What significance do the mother trees of our forests hold and how can we uncover their vital role in forest restoration?
In the heart of our forests, towering above their surroundings, stand majestic beings commonly known by foresters as mother trees, which maintain the ecological balance of a terrestrial forest. During the first quarter of 2023, as part of its Engaging Multi-stakeholder Participation towards Ecosystem Restoration for Community Resiliency (EMPOWER) project, HARIBON and its partner organizations conducted an assessment and identification of these trees in three of the country's most important natural parks: Bicol Natural Park (BNP), Pantabangan-Carranglan Watershed Forest Reserve (PCWFR), and Aurora Memorial National Park (AMNP).
What are mother trees?
Mother trees are the largest and oldest trees in a forest ecosystem. Often towering over their surroundings and other species, they can grow up to 9m to 15m tall (Lillo et al., 2021). What makes these species remarkable is not only their height and age, but it is also the intelligent ways they interact and communicate with other living beings in the forest. Serving as the central hub that secures a forest's vitality, mother trees are the heart and soul of forests.
Why are they important?
Mother trees are incredibly important for the growth and renewal of forests, as they play a crucial role in keeping our natural ecosystems healthy and thriving.
- Genetic Legacy: Mother trees are like family record keepers for trees. They store valuable information about each tree species, such as how they have adapted to the environment, the weather conditions, and pests over time. This data helps trees become more resilient and survive the different challenges as they grow older.
- Ecosystem Stewardship: These old trees are like nature's landlords. They provide home and food for a diverse species of animals and insects, ranging from small bugs such as beetles to large birds such as the green racquet-tail and the Philippine falconet. The entire forest depends on them to keep things running smoothly.
- Nutrient Flow: Mother trees have very extensive root systems in the ground that absorb essential nutrients deep in the soil. They share these nutrients with neighboring plants in the forest through an underground system called mycorrhizal networks that communicate important information that helps a forest ecosystem remain healthy.
- Seedling Survival: Seedlings need a lot of help to grow healthy and strong. To support better growth of these young trees, mother trees are like parents caring for them. They do this by sharing excess carbon and nitrogen through their underground system.
What happens when terrestrial forests are short of mother trees?
The scarcity of mother trees can have severe consequences on our forests, including:
- Decreased genetic variety of species: When there aren't enough mother trees, this also impacts the chances of a forest’s survival. They become less flexible and can't adapt well to changes in the environment or fight off diseases.
- Decline in biodiversity: A forest is like a big puzzle with numerous pieces that fit together. Mother trees are among the major pieces in the forest puzzle. If they go missing, the puzzle falls apart, and many different species of plants and animals suffer or even become extinct.
- Challenges in reforestation: Restoring forests is more complex than simply planting trees in an existing or denuded forest. Most of the time, reforestation is like planting an entirely new forest. Since mother trees are where seedlings are harvested, if there’s a shortage in good-quality seedlings from strong trees, the foundation of the forest becomes weak. It becomes difficult to restore a denuded forest into a healthier one.
Mother trees in the Philippines
With only 24% forest cover in the Philippines, it is beneficial to assess the presence of mother trees within this limited expanse (RFRI, 2022). Unfortunately, there is little comprehensive data on the exact number of mother trees across the Philippines. With initiatives like the EMPOWER project recognizing their importance, steps to identify and protect these trees are also implemented.
Below are descriptions of commonly known species of mother trees found in Philippine forests along with their ecological significance.
- Tangile (Shorea polysperma): Tangile is a Southeast Asian hardwood tree. Its timber is highly prized and utilized in a variety of building and furnishing applications. Tangile contributes to the forest ecology by providing habitat and food for wildlife.
- Narra (Pterocarpus indicus): Narra is a beautiful tropical tree with reddish-brown wood. It is frequently utilized in the production of high-quality furniture. Ecologically, Narra offers cover and nectar to pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
- Yakal (Shorea astylosa): Yakal is another Southeast Asian hardwood tree. Because of its toughness, its wood is employed in construction and boat building. Yakal helps in biodiversity conservation by providing habitat for a variety of creatures.
- White Lauan (Shorea contorta): The White Lauan is a huge tree found in the Philippines and surrounding areas. Its timber is utilized in building and carpentry. It benefits forest ecosystems by providing habitat for species and helping in soil stability.
- Pagsahingin (Canarium asperum): Pagsahingin is a tree species notable for its tasty fruits and resin. It is important for the environment since it supplies food for numerous animals and pollinators through its blossoms.
- Red Lauan (Shorea negrosensis): The Red Lauan is a hardwood tree that is predominantly grown for its prized timber. Ecologically, it benefits forest ecosystems by giving wildlife with shelter and food.
- Takoban (Shorea spp): This tree is a tall hardwood species indigenous to Southeast Asia. It is well-known for its high-quality wood. It provides vital habitat and food for a variety of animal species. Its large root systems help in soil stability, erosion management, and nutrient cycling.
- Tangisang-Bayawak (Ficus variegata): Tangisang-Bayawak is a fig tree characterized by its distinctive aerial roots. It provides shelter and food for a variety of creatures, including birds and bats.
- Apitong (Dipterocarpus grandiflorus): Apitong (Dipterocarpus grandiflorus) is a huge hardwood tree native to Southeast Asia. Its timber is valuable and is used in building. Ecologically, Apitong benefits forest ecosystems by giving animal habitat.
How are mother trees assessed?
During the assessment of mother trees for the EMPOWER project, the following steps were taken:
- Location Identification: Interviews with park rangers, local communities, and relevant organizations helped the team pinpoint the locations of mother trees. It was crucial to identify these sites within protected areas (PAs), where they could thrive undisturbed.
- Global Positioning System (GPS) Tagging: Once identified, foresters properly recorded the geographic locations of individual mother trees by tagging them using GPS technology. GPS equipment, such as portable receivers or cell phones equipped with GPS, are used to determine the latitude and longitude coordinates of each tree's position. These coordinates give their exact geographical information, making it possible to identify and track them across time. This accurate recording makes sure that their locations are preserved for future reference.
- Knowledge Management and Geographic Information System (GIS): After collecting the coordinates, this data was saved in a database or plotted using Geographic Information System (GIS) software, which allowed for the creation of detailed maps illustrating the positions of mother trees within an area. This data is useful for forest management planning and conservation projects.
Mother trees at Bicol Natural Park
In the mother trees assessment conducted by HARIBON, DENR-BNP and Sooc Sagip Gubat at Buhay Organization (SSGBO) at Brgy. Sooc, Lupi Camarines Sur on March 16, 2023, different species of mother trees were identified at the 15-hectare restoration site for EMPOWER. Most of the species belonged to the Dipterocarpaceae family, emphasizing their dominance in the area. While most Dipterocarp species bear flowers from March to May and mature fruit from April to October, they do not produce fruit every year, and the period between fruit production can extend over several years.
List of Identified Mother Tree Species at BNP
Mother trees at Pantabangan-Carranglan Watershed Forest Reserve
The staff assigned to the Pantabangan-Carranglan Watershed Forest Reserve carried out interviews with locals in Brgy. Villarica, near the planting site, on February 28, 2023. Data was gathered from their knowledge of the location of mother trees that could be used as planting material for the project. The team used GPS and Google Earth to identify the locations of the trees, traveling 1.6 km by trekking and 31.1 km by motorcycle, covering a total distance of 32.7 km to reach them.
A total of six species were identified during the survey, with the Ulayan species having the highest number of wildlings, followed by Palosapis.
List of Identified Mother Tree Species at PCWFR
Mother trees at the Barangay Villa Aurora Restoration Site
On March 14-15th of 2023, HARIBON, a representative from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and a representative from the Samahan ng Katutubong Alta sa Villa Chapter (SKAVA) thoroughly conducted a 2-day survey to identify mother trees within and around a five-hectare restoration site at Barangay Villa Aurora.
List of Identified Mother Tree Species at AMNP
These identified mother trees show the diversity of species in the selected EMPOWER restoration sites and protected areas, representing the wide range of species found in Philippine forests. They are important resources for rainforestation activities and a vital component of the project in restoring and rbuilding healthy forests at BNP, PCWFR, and AMNP.
We must recognize that the protection and conservation of mother trees is not an isolated endeavor but an integral part of a broader initiative. By implementing the recommended strategies based on the collective assessment efforts made by HARIBON and its partners, we can gradually secure a healthier state of our forests.
Through a strategic alliance with the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP), HARIBON’s mission is further strengthened to make a more substantial impact on safeguarding our forests. Together, we amplify the call to action to preserve our forests and mother trees, recognizing that collective efforts are the backbone to ensuring the preservation of our precious forest ecosystems.