Golden Profiles: Roberto E. Coronel

ROBERTO E. CORONEL


The Sherlock Holmes of Plants

1

By Corazon A. Ong

He never dreamt of a career in agriculture, but today, research professor Roberto E. Coronel has fruitful life discovering little known plants endemic to the Philippines and propagating them. The fruit-and-nut expert at the Institute of Plant Breeding in UP Los Baños, has in fact been dubbed “the Sherlock Holmes of Plants” by newspaperman-turned-farmer Jose Burgos, for his work in tracking down obscure plants that are all but lost to more popular varieties.


He thought of taking up commerce, recalls this Bulacan, Bulacan native, until an uncle dissuaded him. The uncle had attended workshops and seminars At UP Los Baños during the summer and found the environment agreeable. “He thought this was were I should be,” says Coronel.

Shifting to agriculture sealed his fate. It led to a teaching stint at UP and a lifelong passion for conserving and developing native fruit species which has earned him accolades here and abroad. Coronel’s book, “Edible Fruits and Nuts,” published in the Netherlands, has been translated not only in Filipino but also in other languages, including Bahasa Indonesia and Vietnamese. “It is the most complete reference on tropical fruits in Asia,” he says matter-of-factly.

The Rome-based International Plant Genetic Institute has, in turn, commissioned Coronel to write a monograph on the promotion and rise of the underdeveloped pili nut. The Katutubo (meaning, native), he says, is the first pili variety registered in the Philippines. “Until now, it has not been surpassed in terms of productivity and nut size.”

The mother plant which produced Katutubo was among the pili nuts from Oas, Albay, planted in the 1920s along the present-day Pili Drive in UP Los Baños. The drive going to the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) is lined with pili trees that, according to Coronel have a lot of potential and are easy to propagate.

Pili, like the fruits mabolo and balimbing (starfruit) are endemic in the Philippines. He laments, however, that we are fast losing many of our native fruit varieties because we have stopped using them. “For example, in mangoes, the most popular and saleable is the carabao variety so that other varieties like pajo, pico and baluno (a wild mango seen in Mindanao) are becoming very rare. Trees of these other varieties are being cut to give way to carabao mangoes.”

To track down the country’s remaining native plants, Dr. Coronel does some sleuthing job, with a little help from his staff and some old literature. Despite such efforts, they sometimes fail to save the plants. Recalls this agriculturist: “We read in the Philippine Agricultural Review issue published in the early 1900s that an old mango variety known as Corazon existed in Malabon (now Gen. Aguinaldo), Cavite. We went there in 1978 to collect buds ticks to propagate this rare mango, but found out that the owner had cut down the tree. We only saw the stump and knew that we had permanently lost a valuable plant resource.”

He remembers another huge, century old mango tree heavily laden with fruits in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, which he knew was still existing in 2000. “But when we returned this summer, the tree was no longer there. We were told that it was hit by lightning.”

For the most part, however, Dr. Coronel and his team succeed in their efforts to collect and preserve native plants, such as the galo of Indang, Cavite and the bago of Cuenca, Batangas. “Galo and bago are like pili and mabolo, underutilized native fruits. They could be raised as garden plants and provide nutritious food for the family.”

How does his team operate? “When we go on collecting trips, we get mature fruits and buds ticks for evaluation and propagation in the laboratory,” says Coronel. We measure important fruit characters such as weight, length, width, color and shape of the various parts such as the peel, flesh and seed. We germinate the seeds to produce seedlings and graft the buds ticks to produce grafted plants exactly like the mother plant we collected.”

Coronel’s conservation work, however, does not begin and end in his office and laboratory. He carries it at home, too. His backyard in his modest house outside the UP Los Banos campus is full of grafted plants in various stages of growth. There is kabuyaw or kulubot (Kaffir lime), a member of the citrus family, that used to thrive in Cabuyao, Laguna and which gave the town its name-an industrialized area nowadays.

“In the old days, the lime was used as a shampoo but with the advent of commercial preparations, kabuyaw’s popularity went down,” says Coronel. “As it turned out, however, its leaves are much more useful than the fruit. Filipinos, for instance, who have been to Thailand and tasted its famous tom yum soup, would know it uses kabuyaw whose leaves give the dish its distinct flavor and aroma. In fact, I use the leaves in practically everything I cook. Sinigang, bagoong at kung anu-ano pa.”

There is also bignay, a plant rich in anti-oxidant. Bignay juice has a color and taste that remind one of grapes. Why buy grapes when we can have bignay instead, he asks.

Another plant Coronel is excited about is the miracle fruit, a bush-like plant he and the IPB helped introduce in the Philippines. Native to Ghana and Nigeria in Africa, the miracle fruit is a fast gaining popularity here.

What makes it special? Anything sour, like calamansi or green mango, will taste sweet if you take a bite of miracle fruit first, he says. “Though not documented some cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy have said that eating the fruit helped restore their appetite because it removed the metallic taste in the mouth after the chemo sessions, “Coronel adds.

While most of the plants in the backyard are for sale, there are some  which are not like the Sweet Elena, a big-fruited carabao mango, which is still under study and propagation. “The mother tree is owned by Nida Malabed of Sta. Cruz, Zambales and was named after Malabed’s mother. The Sweet Elena shows promise because with its size, 360 gms per fruit, it could very well compete in the world market.

As the incumbent president of the Philippine Fruit Association who has been invited to grace many international fruit symposia, Coronel knows that unless Filipinos face the realities of changing time we will be left behind in the export market. “Let’s talk about mangoes, for example. By our standards, Philippine mango is already the best. But abroad it pales in comparison to those coming from Mexico and Brazil, which are far more attractive to consumers because of their bigger size and reddish color. We call it red  blush. Consumers are easily attracted by the fruit’s outside appearance so we must adapt accordingly if we want to survive and compete. At present, some 90 countries are already producing mangoes, with Latin American countries, notably Mexico and Brazil, as the leading exporters.” Part of his work, Coronel says, is to develop better fruit varieties so that Philippine fruit growers can compete in the export market.

Apart from his backyard garden, Coronel also keeps a four-hectare conservation farm in Calauan, Laguna. “It is not simply a farm. The idea is to conserve, conserve and conserve, especially endemic and indigenous plant species.” Interested growers are welcome to source their plants from the farm, he says.

Coronel is due to retire from the academe next year but given his natural love for all living plants, his farming days are just beginning.

1  Feature article in Sunday Inquirer magazine 16 November 2003


Postscript: by Emil Q. Javier

After graduating from UPLB in 1960, Bert joined the Department of Agronomy, together with 1960 classmates Azucena Carpena, Leoncio Raymundo, Ismael Anunciado, Juan Carlos, Jr., Ruben Villareal, Jose Malabuyoc and Emil Javier. Shortly after, he left for the University of Hawaii where he earned a Master’s degree in Horticulture in 1965, thence to the University of California Riverside for his doctorate in 1971, and back to Los Banos.

A true scientist at heart, Bert gave up his tenured position in the faculty to become a researcher at the new Institute of Plant Breeding – a less secure position at that time and a lower salary at that – just so he can spend full time to tropical fruit breeding and germplasm conservation.

As the feature article describes, Bert’s key contribution to world agriculture, not just the country’s, is his advocacy for biodiversity conservation of tropical fruits. He spent the best years of his productive career providing leadership to the National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory (the national genebank) at the Institute of Plant Breeding, College of Agriculture, UPLB.

Over the years he scoured the countryside to locate, identify and characterize outstanding specimens of the lesser known tropical fruits. Among his credits include the exquisite tasting ‘Gonzalez” chico which he named after his professor, the late Leon Gonzalez; the big-fruited Santa Elena mango, the Cabuyao, the galo, the bago, Katutubo pili, haggis, and the most recently the Miracle fruit.

His professional and academic awards include the Gawad Saka Award as Outstanding Agricultural Scientist (Department of Agriculture, 2004), Outstanding Research Award (UPLB College of Agriculture, 2004), Achievement Award for Research (National Research Council of the Philippines, 2003), DA-Khush Award of Recognition (Federation of Crop Science Societies of the Philippines, 2001), Award of Distinction (Philippine Fruit Association, 2000), Dangal ng Lipi Award (Provincial Government of Bulacan, 1998), and Achievement Award for Research (Crop Science Society of the Philippines, 1991).

He is married to the former Victoria Panganiban. They have three sons – Rosauro (deceased), Roberto married to Emily Osio and Albert Reginald married to Angelina Abiera. Roberto has two daughters, Casey and Kelsey, while Albert has one son, Joshua Robert. Victoria is a plant chemist at the Monrovia Plant Nursery in Visalia, California. Roberto is a computer programmer at Ford Motors in Louisville, Kentucky. Albert is an agricultural inspector at the Department of Homeland Security in Los Angeles, California.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Josie Bautista Wooding on July 8, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Hi Bert,
    I am in awe as I read your biodata and all your achievements in the past 50 years. Our class must be a very special group indeed to be blessed with so many high achieving people. I do think that the atmosphere we experienced at UPCA was conducive to high achievement. I congratulate you and wish you the best in the years to come.
    Josie Bautista-Wooding

    Reply

  2. Posted by Ambibratwigma on July 28, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    werigut

    Reply

  3. Posted by Sabina Fajardo-Swift on August 17, 2012 at 12:52 am

    Much kudos to you Bert for what you do. It took me to work on taxonomy and systematics of Hawaiian flora and fauna to appreciate their importance in the culture and environmental picture, ecosystem of the islands. So conservation naturally follows. And certainly I wondered about the Philippine situation – are there folks working on our flora and fauna and indeed there are dedicated ones out there, you for one, and my former classmate at that! I hope you work with young plant breeders and plant advocates who could help you continue and expand your work. We are so much in need of young, passionate students in biodiversity whether flora or fauna! Aloha! ~ Sabina

    Reply

  4. Roberto ,
    The fact that you don’t hear from Eli and Me, does not mean that we don’t think of you frequently, Your knowledge and wisdom is missed by us.
    Hope we can renew our connection
    Keep in-touch
    David and Eli (Now in the Holly Land)

    Reply

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