"Dwarf Trees" from Fr. Pedro Chirino's
Relacion de las Islas Pilipinas

       Relacion de las Islas Pilipinas by Fr. Pedro Chirino, S.J. (Rome, 1604), originally in Spanish and translated into English by Mr. Ramon Echeveria in 1969.  (Padre Chirino was born in 1557 in Osuna of Anadalucia.  He graduated in both civil and canon law at Sevilla, and entered the Society of Jesus at the age of twenty-three.  The University of San Carlos (USC) in Cebu City is the oldest school in the Philippines and in Asia, founded as the Colegio de San Ildefonso by the Spanish Jesuits fathers Antonio Sedeno, Pedro Chirino and Antonio Pereira on August 1, 1595.  Chirino later became procurator of the Jesuits in the Philippines, who established a Jesuit residence in the city of El Santissimo Nombre de Jesus.  In 1609 he was entrusted by the provisor and vicar-general of this archbishopric to visit and examine those many small books and prayerbooks which had been composed in the Filipino's native language from the sermons which they heard, the histories and lives of the saints, and the prayers and poems on divine matters.  Fr. Chirino's assignment was for the purpose of preventing errors, and one that was very proper among so new Christians.  He died in 1635.)

       Chapter 10 contains a description of how Chinese immigrants were growing Balete trees (a local term referring to ficus) onto corals.  They would insert the roots into the coral's crevices and place them onto water basins until the roots clasped the host corals.  The arrangement were small enough to be carried by one hand.  The tree would in a certain time of the year be leafless as if dead, but only to shoot out new buds that symbolized the Resurrection of Easter Sunday.
        Since trade between the Philippines and China had been ongoing centuries before the Spaniards came, it would not be far-fetched to think that this art was already flourishing even before the 1600s by the Chinese who had migrated there. 1

      A more detailed excerpt from Chapter 10 is thus:
      "...The Chinese, who are really ingenious, are wont to plant one of these [balete] trees on a stone (so small that both the tree and stone can be held in the hand), just as if it were in a flower-pot, and then it can be carried from one place to another; and the tree, like a dwarfed orange tree, grows in proportion to its roots, hardly reaching five palmos in height.  As this method of planting these trees on a stone may seem as difficult as it is curious, I shall describe how I have seen it done.  They take a sprout of the tree when it is already covered with roots, and a stone which must not be too hard, or smooth, but not very solid, and somewhat porous or hollow.  These stones are found there in abundance among the reefs and shoals of the sea.  They tie the little tree or sprout to this stone, covering the latter so far as possible on all sides with the fibres and roots; and to make it grow, they cover the stone with water.  With the water the tree clings much more readily to the stone, entwines about it, and becomes grafted into all its pores and cavities, embracing it with remarkable amity and union.  A large balete stands in the patio [_i.e._, inner court] of our house in Manila, near the regular entrance.  In the year 1602, in the month of April or May, I saw it all withered, with its leaves falling.  Thinking that it was dying I was greatly grieved, for I did not wish to lose so fine a tree.  My sorrow was increased when I saw it next day almost without a leaf; and I showed it to our procurator, who chanced to be with me while I was inspecting the tree.  But on the third day I beheld it covered with new leaves, tender and beautiful, at which I was as rejoiced as I had previously been saddened; for it is in truth a beautiful tree.  In this I saw represented, as in a picture, the truth of the resurrection." 2

       This is the earliest known European reference to what we know of as bonsai.


1   Ceballos, Poncevic "Vic"  "Taking A Quantum Leap: Bonsai in the Philippines," Bonsai Magazine, BCI, July/August 1999, pg. 32; "Philippine Bonsai History," Bonsai Magazine, BCI, June 1981, pg. 147, which states that Chirino came to the islands in 1590 and Echevarria was a poet and business executive of Cebu.  Presumably the "corals" were chunks of the dried skeletons of the reef building creatures, as are commonly seen today as souvenirs;

Chirino, Father Pedro de. "Grant to the Jesuit Seminary at Cebu." In The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898, translated from the original, edited and annotated by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson, with historical introduction and additional notes by Edward Gaylord Bourne. Cleveland, Ohio: A.H. Clark Company, 1903-1909. Vol. 13. Pp. 251-255;

Santos, Hector. "Extinction of a Philippine Script" in A Philippine Leaf at http://www.bibingka.com/dahon/extinct/extinct.htm. US, October 26, 1996.

2   The Project Gutenberg EBook of  The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898: Volume XII, 1601-1604, by Edited by Blair and Robertson.  I've included the entire quote here pertaining to the Ceballos entry to compare and contrast his truncated episode.  Note also that in this longer version, the description of the "stones" which are "found there in abundance among the reefs and shoals of the sea."  Pieces of coral or wave-scoured rock?
       From the Preface to this 1904 edition which includes Relacion de las Islas Filipinas y de lo que en ellas han trabajado los padres de la Compania de Jesus (Relation of the Filipinas Islands And Of What Has There Been Accomplished) (Translation made by Frederic W. Morrison, of Harvard University, and Emma Helen Blair):  "Chirino himself arrived there [in the Philippines] in 1595, and gives a full and detailed account of the missions from that time until his departure in 1602.  Not only this, but he narrates many things of interest and importance regarding the people, the dress, customs, and character of the natives, and the game, fish, and fruits which serve them as food; and, at some length, the wonderful bamboo plant.  He enumerates the imports into the Philippines from surrounding countries, and the occupations of the people therein who come to the islands; and praises the wealth and comfort of that region.&nbs; [Also mentioned are] their language and state of civilization, their religious beliefs and worship, and the results of missionary labors and influence upon them.  Much of this information is of special value as one of the earliest records regarding the Filipino peoples in their primitive condition, before they had had much contact with the white men; for the Jesuits went even beyond the outposts of Spanish civilization, among tribes who sometimes had never seen white men before.  ...The village of Taitai is removed, by Chirino's influence and the superstitious fears of the natives, to a more secure and healthful site.  He describes the customs of the natives in bathing, which is a universal and frequent practice among them.  On the shore of the lagoon of Bai are hot springs, which have already become a noted health resort.  Various trees native to the islands are described at length, as well as the Chinese method of reducing a large tree to a dwarf pot-plant..."

A Spanish version from 1890 Manila of this particular text can be found past the halfway point of pg. 36 here.

The text of a souvenir sheet of postage stamps issued on July 27, 2004 by the Philippines states that "there are accounts by Father de Morga, of Belete (Ficus sp.) trees being planted in containers..."  However, review of the Project Gutenberg EBook of  History of the Philippine Islands Vols 1 and 2 by Antonio de Morga (1609) does not find mention of either "balete" or "fig," and the references to Fr. Chirino -- only in the notes -- do not include either the aforementioned Chapter 10 or container plantings.

Per Laufer, Berthold  "Postscript" in Cole, Fay-Cooper  Chinese Pottery in the Phillipines, Field Museum of Natural History, Publication 162, Anthropological Series, Vol. XII, No. 1, July, 1912, pg. 19:
"Chinese-Philippine trade must have existed early in the thirteenth, and very likely in the latter part of the twelfth century, as I tried to establish on a former occasion [The Relations of the Chinese to the Philippine Islands, p. 252 (Smithsonian Miscellaneous Contributions, Vol. L, Part 2, 1907).], chiefly guided by the accounts of a Chinese author, Chao Ju-kua, who around 1220 wrote a most valuable record of the foreign nations then trading with China."

Home  >  Bonsai History  >  Travellers  >  Philippines1604