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Holdout at ground zero

THE lone red coral tree at the northeastern end of Manila Hotel barely waves its lanky arms at the noisome saraband of cars, vans, container vans and such flow of metal monsters any given day at Andres Bonifacio Drive in Manila’s south port area.

Years back, there were other red coral trees lined up like a fenced in squad of sentries, sloughing foliage to squeeze out through myriad twig fingers a splendor of blood-dyed petals come April maybe around Lent. By 2005, that row of corals stood dead, bark stripped off their fat boles, trunks bleached pale—an infestation of African wasps had decimated every stand of red coral trees in Metro Manila and outlying areas.

Except for that tough one at Manila Hotel to which I ply a salutation nearly every evening or thereabouts as I trudge off from a watering hole on 20th Street in port area for a bite of beef mami and a few more beers at Peter Lee’s Hong Kong Tea House on A. Mabini in Ermita.

That survivor of the plague of wasps—those nasty stingers drilled holes into red coral boles to lay eggs therein—stands a slingshot off the Kilometer Zero marker off the Jose Rizal monument in Bagumbayan. I call that area ground zero. And there’s one tough holdout there that endures the swirl of dust and deadly fumes day by day.

‘Twas a year ago when Manila Hotel honchos must have tasked their grounds maintenance crew to fell the dead dapdap trees. Red coral timbers and twigs were piled like a pyre before the lone survivor. A piece of plywood was tacked beside the mound. “FREE FIREWOOD” it read. Red coral wood isn’t good firewood or material for cabinetwork. There maybe too little carbon content but more turgidity in the soft wood. Burns like ash. Must have poured out every whit of its passions in the blaze of flowering every Lent.

Dapdap-- that's the local name for red coral tree-- wood lends well to carving. Gaudy colored morion masks— of the Moriones festival held during Holy Week in Marinduque island-- are of dapdap and can fetch P3,000 to P5,000 apiece. The yearly pageant is a retelling of the conversion to Christianity and martyrdom of a Roman centurion named Malchus. His ear was lopped off by an incensed Peter, tacked back sans sanctimonious restorative surgery done gratis et amore by Jesus Christ.

Poor Malchus—lost an ear, got the lobe back without getting an earful of the “Hello Garci” ring tone and when he lent more than an ear to the teachings of Christ, he was beheaded by his comrades in arms. Lost his head just like that. Unlike that poor centurion celebrated in the Moriones festival, there’s also something called Morones festival in which headless chickens gather in something called House of Representatives to crucify the citizenry.

Why would African wasps spare that lone coral tree at Manila Hotel? Or why didn’t that sole survivor go the way of all flesh? What rendered this solamente arbol de sangre immune to the incessant wasp attack?

Something tells me it must have been the bird’s nest fern cradled in the tree groin. It could be a happy partnership, a symbiosis that inheres benefits to the symbionts.

So night after night as I take a jaunt through ground zero, I offer thanks and a greeting to that not-so lonesome red coral tree and its fern partner for mustering metal mettle to endure, even burst into passionate flowering.


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