The Narra-Tree - Neglected National Symbol
It is somewhat astonishing that the Narra-Tree (Pterocarpus indicus / Red Sandalwood tree), belongs to the national-symbols of the Philippines, especially because in the past the tree could be found in most deeper and middle regions of South East Asia and because nowadays the Philippines have only small, scattered and endangered remainders of the tree.
What kind of a tree is it? The Narra-Tree is a deciduous, relatively short-stemmed tree. In case of good growth-conditions it can reach a height of over thirty meters and a trunk-scope of two meters – in the lower parts up to seven meters through buttresses. In the rule however these maximum-dimensions are seldom. The treetop shows long, somewhat disarranged side-branches, that first rise upward and then bends downward. The smooth, feathered, oval-elliptical leaves are 7–11 cm long, 3–5 cm wide and have a distinctive top. It is reported that the young leaves and blooms of the tree should be edible. In the Philippines, the tree mostly blooms in the months of February until May - often before the leave flushing. The blossoms on panicles are brightly yellow and fragrant. Mostly they open after a shower and bloom only one day. The multitude of falling blooms can make streets slippery. After 4–6 months we can see the development of hairy, 4–6 cm disc-shaped pods with 1 -2 cm broad wings. They are dispersed by the wind and can also float in water. After two or three years – as can be seen in some avenues - settlings can grow up to decorative, shadow spending and relatively wind-solid trees.
The colour-qualities make the very durable hardwood of the Narra-Trees attractive. The heartwood has a yellow-rose to brown scented colour with an ornamental texture that is in some aspects more decorative than such of teak-tree. It darkens upon exposure. The younger, water-transporting sap-wood has a lighter colour. The wood is moderately hard and heavy and has good processing-qualities. If it is dried well, it hardly shrinks, does not tend to crack-formation and is very resistant to fungi and insects. The wood has a pleasant, long persistent cedar-smell. Very smooth surfaces with fine shine can be generated by planning and polishing procedures.
An author is writing, furniture’s from Narra-wood are delighting each homeowner. „In durability, in beauty of its grain, and in the beautiful finish it takes, it ranks with the best cabinet woods in the world"(1). It is used in the manufacture of high-quality furniture’s, peels and veneers, panelling and parquet-floors. But also the arts and crafts prefer this kind of wood – if it is available - , for example for the manufacturing of inlays, music-instruments, clocks, piece-works, billiard tables, piano cases and sculptures.
Tea prepared from the leaves of Narra-Tree has been since old days a remedy against boils and diarrhoea in traditional medicine. But now the extracts of the Narra as remedies are discovered again by the classical medicine and are subject of a new renaissance and commercial exploitation-boom. The former airplane-pilot Virgilio V. Ecarma is the head of this new discovery and marketing. Even on the internet he is offering his ECARMA HERBAL PRODUCTS, praising his teas and capsules as „The Philippine Forest´s Outstanding Gift To Mankind"(2). First with own experience – now more and more with control-group-experiments – he tries to prove the immune-strengthening and -regulating, metabolic, anti-infectious effects of his products. The list of indications is so long that doubts about the effectiveness can rise again. Ecarma is recommending his patented teas and capsules in case of: HIV-concomitants, tumour- and leprosy-illnesses, menstruation-disturbances, arthritis, diabetes mellitus, kidney- and bladder-stones, asthma-illnesses, cysts and colds. Next to his pharmaceutical factory, he built a wellness-centre. A day with cure treatments is offered for 100 $. „A full refund is guaranteed if the patient does not undergo measurable improvement ".
In 1985 the Philippines still exported 3,000,000 kg of Narra-wood. But in the last decades the enormous demand for status-symbols made from Narra caused a considerable diminution of trees in the forests of the Philippines. Therefore the Philippine government decided in 1987 to prohibit the felling down and collecting in natural stands as well as the export of Narra. The forest-cultivation for industrial purposes is excluded from this regulation. But the high prices are still luring wood-poachers and export-smugglers. Often, legal tree-felling is connected with illegal felling of Narra-Trees. Today, remainders of Narra-Trees are especially only located at the coast of the province Isabela, that Sierra Madres, in Bicol, Mindanao and the forests of Cagayan. Data from a nationwide inventory are not available and we don’t know major recultivation-projects of the tree.
However – sometimes wood-dealers still offer in Manila Narra-wood in different quantities at fluctuating prices. In 2000, a „Boardfoot ", (30 cm wide, 30 cm long, 2.5 cm thick) was offered at prices between 1.70 and 2.60 US$ (3). In the internet 2003 a cubic meter was offered at prices between 600 and 700 US$ (4). Its clear, that the price is depending on the texture of wood, width and length.
In the eighties, efforts from sides of the wood-processing industry have been made to replace Narra-wood by the bright-yellow Gmelina-wood. Gmelina-trees are fast-growing in the forest and the wood costs only one sixth of the price of Narra-wood. Gmelina-wood dries however more irregular and is less durable. Now it seems that the Gmelina-wood has become already popular alternative, but it does not reach the status-qualities of Narra-wood.
Let's hope that the substitution will succeed and that we could find again in greater numbers the beautiful, ecologically valuable Narra-tree in the Philippines.
(3) Quoted after: Peter Freudenberg, Thieves´ Wood of Choice, Illegally logged narra often turns up in affluent homes, in ASIAWEEK, No.40 /2000,
(4) http: / / www.earthtradelink.com/NARRA.htm
© W. Bethge, 2004