‘Malunggay,’ the miracle tree
Guests at the Kapihan sa Manila media forum last Monday were three presidents: Sen. Mar Roxas, president of the Liberal Party, Sen. Chiz Escudero, soon-to-be president of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (the two are also among the frontrunners for the Philippine presidential derby next year), and former senator Joey Lina, president of the Manila Hotel and self-proclaimed president of the so-called “Malunggay Republic.” I will discuss what Roxas and Escudero said at the Kapihan in a subsequent column and concentrate today on the “malunggay” (“marunggay” in the Ilocano language, horseradish tree in the United States), a common, easy-to-grow bantam-sized tree whose leaves and fruits are very nutritious and a common ingredient in many Filipino dishes.
The malunggay has so many uses that it is cultivated widely in India, Nicaragua and parts of Africa. If the coconut palm is “the tree of life,” the malunggay can be called “the miracle tree.” Fresh, dried or powdered, the leaves can be turned into almost anything edible. Aside from the usual ingredient in salads and viands, they can be turned into noodles, cookies, crostini, cupcake, munchkin, pastillas, patties, polvoron, pretzels, sugarbread, pan de sal, puto, cutchinta, bibingka, lugao and even ice cream. Dried and powdered, they can be used as tea or coffee. The brown seeds are a good source of biofuel.
If planted widely, the same way the Spanish colonialists encouraged Filipinos to plant coconuts, we would be freed of dependence on oil exporting countries by having enough biofuel from malunggay seeds, coconut oil, jatropha, and “alcogas,” or alcohol-gas, from sugar cane. When the fossil fuels from under the desert sands run out, the present oil sheiks will have to import biofuel from tropical countries like the Philippines.
Malunggay is even better than jatropha, which is now being widely propagated for fuel oil. Like jatropha, malunggay grows on poor soil where no other crop will grow healthily. But jatropha has only one use, the oil from its seeds. Its seeds (they taste like peanuts) are poisonous.
On the other hand, the leaves, fruits, and seeds of malunggay have many uses as food and are very nutritious. It contains vitamins A, B and C, and has more calcium, niacin, thiamin, phosphorus, ascorbic acid and iron than most vegetables. Nutrition experts say that 100 grams of malunggay leaves provide 75 calories of food energy, 6 grams of protein, 13 grams of carbohydrates, and 353 milligrams of calcium.
Malunggay is a versatile and nutritious food. The leaves, flowers and fruits are commonly eaten as viand and green salad. They can be cooked with chicken, pork, beef, fish and beans. They can often replace any vegetable in any Filipino dish.
Aside from the usual kitchen preparations, it can be prepared into various delicatessens. Lorna M. Valera of the Marcos State University has prepared a handbook with tested recipes that can help combat malnutrition among children. Ask for copies from the MSU, Malunggay Republic, and Bureau of Plant Industry.
The malunggay grows abundantly in backyards and along farm fences, and requires little care. In fact, it can be used to reforest denuded areas. It can be propagated from seeds, tissue culture (26,000 plantlets can be produced from just one seed), and from cuttings. It is self-fertilizing and self-propagating. Rich in nitrogen, the leaves fertilize the soil. The brown, round seeds have “wings” or filaments. When the brown elongated fruits ripen and pop open, the seeds float away and germinate when they fall to the ground. Thus, when a colony of malunggay trees is established, they spread themselves, unaided, in the forest.
What’s more, its wood is soft. It is no good as lumber, charcoal or firewood. Thus, poachers will not bother to cut them like they do other trees. But they can gather the leaves and fruits anytime for food. We used to have three malunggay trees in our backyard in our compound in Malabon. Every time my auntie or sister had no vegetables to mix with the viands, they ask me to get some malunggay leaves to mix with the meat or fish.
The malunggay can be grown in commercial quantities. They are planted only millimeters apart and while the trees are still small, the leaves are harvested by grass cutter, scythe or by hand like picking tea leaves. They do not like too much water so there is no danger of the malunggay robbing rice of hectarage. They thrive best in marginal soil where no other crops grow, of which we have millions of idle hectares.
When grown from seeds—not from cuttings—malunggay trees hold the soil together. So they prevent soil erosion.
Malunggay trees have typically white blossoms. But growers have already bred trees with red, fragrant blossoms. What’s more, there are varieties whose leaves turn yellow. So imagine a hill or mountain reforested with malunggay. At certain times of the year, the hillsides would be yellow and red and suffused with fragrance from the leaves and blossoms. Interperse them with kakawati trees (also easy to grow and with pink flower like the famous Japanese cherry blossoms), and fire trees with their flaming red blossoms, and you will have countrysides afire with red, pink and yellow. They will be tourist attractions the same way Vermont, Massachusetts, and other New England States become tourist spots every autumn.
The Malunggay Republic is a movement that propagates the use of malunggay. It is composed of government officials (Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry, Department of Environment, etc.), businessmen, farmers, environmentalists, civil society. Sen. Loren Legarda, by the way, distributes malunggay seedlings, free, to those who ask for them.