Pili (Canarium ovatum)

Description and Characteristics

Pronounced “peel-y”, the pili tree is one of the many indigenous trees in the Philippines. Pili is an erect and spreading tree that grows up to 30 meters or more, with trunk diameter of at least 50 centimeters depending on the tree’s age. It grows a bunch of leaves that are usually ovate to elliptic in shape, and measures up to 24 centimeters long and 12 centimeters wide. Because of its symmetrical branches, pili tree makes an attractive border and avenue shade tree. Pili flowers grow in a flowering shoot called cymose inflorescence in which the first-formed flower develops from the growing region at the top of the flower stalk. Pili tree flowers all year round. Its fruit or nut develops up to 7 centimeters long, 3.8 centimeters wide, and is ovoid to ellipsoid in shape. The outermost part of the nut is the pulp which is a thin shiny, smooth skin that changes color from light green to black as it ripens. Following the pulp is the brown shell shaped nearly triangular in transverse sections with a basal pointed end. Inside the shell are separate cavities containing the mature, edible seed. Pili is storm-resistant and starts fruiting five to six years after seed germination. A fully developed tree produces approximately 100 – 150 kilograms of raw nuts per season (May to September) when it is twelve to fifteen years old.

Location and Sources

Pili trees are usually found at elevations below 400 meters where rainfall is distributed throughout the year with a mean annual rainfall of 2,000-3,000 millimeters and it can tolerate annual daytime temperature of 12-40°C. Pili is endemic to the Philippines especially in Region V (Bicol). The trees have spread to the provinces of Sorsogon, Albay, Legazpi, Catanduanes, Masbate, southern Quezon area, and other provinces. The Bicol region is known to supply most of pili materials where around 70% of the country’s pili trees are found, and pili nuts have become the region’s flagship-product. 

Application and Product Output

The different parts of the pili tree have various uses and applications,  starting with the trunk which is used for building constructions, furniture, handicraft, and as a burning material. Pili’s wood is appropriate for internal use as an all-purpose utility timber for planking, plywood, flooring, furniture, pallets, packing cases, and general carpentry work. When cut, the bark releases a white liquid material called resin (pili resin is known as “Manila Elemi”) which is used for pharmaceutical products, colors, varnish, ointments, and perfumes. Cooked young-shoots can also be processed to salads. As for the fruits, they can be maximized once they’re already ripe which usually takes twelve months. Each layer/part of the fruit has different uses. The pulp can be cooked and spiced so that it can be processed to meals or raw pulp can be fed to pigs and cows. It is also possible to extract oil from the pulp which can be used for the production of lamp-oil and soaps. The hard shell on the other hand makes an excellent fuel for cooking and as a growing medium for orchids and anthuriums. Furthermore, polished and varnished shells become an attractive ornament, and can be made into bags, accessories, and home & décor products.

Pili shells made into bag, chandelier, and home decors. Photo and copyright: Heart Evangelista-Escudero via Instagram
Pili shells made into bag, chandelier, and home decors. Photo and copyright: Heart Evangelista-Escudero via Instagram

The more important part of the nut is the large kernel because it is rich in oil that is prized for its quality. Used in confections and other food preparations, the taste of the raw kernel is described as a cross between a macadamia and a cashew nut, but with a stronger, tenderer flavor. The kernel is also cooked into different delicacies such as crispy pili, sugar-coated pili, pili brittle, pili cake, pili yema, pili pudding, and many more confectioneries. These pili delicacies have become one of the locals’ major source of income in many provinces of Bicol. 

Pili kernel contains approximately 70% of the total oil that can be extracted from the nut and resembles olive oil which makes it suitable for culinary purposes and to be used in sardine manufacture, salad dressing, and other food preparations. The oil can also be turned into pili butter once processed. The pili kernel oil acquired its economic value as it is used in the manufacture of many products such as shampoos, soaps, perfumes, lotions, ointments, and cosmetics. In Sorsogon, the pili nut concoction is called “nilanta”—boiled in hot water to soften, seasoned with soy sauce, bagoong, and chili. In some provinces, emulsion from crushed kernels has been used as a substitute for infant’s milk. More studies are being conducted to explore the many uses of pili nuts for commercial and medical purposes which include its anticancer, antibacterial, and antioxidant activities.

Pili kernel oil used in manufacturing soaps, perfumes, and other products. Photo and copyright: Canarium “The First Virgin” | https://canariumthefirstvirgin.files.wordpress.com
Pili kernel oil used in manufacturing soaps, perfumes, and other products. Photo and copyright: Canarium “The First Virgin” | https://canariumthefirstvirgin.files.wordpress.com

Production and Sustainable Consumption

Many opportunities are in sight for the expansion of pili in the global world market as it can be one of the major export products of the country. To sustain this in-store demand, there are already small and large scale commercial productions especially in Sorsogon, Bicol. There are many ways to reproduce pili including seed propagation and cleft grafting, while asexual propagation thru patch budding claims a success rate of 85 – 90%. However, it takes a span of five to six years before the tree begins to bear fruits and can only be harvested from May to October with fruits that can be stored for up to a year. 

The pili tree is regarded as an organically grown tree (without any application of chemicals, pesticides, and fungicides for the duration of growth, fruit production, and harvest) and could grow and last for a century making it sustainable for the community and the environment. Yet, the current supply is insufficient for the demand due to some limitations in the post-production operation and processing including the meticulous nut-shelling which can only better be done by the human hands because processing machines frequently smash the nuts. That’s why, Bicol Pili Board, Inc. was created to serve as a vehicle to link various key commodity players to ensure the sustainability of the industry. Furthermore, government agencies like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) also launched projects to support innovations by pili farmers. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) 7, initiated the project called “Implementation of the National Framework in Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) of Genetic Resources and Associated Traditional Knowledge in the Philippines” which aims to help boost the Bicol-grown pili. Other pili products such as lotions and moisturizers also stretched to the spa industry through the effort of the Department of Tourism (DOT) and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Government agencies, civil society organizations, academe, and stakeholders are working hand-in-hand to explore and develop this vast benefits of pili in different fields while making sure that the environment is not being compromised by this progress and innovation.

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Works Cited

Balala, Casandra. “Innovation to boost Bicol-grown pili gets support from DENR, UNDP”. Philippine Information Agency, https://pia.gov.ph/news/articles/1027628. Accessed 15 January 2021.

de Guzman, Christmas. “Looking at pili beyond its edible use”. Bar Digest Research and Development, vol. 10, no. 2, 2008, https://www.bar.gov.ph/index.php/digest-home/digest-archives/56-2008-2nd-quarter/1462-aprjun08-pili-10. Accessed 15 January 2021.

Fern, Ken. “Canarium ovatum”. Useful Tropical Plants, http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Canarium+ovatum. Accessed 15 January 2021.

Pham, Laura, Dumandan, Nico. “Philippine Pili: Composition of the lipid molecular species”. ScienceDirect: Journal of Ethnic Foods, vol. 2, no. 4, 2015, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352618115000621#sec2. Accessed 15 January 2021.

Stuart, Godofredo Jr. “Pili”. StuartXchange, http://www.stuartxchange.org/Pili.html. Accessed 15 January 2021.

Wolfgang, Bethge. “Bicol’s Pride: The Pili-Nuts”. https://www.insights-philippines.de/pilinusseng.htm. Accessed 15 January 2021.

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