Pili: A tree that yields more when stressed out by man and nature

Grafted pili seedlings in the backyard of the house of Santos Borbe, Jr. in Caloocan. (Oliver Samson)

By Oliver Samson

While strong winds are bad for most crops, the pili tree is prompted to bear more fruits when shaken by strapping air currents, said Santos Borbe, Jr, a farmer from Polangui, Albay.

Pili trees thrive in Bicol even without human intervention. They grow in the region despite the ravaging strikes of several typhoons a year. Also, the region has frequent rainfall.

Santos Borbe, Jr. shows a grafted pili in his house in Caloocan. Two seedlings are joined to a scion. (Oliver Samson)

A crop that reciprocates nature and man’s destructive abilities with food

Borbe, 74, a graduate in Chemical Engineering from Mapua, from his years of experience said the pili tree is resistant to typhoons.

He also observed the pili tree would start producing fruits after nature whipped it with strong winds and heavy rains that accompany storms.

By just pruning, which is another stressor, the pili tree would start bearing fruits, whereas coconut trees could lose all their leaves to a single storm.

In 2019, three typhoons hit the Bicol region in December, Borbe said. After those typhoons, they were only able to harvest coconuts again in 2022.

“The coconut trees can give you a harvest about two years after a typhoon,” Borbe said. “But the pili trees produce more nuts when they get stressed.”

The septuagenarian has 500 grafted pili trees in his farm in Polangui. He set out to intensive pili farming in Albay in 2012.

He showed this writer his grafted pili tree at his home in Caloocan. He said the flowers began sticking out after he stressed the tree by snapping a part of the small branch. He also showed  the rough end of the lower part that resulted from breaking the upper part off. The flowers were growing near that rough end.

In 2022, the lowest price per kilo of pili (depulped but still in shell) was P60, Borbe recalled. This year, a kilo is bought by traders at P100. The pili nuts (without the shell) could sell at P1,000 a kilo.

The depulped pili could be stored for one year, he noted. So, the farmer could wait for the price to go up before selling them to traders or pili nut processors.

Santos Borbe poses for a photo next to one of the pili trees in front of his house in Caloocan. (Oliver Samson)

Advantages in grafted pili

Male pili trees don’t bear fruits, only the female ones do, Borbe explained. By grafting with a scion from a mother pili tree that bears fruits, the farmer is assured that the pili he would plant would produce nuts as well.

Each of his 500 grafted pili trees is made of two pili seedlings joined together to a scion taken from a fruit-bearing mother pili tree.

“Two seedlings supplying nutrients to the scion,” he said. “It will produce branches at an earlier time compared to grafted pili with one seedling only as a result.”

At about six months, the grafted pili with two seedlings joined to a scion would start making branches.

“The grafted pili tree makes fruits earlier than the non-grafted ones,” Borbe said. “About a year, flowers will start to stick out. It’s also shorter in height of about ten meters only, making it easy to harvest the nuts.”

The taller non-grafted pili trees are more vulnerable to typhoons as they are more exposed to the winda than the grafted due to their height, he added.

The non-grafted pili usually begins producing fruits after about seven years, he added. Also, only after seven years one would be able to know whether the pili tree is a female or a male.

“Aside from the fact that you are certain that you are planting seedlings that will bear fruits when they get mature in the grafting method, you can also choose to get the scion from the best mother pili trees,” Borbe said.

Tending to grafted pili trees also requires less labor, Borbe said. One will only need to remove the weeds growing around the trees, and give some fertilizer every three months.

“You also need to regularly monitor the trees,” he said. “Make sure that no branch will grow below the point where the pili seedlings and the scion were joined together. If you allow any branch to grow below that point, the part of the tree above that point may die. So, you remove anything that grows below that point at the earliest time possible.”

The grafted pili trees can bear fruits for many decades, the septuagenarian explained. There are some that have been producing nuts in the past 35 years.

Only in the 1980s did farmers start to graft pili, he noted. Nobody knows yet how long a grafted pili could produce nuts.

One can harvest ripe pili fruits year-round since the fruits don’t get ripe together at a time, especially if he has many pili trees, Borbe explained. The young fruits are green in color; they turn black when ready for harvest.

The grafted pili can also be intercropped with coconut trees, he said. One grafted pili between two coconut trees.

Grafted pili seedlings in the backyard of the house of Santos Borbe, Jr. in Caloocan. (Oliver Samson)

Pili can grow anywhere in the Philippines

A physician from Tagum bought 900 grafted seedlings from Borbe. The physician sent a truck to his farm in Albay to pick them up.

Borbe gives the grafted pili seedlings for P200 apiece if the buyer gets them in the farm. Borbe sells them at P250 apiece if he brings them to Manila. He stores grafted pili seedlings at his house in Caloocan. All his grafted seedlings are made of two seedlings joined to a single scion.

A grafted pili made of one seedling only joined to a scion would start bearing fruits three to four years after planted, he said. But a grafted pili made of two seedlings joined to a scion could begin bearing fruits in just a year after planting.

“One from Legaspi [City] got a grafted pili seedling from me,” Borbe said. “In less than a year, it started flowering. He showed it to me in a picture.”

A farmer in Camarines Sur also acquired from Borbe 1,000 canarium ovatum grafted pili seedlings and 500 grafted canarium luzonicum pili seedlings.

The canarium luzonicum, he said, is best planted along the borders of the land to serve as wind barriers. The ovatum is best in the middle of the land.

Borbe noted the canarium luzonicum is grown for producing Manila elemi (the resin from the pili tree). The ovatum is grown for nuts.

Pili originated and thrives in Bicol, Borbe said. But it grows anywhere in the Philippines.

“Pili has many by-products,” he said.

The shells are made into handicrafts and used as an alternative to firewood. The pulp and nuts are processed into oil. The manila elemi is imported by makers of perfumes to incorporate its oil in their expensive scents.

Photos by Oliver Samson

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