Wednesday, August 22, 2012


BUT ONLY GOD CAN MAKE A TREE. A whole forest of balakat trees shade a camping site at sitio Mascup, a favorite resort of domestic tourists in Mabalacat, Pampanga. The tall, hardwood tree gave the town its name. Ca. 1920s.

The names of Pampanga towns are among the most unique in the Philippines—and leading in intrigue and mystery would be, to my mind, Mexico and Sexmoan. Mexico’s name, for instance, has always been a source of puzzlement for toponymists—researchers who study of place-names. One fanciful version has it that Mexicans (Guachinangos of Northern America) actually lived in the town and gave it its name. More controversial is the name of Sexmoan, which has, though the years elicited gasps of disbelief from visitors, due to its seeming sexual overtones.

No wonder, the town has reverted back to the local version of its name—“Sasmuan”—a meeting place—as it was known to be an assembly point for people around the area whenever Chinese insurgents threaten to overrun the region. Of course, there were other ways of naming towns, and the more common would be to name them based on their distinct geographical and natural features, including flora and fauna typical of the place. It was in this manner that many towns in Pampanga got their names.

 Apalit, for instance, got its name from the first class timber called ”apalit” or narra (Pterocarpus indicus Willd.) that grew profusely along the banks of Pampanga River. Betis was named similarly—after a vary large timber tree called “betis”(Bassia betis Merr.) that grew on the very site where the church was constructed. It was said that this particular tree was so tall that it cast its shadow upon Guagua town every morning. Another border town, Mabalacat, derived its name from the abundance of “balakat” trees (Zizyphus talanai Blanco) that grew around the area. The balakat tree is known for its straight and sturdy hardwood trunk that were used as masts for boats and ships of old.

The riverine town of Masantol owes its name to the santol tree (Sandoricum koetjape Merr.) , a third class timber tree. It may be that the place had an abundance of these popular fruit-bearing trees but another story had it that local fishermen bartered part of their catch with the tangy santol fruits carried by Guagua merchants that plied the waters of the town. Santol was the favourite souring ingredient of the locals in the cooking of “sinigang”, and soon, the town was overrun by santol fruits.

A tall rattan plant gave Porac its name, as we know it today. The red Calamus Curag can grow up to 8 feet and is known locally as “Kurag” or “Purag”, later corrupted to Porac. Nearby Angeles City was once known as Culiat (Gnetum indicum Lour. Merr.) , a woody vine with leathery leaves that once grew wild in the vicinity. Not only while towns, but countless barrios and barangays were named after trees, shrubs, hardwoods, plants and vines—Madapdap, Balibago, Cuayan, Pulungbulu, Mabiga, Sampaloc, Baliti, Bulaon, Dau, Lara, Biabas, Alasas, Saguin, Camatchiles, to name just a few.

Some of the trees that grew so thickly in different parts of our province are now a rare sight, with some considered as bound for extinction. For many years, the only balakat tree that could be seen in Mabalacat, were two or three trees planted in the perimeter of the Mabalacat church. Culiat is listed as an endangered plant and a few examples could be found in Palawan and in U.P. Los BaƱos, Laguna. Sometime in 2003, Holy Angel University in Angeles City made an effort to collect plants and trees that gave their names to Pampanga towns and barrios. Today, these can be seen growing in lush profusion around the school atrium. By saving these trees, we also save histories of towns for the next generation to learn, to value and to appreciate.

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