white-petioled Linearifolium which was also in demand by plant collectors. The going price at that time was $10 per plant. Of course we enjoyed the hunting for the fun and the fund of it.

OUR GUIDE – We had for our headquarters the home of Vic’s relatives who were based in Legazpi. We sought the assistance of a guy who was selling ornamentals in the public market to guide us around. He led us to the foot of Mayon in the town of Santo Domingo. There we found growing between abaca plants a native species with large leaves. We got plenty of that one.

ENJOYABLE PLANT HUNTING – Then we proceeded down to Bulusan Lake in Sorsogon. We also gathered different varieties with interesting leaf patterns along the way. One was eventually named after Dr. Vic Saplala. We really enjoyed gathering the plant materials.

WOW, THE CRABS! – What we also enjoyed immensely were the crabs. Along the way to our headquarters, there were people selling marine crabs which were very cheap. We bought a lot of them and gorged ourselves with the crustacean over a case of San Miguel beer in the evenings.

NO MORE NEW ONES – Over several years, it seemed new indigenous Aglaonema species could no longer be found and interest somehow waned. Several years later, interest in Aglaonemas once again surged. That was when the new very colorful hybrids were released by breeders from Thailand and Indonesia. But that is another story. By that time we had already shifted our interest to exotic fruit trees which we maintain to this day.

One of the many new Aglaonema hybrids in the market today.
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