Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

If there’s another tree in the Philippines that should be named as an icon, it should be pili nut. If waling-waling – a native of the Mount Apo forests – has been elevated as the country’s second flower icon (after sampaguita), pili nut should get the same distinction, too.

After all, half of the Filipino word Pilipinas is “pili.” Besides, pili nut (scientific name: Canarium ovatum) is native to the Philippines. Although pili nuts are grown heavily in Bicol, pili can be grown anywhere in the country. However, they abound mostly in Southern Tagalog, Western Visayas, Eastern Visayas, Southern Mindanao and Caraga. They thrive in marginal soil conditions and are often resistant to typhoons and pests.

“Pili nut is one economically important tree that deserves attention not only from the government officials but also from farmers,” says Jethro P. Adang, the director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) Foundation, Inc. “Although it is native to our country, there is still no commercial planting of the crop.”

In some Asian countries, pili nuts – also known as Pacific almonds – are also grown but mostly as ornamental. Despite the fact that it has no pili nuts plantation to speak of, the Philippines is the only country that produces and processes pili nuts commercially. “As such, pili nut has the possibility of becoming a major dollar earner and source of income for our farmers,” Adang points out.

“Pili nuts possess the characteristics to become among our country’s most valuable export commodities.  Categorically, they can compete with cashew, almond, and macadamia in terms of texture, taste, and extracted micronutrient yield,” said a study conducted by a team of biotechnologists, who urged the current administration to support the pili industry.  

In 1977, the country reportedly exported some 3.8 tons of pili preparation to Guam and Australia. Before World War II, pili nuts were exported to Hawaii, Germany, France, Great Britain, and Japan, according to the Plant Industry Digest published in 1970.

Today, however, the largest buyers of pili nuts are in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the kernel is used as one of the major ingredients in one type of the famous Chinese festive desserts known as the “moon cake.”

The pili nut and its by-products have a growing demand in Australia, Guam, Canada, Japan, German, France, and the United States.

“Despite its numerous benefits and uses, pili nuts have yet to break into the global market as people can’t seem to figure out how to cultivate them more efficiently,” wrote Ronica Valdeavilla for Culture Trip.

“The current status of the pili is equivalent to that of the macadamia some 30 years ago,” says Richard A. Hamilton, a macadamia breeder at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “It has great potential to develop into a major industry.”

No one knows when pili nuts were first cultivated. They can grow to be over 100 years old. “It is assumed that ancient inhabitants of the Philippines first gathered the superfood as part of their diet. These edible nuts were found on fruit trees growing in the wild,” wrote Valdeavilla.

Pili trees are attractive symmetrically shaped evergreens, averaging 20 meters tall with resinous wood and resistance to strong wind. It prefers deep, fertile, well-drained soil, warm temperatures, and well-distributed rainfall.

The immediate concern in pili production is the difficulty of propagation. Refrigeration of seeds at 4°C to 13°C resulted in loss of viability after 5 days. Seed germination is highly recalcitrant, reduced from 98-19 percent after 12 weeks of storage at room temperature; seeds stored for more than 137 days do not germinate.

According to experts, asexual propagations using marcotting, budding, and grafting are too inconsistent to be used in commercial production. Young shoots of pili were believed to have functional internal phloem, which rendered bark ringing ineffective as a way of building up carbohydrate levels in the wood.

There are three pili cultivars grown in the Philippines: “katutubo,” “mayon” and “oas.” Farming takes about six years before the trees bear the fruits that contain the nuts – ranging between 1,000 to 2,000 nuts a year.

Most of the pili nut production in the country are from trees that developed from seedlings and are highly variable in kernel qualities and production. Harvesting is from May to October, peaking in June to August, and requires several pickings.

Most pili kernels tend to stick to the shell when fresh, but come off easily after being dried to 3-5 percent moisture. “Once the shells (containing the nuts) have been dried for two to three days, the difficult de-shelling process can begin,” wrote Valdeavilla. “Sun-drying the shell also helps shrink the kernel (causing it to naturally detach inside) so it is easier to extract. These can last up to a year in storage.”

The kernel is the most important product from pili. When raw, it resembles the flavor of roasted pumpkin seed; when roasted, its mild, nutty flavor and tender-crispy texture is superior to that of the almond. In early days, emulsion from crushed kernels was used by the natives as a substitute for infant’s milk. 

Nutritionists claim the kernel is high in calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. In addition, pili nuts are rich in fats and protein. Scientists from the University of Guelph in Canada reported that proteins in pili are as important as the proteins found in commercially important oilseeds.

“I love its tender-crisp texture, the smooth exterior, the subtle sweet flavor,” commented one consumer. “It has the highest oil content among all edible nuts and that’s what probably accounts for the soft yet crunchy feel.”

The young shoots and the fruit pulp are also edible. The shoots are used in salads, and the pulp is eaten after it is boiled and seasoned. When boiled, the pili pulp resembles sweet potato in texture but is oily (about 12%).  It is considered to have a food value similar to avocado.

Among the entire world’s nut, pili reigns supreme in oil content – over 70%. The pulp oil – highly prized for its lanolin content – can be extracted and used for cooking or as a substitute for cotton seed oil in the manufacture of soap and edible products.

“Chemical and nutritional analyses of pili pulp oil are very similar to olive oil,” the Department of Science and Technology reported.  “However, pili pulp oil has more beta-carotene, a known vitamin A source, and carotenoids, which makes it more nutritious than olive oil.”

Due to the pandemic and subsequent typhoons that hit the province, the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) is extending help to Bicol pili farmers to revive their livelihood activities. Eighty-five percent or more than 6,000 tons of pili in the country is produced annually in this region.

Through its Grants for Research toward Agricultural Innovative Solutions (GRAINS), the Laguna-based SEARCA funded a project of the Socio-Economic Development Program Multi-Purpose Cooperative (SEDP-MPC) called “Technology Adoption for People-Centered Innovation and Livelihood Integration (PILI).”

Jovic Lobrigo, SEDP-MPC Chairman, said pili is a viable product amid poverty brought about by disasters and vulnerability. “We have the so-called tree of hope – pili – for resiliency, environmental and financial sustainability,” he said.

“By promoting pili-based livelihood, we give farmers and entrepreneurs the opportunity to recover and earn more,” pointed out Glenn Baticados, SEARCA Program Head for Emerging Innovation.

According to SEARCA Director Dr. Glenn Gregorio, the pili pulp is often discarded. However, the SEDP-MPC has trained farmers and entrepreneurs to extract oil and create value-added products such as candy, chips, and sauce to maximize the use of pili pulp.

The pili oil can be used as raw material for cosmetics, medicines, and food, Gregorio said. – ###

Photo captions:

1 The edible pili nuts (Henrylito Tacio)

2 In Bicol, you can buy these pili nuts. (Henrylito Tacio)

3 Pili nuts up close (Henrylito Tacio)

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