It’s present at every major life event imaginable, from baptisms to funerals to school graduations to your regular Sunday mass. It’s a national symbol. It’s the cradle-to-grave Filipino flower.
It’s also the stuff garlands are made of, strung together to create something of a cross between a pearl necklace, a rosary and the Hawaiian lei, flowery wreaths draped around the necks of tourists and sweethearts.
It’s a garland of fragrant sampaguita, whose role it is to adorn the necks of wooden saints with jewels that wilt in the summer heat.
The wreath itself begins life as an evergreen shrub tended by farmers from San Pablo, Laguna, or sometimes as far away as Pampanga and Quezon. It grows best in the summer and -ber months, minus the rain. In due season, hired hands – likely children – must pick the sampaguita buds before they bloom. The flowers are then packed into Styrofoam boxes chilled with ice to keep the petals fresh, and their buds closed, as they make their way to Manila.
Thirty kilometers later, suppliers and vendors on contract clamor for their share in the nation’s capital. Joining them are wreathe makers, fiber cleaners, and street side peddlers who string them together with abaca or Manila Hemp from Mindoro, Bicol and Davao.
With all this commerce, the sampaguita garland trade is a complex web of supply and demand in its own right. It even has diversified merchandise, and its own brand names. De Dos for garlands with two buds. De Cuatro for four. De Dies, ten.
That’s a lot of fuss for a string of petals. So why not make and sell your own?
Take Jemalyn Garcia, for example, who has long mastered the art of pagtuhog, stringing garlands and circlets of Sampaguita for much of her life. Let her show you how.
Watch as her fingers weave the small white flowers together into painstaking patterns. She moves her needle and thread up and down, dabbing water here and there to keep the petals pliable, while flicking away extra moisture to avoid turning them into mush. Jemalyn is a seamstress, paid to garnish someone’s favored household saint. She works silently and effortlessly at her garland, with her brother, Reyno, who just happens to make the best palaspas from sidewalk palm fronds come Holy Week. In a few quick flourishes, Reyno finishes his in barely a minute, betraying years of experience in between stints as a parking boy on the streets.
Both can do this for hours at a stretch. Any more than that can be bad for the neck, she says, even at her age. Jemalyn is in her early thirties. Reyno, 23.
Now it’s your turn.
With string, buds, and needle at the ready, take a few moments to mutter silent thanks for the abaca fiber cleaners of the world, the tagalinis, who hew rough abaca shoots, separate their stems into individual strands and turn them into your thread. Now, dip the abaca fibres in a little water to get them nice and straight as you thread the bundle through your needle.
Taking utmost care not to break their fragile stems, push the sampaguita buds gently, gently down the cord, twisting, twirling, fitting them together like rosary beads.
Uno. Dos. Tres…. De Dies. Satisfied with your desired number of buds, tie both ends of the garland into a tight knot.
Add, for a decorative finish, white camia, green ylang-ylang, or golden orange champaca.
Those are just the Pinoy varieties, one of many cultivars of the Arabian jasmine. This humble shrub boasts regal names that belie the humbler hands that weave them into intricate wreathes – Maid of Orleans, Belle of India, Grand Duke of Tuscany.
You may prefer to work with the tried and tested petals of Jasminum sambac, or go for a whole slew of fancier alternatives: chrysanthemum, orchid, rose. But why stop at garlands? Cluster these versatile little buds into large round kumpols to decorate fiestas, or as centerpieces for weddings and school graduations.
Whatever you decide to form your creations out of, the same rules apply. It’s simply, really. So long as you don’t poke yourself or lose patience or tear the petals or allow them to either bloom or wilt before you can string them into wreathes. So long as you can manage to get those stubborn abaca threads through the eye of a needle and do at least fifty garlands in one sitting.
With your very own garlands ready, it’s time to put them up for sale.
If you happen to live in Makati, Sacred Heart of Jesus Shrine is prime market territory. When sales are brisk, stay where you are. Or better still, sleep there, as Jemalyn and her family does on cardboard boxes splayed out on the sidewalk under broken umbrellas (to snag the first customers come dawn and between church services, but also mostly because they have no other choice). Otherwise, try your luck at nearby churches: Quiapo, St. Andrew’s, and Don Bosco are always chockfull of potential customers. Expect to rake in about a hundred pesos… a few days a week.
That’s the do-it-yourself approach. So if you’d like to turn sampaguita wreath-making from a mere hobby into a full-scale enterprise, expanding production en masse, be prepared to shell out roughly thirty pesos a bucket for the abaca, seventy for pretty ylang ylang and another thirty for the sampaguita buds themselves.
Rising prices for raw materials needed to make the garlands from scratch, however, may push you to buy them ready-made from a contractor, at a peso a piece. Not a problem from Jemmalyn, who shifts between buying and making them herself, no matter the season.
But even that may soon change. In less than a decade, lands traditionally devoted to Sampaguita farming are set for conversion into commercial real estate in a rapidly urbanizing Laguna, threatening a whole chain of livelihoods that keeps thousands afloat in a turbulent economy – or at least affords them some measure of dignity.
For Sunday churchgoers, the Sampaguita represents no more than a cultural curio uniquely Filipino; something we have come to expect from sometimes pushy street kids after every mass.
For Jemalyn and countless others who benefit from the Garland Trade, the Sampaguita is so much more. In each unassuming bud is a way of life. So they will cherish these young, still-sealed flowers. Knit them into garlands as tight and white as the piety they’re made to symbolise.
Quickly, before they blossom.