• By Phillip V. Cruz, Jr.

Native plants and cultural connection

Else Demeulenaere, associate director of Natural Resources at the University of Guam, makes a presentation at the Guam Congress Building on “Promoting Planting Native Plants and their Cultural Connection” Oct. 24, 2019. Photo by Phillip Cruz Jr.

Guam has 54 endemic plant species— 50 of them are endangered. “Even for those that are not on the endangered list, efforts should be made to keep them off,” said Else Demeulenaere, associate director of Natural Resources at the University of Guam.

Demeulenaere made a presentation at the Guam Congress Building on “Promoting Planting Native Plants and their Cultural Connection” on Oct. 24. “I wanted to bring to attention that traditional ecological knowledge should be incorporated into management practices and policies,” she said.

One plant species that Demeulenaere and her team are seeking to protect is the Hayun Lagu, scientifically known as Serianthes nelsonii. The only one tree left is in Ritidian, near the construction site of the Department of Defense’s live-fire training complex in Northwest Field. Guam senators earlier asked the Navy to pause the firing range project but military officials assured local leaders that mitigation measures are in place to protect the tree.

At one point, according to “An Account of the Corvette L’Uraine’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands,” there was an abundance of the Hayun lagu, which was a very good source of timber during the Spanish days. But the remaining Hayun Lagu is threatened by invasive species, such as butterflies laying their larvae and many other bugs that are attacking the tree. Planting these trees in the wild will not help them thrive. Experts say helping them grow in a controlled environment, such as a nursery, could be the key to helping the Hayun lagu thrive.

What makes these species unique is that they are the largest trees in the region. They could grow up to 100 feet. In Rota, where they are called “Trongkun Guafi,” they grow that tall. In Palau, a related species of this tree can grow even taller.


Demeulenaere noted that native plans have cultural value, too. There are many native plants with medicinal properties. Suruhanus and suruhanas use them as remedies for different types of ailments. She advised locals to seek traditional healers first before seeking doctors, because plants have healing powers that really work. However, she lamented that traditional medicine practices are disappearing on Guam as most native plants are becoming rare or extinct.

Sen. Sabina Perez and Kelly Marsh (Taitano) were in attendance during Demeulenaere’s presentation. “I would like to help create a curriculum for schools to connect students to the traditional and cultural values of native plants,” Perez said.

Perez added that she would like to schedule a talk with the military to stop the destruction of Guam’s ecosystem.

Later that day, Demeulenaere and her team planted some native plants around the Guam Congress Building to add a natural feel to the place.

Guam fights so many battles in trying to keep these plant species alive. There are invasive species that make that battle even harder. A prime example are the rhino beetles that are overtaking the coconut tree population. If nothing is done to combat the rhino beetles, the coconut trees will become extinct on Guam. Good-bye coconut oil! The most pervasive invasive species are the brown tree snakes, which have taken a major toll on the island’s ecosystem.

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