The passion of famed botanist Leonard Co


Sidebar: Leonard Co remembered with tree-planting and re-launch of Common Medicinal Plants of Cordillera

MANILA – “A tree dies. A tree lives. The forest lives forever.” These words greet everyone who would view the photo exhibit put up in memory of botanist Leonard Co at UP Diliman’s Palma Hall. Leonard Co and two of his four companions were killed a year ago by the Philippine military in the forest of Kananga, Leyte while conducting field research. He was collecting plant specimens of endangered species.

The military claims that Co and two of his four companions were killed in a crossfire. But the surviving members of his team swore that there had been no crossfire because the Philippine Army was the only armed group present at the scene during the shooting. The Commission on Human Rights also reported in an evaluation of the physical evidences presented from the scene that the massacre victims did not die due to a crossfire.

Although a year has passed since then and plenty of hearings and a few field investigations have been conducted, those responsible for the death of Co and two of his four companions on that field research have yet to be held accountable for the crime, said the Justice for Leonard Co Movement. As such, on the first anniversary of his death, Co’s family and friends, students and colleagues and members of the Justice for Leonard Co Movement dubbed the activities they held as “a struggle against forgetting, a fight against injustice.”


Leonard Co spent much of his life in the company of plants and people wanting to get to know them better, for all its beneficial uses. From testimonies of those who had known him, worked with him, laughed with him, trekked the mountain and forest trails with him, ate with him and learned from and with him, it appeared that Leonard Co’s ceaseless study and documentation of Philippine plants had transcended the formal structure in the study of that field by the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Biology. Through the years the people comprising the institute had unconsciously given him space, respect and recognition.

Leonard Co with a flowering plant he identified and discovered (Photo courtesy of UP Institute of Biology /

“Leonard Co entered UP as botany freshman in the early 70s and never left,” said Dr Perry Ong, head of the Institute of Biology, UP Diliman. Leonard Co was the last graduate of the Bachelor of Science in Botany degree in the institute in 2008. He became a familiar figure, a resident almost, of UP’s Herbarium, which had been like home to him. “Wherever work takes him, at the end of the day, he always goes back to the Herbarium in UP Diliman, noted Dr. Ong.

Co was already an acclaimed master and an authority on Philippine plants when he finally acquired his diploma, which was just a formality, said his colleagues. To students, he was known as that generous Chinese in the Herbarium who would “cure you of plant blindness,” as Dr Ong described his infectious love of plants. He explained that Co and his friend Lagunzad could make you appreciate all the plants in the vicinity, even those you would ordinarily not notice.

Leonard Co’s love for plants, teaching and sense of fun and wonderment led him to explore various parts of the country, often with his best buddy, plant ecologist Dan Lagunzad, who died of cancer a day after Co was killed in the Kananga forest, said Dr. Ong. It is because of these deaths that he described 2010 as “a bad year for Philippine botany.” He noted that Leonard Co and Lagunzad had explored, studied and co-written books on plants from the Palaui Island of Cagayan in the north to Mt. Apo in Davao, Cotabato in the south.

Leonard Co joined many organizations at UP and helped build new organizations when he left his formal studies in UP to pursue research and community work, according to the Justice for Leonard Co Movement. Among the organizations Co helped form were the Baguio City-based Community Health, Education, Services and Training (Chestcore) in 1981 and the Philippine Native Plant Conservation Society (PNPCSI) in 2008.

These two organizations both shared Leonard Co’s output to the public this month, as their way of honoring Co and contributing in the “struggle against forgetting.” Chestcore re-launched one of Co’s publications about medicinal plants; PNPCSI uploaded Co’s digital library of field photography of some 10,000 plant species found in the Philippines.

It was while working at a non-government health organization as an herbalist and acupuncturist in 1987 that Co met the woman who would be his wife, their office administrator, Glenda Flores. He also worked with Dr. Eleanor Jara, now the executive director of Council for Health and Democracy. Dr Jara stood as one of the sponsors in the couple’s wedding in 1990.

At the recent tribute for Co by the UP Institute of Biology, Dr Jara spoke of Co’s generosity.

At work in the Acupuncture Therapeutic and Research Center, Dr Jara noted that Co was a true-blue workaholic. “He read and translated a Chinese book on medicinal herbs until late at night,” said Jara. Co’s translations apparently went beyond the usual; he searched for local alternatives for Chinese medicinal plants, so that in the end he produced a Philippine Pharmacopeia in Medicinal Herbs, said Dr. Jara. She noted that Co’s scholarship was very practical: “he himself gathered plant samples and preserved it.”

In the “Manual on Some Philippine Medicinal Plants” compiled and translated by the UP Botanical Society’s Ad Hoc Committee on Medicinal Plants led by Leonard Co in 1977, they struggled to help correct the “miseducation of our people by foreign colonial powers” which they blamed for “the overemphasis on the wonders of Western medicine, to the discredit of the herbal practices.”

They recognized as early as the 70s that “western medicines are too expensive for most Filipinos” and that the “toiling masses of our people have never been properly taken care of by the western medical technology.”

In introducing the thick manual which identified by scientific and common names some medicinal plants found in the Philippines, its pharmacological effects, suggested dosage and preparation, the committee headed by Co said they initiated its publication in 1977 to help in increasing further the “systematic studies on herbal practices and Philippine medicinal plants,” in line with its goals “to undertake and participate in intellectual, cultural and social activities for the advancement of Botany for the welfare of the students of the university and the nation as a whole.”

Co with his students in a field research (Photo by Anthony Arbias /

Such generosity with the results of his industrious inquiry into plants cropped up in many people’s tribute to Leonard, or Sir Leonard, as they often call him.

“He was very generous as a mentor. When we asked him about his references, he soon gave us his two-gigabyte worth of digital herbarium, which he produced himself,” said a former student of Co at a tribute for him sponsored by the Institute of Biology last Tuesday. She is now taking up medicine.

At the time she was taking up Co’s subject of Field Botany, she noted that the two-gigabyte worth of data were not that easy to lug around as today. This medicine student also paid homage to Co’s humility. “He was very down-to-earth, we only learned of how big-time he was (in terms of accomplishments) when people were giving their recollections of him last year.”

No government interest, no justice still

“It has been a year since he died but until now nothing’s still happening in the search for justice for their deaths,” Anthony Arbias, now the president of PNPCSI, told at the opening of the photo exhibit remembering Leonard Co. “Those who should have been interested in resolving the case are still not interested,” he said.

Arbias has known Leonard Co for a long time, but three years ago, he said, his knowledge about Co “accelerated.”

“I realized then, why am I not taking photos of him, too?” The two often went out to field work. Arbias said he thought he should also start taking photos not only of the plants but of how Leonard Co behaved with these plants.

Leonard Co himself had been an excellent plant photographer, said Arbias. Co was always carrying around his camera and his laptop. In doing field photography and plant taxonomy (identifying plants), he would tell Arbias that “there’s a greater need to immortalize the plants.”

An example of Leonard Co’s plant photography (Photo by Leonard Co /

That dedication shows at the Leonard Co digital flora library, which, Arbias said, is the most comprehensive in the country.

About 90-percent of conversations with Co were usually about plants, Arbias said, even their life-stories. Asked if they do not get fed up with plants, since their work and talks are all about it, Arbias replied that you will never really tire of studying plants. The Philippines has 14,000 known plant species. Just the flowering trees number more than 3,500. Studying and taking photos of them with all their parts and characteristics will never bore you, because they change from the last time you watched them, he said. They may be shedding leaves the last time we looked at them, or bearing fruits, or flowering, said Arbias.
He admitted that Leonard Co’s death at the hands of the military while he was working had caused ripples of fear in the “industry.”

“If the best botanist in the Philippines can be killed just like that, how much more (lesser) others like us?” he asked. Even the best from abroad, when they come to the Philippines, would be referred to Leonard Co when it comes to Philippine botanical studies, he said.

Arbias ascribed to Co’s passion for the study and sharing of knowledge of Philippine botany the many students who were inspired to take up plant ecology. “Co’s teachings inspired and helped many,” Arbias told

Both Dr. Perry Ong and Anthony Arbias have many anecdotes about Co’s selflessness when it comes to studying Philippine botany. Ong said Co had started and continued field research even when they had no budget for such. In their study of plant ecology in Palanan, Isabela, for example, they started with no budget, and so, at first, they worked at night in the field with just candlelight. With some budget years later, Ong said, they managed to have a generator and thus, better lighting and use of better gadgets.

With his passion and “encyclopaedic memory” about plants, Leonard could mesmerize you with his explanations about plants, said Arbias. He showed the gathered friends, family and colleagues some pictures of Co while teaching some evidently mesmerized audience in the field.

Once, in Sablayan, Mindoro, Arbias recalled a time when Co suddenly asked their driver to stop and pull over. He got off and walked to the middle of a marshland, under the blazing hot sun, looking for a very rare grass. When he found some, he excitedly asked his colleagues to enjoy themselves by looking at it.

At a trek to Mt. Kitanglad, Co almost died of hypothermia, Arbias recalled. They had to burn down even their field notes to make a fire. Their guide, who is from an indigenous group, “sacrificed his slippers,” which burned long and, with three of them hugging Co, helped warm up the then violently shivering botanist. By next morning, after they had joined up with the rest of the crew and gathered their things, such as dry clothes, Leonard was the same man prone to cursing at some things but still as loving and passionate with plants, said Arbias.
Typhoon Juaning trapped Leonard Co in the forest of Palanan, Arbias also recalled. Its destruction of the forest had saddened Leonard, he said, but Leonard also reportedly noted that despite the lashing winds and rains, the forest continued to bloom with flowers in profusion of colors.

“I hope we won’t get tired of pursuing justice,” said Jara. “I hope we won’t stop campaigning for justice for Leonard Co and for the rest of other military and state victims like him who are still denied justice up to this day,” said Jara in Filipino at UP’s tribute to Co. Jara appealed to friends, relatives and supporters of Leonard to turn their sadness in aid of the quest for justice and in continuing Leonard’s use of science in the service of the people. (

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  1. Healthcare practices categorized as alternative may differ in their historical origin, theoretical basis, diagnostic technique, therapeutic practice and in their relationship to the medical mainstream.

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