MANILA, Philippines -- One of the most popular flowering trees in Palawan is the Palawan cherry. When the tree is in full bloom, it resembles the cherry blossoms of Japan. The locals in Palawan fondly call it the Balayong, and they even hold a festival named after it, which happens during the tree's flowering season between March and April. This plant is widespread in Palawan, and can be seen in parks and gardens. They can also be spotted at the edge of forests.
The Palawan cherry is a small to medium-sized tree. It can grow up to a height of 15 meters or taller, and has a diameter of about 50 centimeters. Its leaves are pinnate, about 40 centimeters long, while the leaflets are ovate, with an acute tip, about seven centimeters long and 3.5 centimeters wide. It is green in color and smooth on both surfaces. The flowering branches are usually drooping and are about 30 centimeters long. The light pink flowers are arranged in loose panicles and about five centimeters across. The fruit is cylindrical, hard, smooth, about 30 centimeters long, and turns black upon maturing.
Patrick Gozon, a landscape architect at UP Diliman, described the tree's name as a paradox. First is its common name, which is a misnomer. It is said that the Palawan cherry is not a close relative of the Japanese cherry blossom, but taxonomically, it is nearer in association (including its wood texture) with the tree legumes of the Acacia, Narra, Kamatchile, Ipil, and Tindalo. It was given such a name because when it flowers, its pink blossoms almost cover the entire tree, much like that of the Japanese cherry blossoms. The true cherry blossom, which is composed of several species of Prunus, cannot survive in tropical climates. But we do have the native Prunus, which is not as showy as its Japanese counterpart.
A second paradox is its scientific name. The late field botanist Leonardo L Co once told us that the Balayong, scientifically called the Cassia nodosa, is a species native also to the island of Java in Indonesia. In fact, Co said the Palawan cherry is not a native; it was prehistorically introduced to Palawan. On the other hand, Dr. Domingo Madulid's "Pictorial Cyclopedia of Ornamental Plants" identifies the tree as the Cassia x Palawan cherry. The "x" means it is a hybrid between two or more species, and is therefore not a pure species. It's not exactly known which species is the parent of the Balayong but botanists tend to pinpoint the Cassia nodosa as the prime suspect.
There are a lot of Balayongs in Palawan, which is why some botanists insist it is native to the island. In Manila, Palawan cherries are planted within the Manila Seedling Bank Foundation in Quezon City. Some of these trees can be seen at the Malacanang Palace grounds facing the Pasig River.
The Palawan cherry requires full exposure to sunlight. Its cultural requirements are similar to that of the tree legumes of the Acacia and Narra. It is primarily propagated through seeds. Seeds can be germinated in the soil or seed bed and can be transferred to black polyethylene seedling bags. The seedlings are hardened in the nursery and watered every other day. Nitrogenous fertilizers like ammonium sulfate or urea will enhance its growth. When the seedlings reach a foot or 1.5 feet in height, they can be replanted in a field or a garden. A transplanted Palawan cherry blossom will quickly grow into a tree.
The tree's timber is similar to that of the Narra, Acacia, and Ipil. It is hard but easy to work with and was widely used for building furniture during the Spanish colonial period. Balayong wood is sometimes used as structural members and flooring in houses built during the Spanish era. Antique furniture made of Balayong command high prices as they tend to be sturdy and are rarely infested with termites.