WATCH: Sunflowers are here to stay – UP agriculturist

Raisa Serafica
WATCH: Sunflowers are here to stay – UP agriculturist
University of the Philippines agricultural technicians weather the summer heat to plant sunflowers and keep a decades-long tradition

MANILA, Philippines – The clouds were brooding, threatening to rain on Friday afternoon, June 18. Just around three weeks prior, the state weather bureau announced the onset of the rainy season.

Notwithstanding the threat of a heavy downpour, however, agricultural technician Noel Pomada was outside taking care of the plants growing at the small garden of the University of the Philippines Diliman Campus Maintenance Office (UPD CMO).

He was old and his reflexes were already slow. After working for almost 40 years at the state university, Pomada managed to collect a flurry of colorful stories from UP – including the history of the famous sunflower tradition in UP.

Almost four decades ago, Pomada witnessed the first seeds of sunflowers that were planted along the university avenue in Diliman, Quezon City.

“Parang eksperimento lang ng direktor namin. Eh nag-click. Ayun naging tradition na,” Pomada recounted. (The sunflowers started out as an experiment by our director. People loved it. Eventually, it became a tradition)

The Campus Landscaping Office and Arboretum (CLOA), under the leadership of Dionisio Liwag, decided to plant the bright, yellow flowers as an experiment in the early 1980s. What started as a test later became a yearly tradition for the state university. Eventually, the UP community attached the sunflowers to the graduation – just like UP’s sablay.

For graduating students, the sunflowers became a beacon of hope – something they could look forward to as they spend sleepless nights accomplishing one school requirement after another.

Calendar shift

But this tradition was threatened when, in 2014, the state university decided to shift calendars to align with global standards. Many groups opposed the move, citing that only a minority of the academic community will benefit from the calendar shift.

An offshoot of this problem also involved the sunflowers: What will happen to the bright, yellow flowers now that graduation will be scheduled during the rainy season?

Fortunately, the UPD CMO found a way to keep the tradition alive.

Nagsimula kami sa giant sunflowers. Binago yung oras ng graduation. Kaya kami naghanap ng pwede,” Pomada recounted. (We started with giant sunflowers. But since they changed the schedule of graduation, we looked for flowers that we could use.)

In 2015, the UPD CMO was tasked to make sure sunflowers bloom in the rainy season. After several consultations, they discovered the certified or treated seeds that would grow into rain-resistant sunflowers. Although they don’t as tall as the previous plants, the sunflowers that thrive during rainy season cost more.  

ICONIC. The UP sunflowers are as iconic as UP's sablay. Photo by Raisa Serafica/Rappler

The variety of seeds for giant sunflowers cost approximately P0.05 centavo per seed while certified seeds cost P1.10 each. To plant and maintain the sunflowers, the state university spends almost P200,000 every year for the planting and maintenance of the sunflowers.

Working within its budget, the school decided to limit the planting space for the sunflowers.

Challenges

Making the sunflowers bloom during the rainy season was no easy feat.

According to CMO head Engineer Pacifico Gonzales, they face different challenges in the span of 60 days required to prepare the land, plant the seeds, and grow the yellow blooms.

One of the unique challenges they faced this year involved the difficulty experienced by their employees in planting the seeds during the summer season. In the past, seeds were planted in January – a time when the weather was cool and forgiving. This time, they had to plant under the scorching heat of the March sun. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the March 2016 marked the hottest March in modern history and the 11th consecutive month in which a monthly global temperature record was broken.

“The challenge is how to prepare the land with such weather. The people who are doing this are doing it manually with the weather, under the sun. I have been advised that they volunteered to work at 6 AM, and they take a rest at 10 AM,” Gonzales said.

According to Gonzales, there are at least 10 employees tasked to plant and monitor the yellow blooms.

This is also part of the reason why CMO strictly prohibits the plucking of sunflowers – the product of the employees’ hard work under the summer heat. The CMO already posted a tarpaulin along the university avenue, asking people not to uproot the sunflowers.

“If there is anybody thinking of getting a flower, kindly think of the people who sacrificed to prepare the land,” Gonzales appealed.

Here to stay

Despite the calendar shift and the threat of the heavy downpour, Pomada assured that the sunflowers are here to bid the graduating batch of Iskolar ng Bayan goodbye.

Sana lahat ng mga graduate maalala nila ang sunflowers. Lahat ng pamangkin ko na grumadweyt, nagtatanong sa (sunflowers), sabi ko ‘Hindi na mawawala `yan’,” Pomada assured, with a confident smile.

(I hope all graduates remember the sunflowers. My nieces and nephews who already graduated often ask me about the sunflowers. I tell them it will never leave UP)

Fortunately, just like the thousands of graduating scholars who weathered sleepless nights and terror professors, UP’s sunflowers will continue to stand tall despite the rain. Rappler.com

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Raisa Serafica

Raisa Serafica is the Unit Head of Civic Engagement of Rappler. As the head of MovePH, Raisa leads the on ground engagements of Rappler aimed at building a strong community of action in the Philippines. Through her current and previous roles at Rappler, she has worked with different government agencies, collaborated with non-governmental organizations, and trained individuals mostly on using digital technologies for social good.