Panagbenga Festival | The Unknown Heroes Behind the Blooms
“I am just a farmer”, Jeffrey muses as he handed me a bouquet of freshly cut roses. At first glance, you couldn’t tell that this man in his muddy farm boots & buri hat is actually a multi-awarded landscape artist in the Panagbenga Festival.
I adore flowers because of its alluring language. It arouses feelings & thoughts unexpressed by words. It is a paradox of simple deeds & intricate creations, of clear intents & mystical charm.
And this love for flowers is nowhere perfectly felt than being in Baguio City during the Panagbenga Festival. It is the time of the year when Cordillera celebrates its bounty of blossoms & the everlasting efflorescence of hope & wealth.
Panagbenga Festival, uniquely Cordillera
There is so much to love about the Panagbenga Festival. For five weeks, the city runs in frenzy. From cultural & culinary shows to parties & expositions, everything & everyone goes on beauty & madness.
I have witnessed this merrymaking a few times in the past. And in each time I came, the marvelous imaginations & handiworks of its artists always captivated me.
This year, I made it a mission to see beyond what meets the eye—to know some of the nameless heroes behind Panagbenga Festival.
The Flower Farmers
Going past the strawberry fields of La Trinidad & up on the winding pass of Bahong hides a mountain of flowers. There I met Jeffrey Visaya, one of the flower growers sought for many things Panagbenga.
I was blessed to be there on a bright morning, just before Jeffrey’s fresh cuts landed on the festival streets of Baguio. “This is just a garden & not a farm”, he chuckled as we weaved around the maze of misty roses.
With only 2,000 square meters of land, he lamented that he couldn’t grow as much as he desires. “You see, this is just a patch & can only produce a few of the millions of flowers needed for the festival.” Bahong only contributes about 10% & the rest comes from other parts of Cordillera like Atok, Lamtang, Ambiong & Alno.
I followed him as he ascended the blossoming terraces reminiscing his days as a young boy learning the skills of horticulture from his father.
Bahong used to be a ricefield in the time of his ancestors. In the 60s, much of its land was converted into a vegetable farm. Then in the 80s, cut flower began to take over the vast panorama on this side of La Trinidad.
Jeffrey, like many of the growers around acquired the skill from real-life practice & institutional trainings. He started with cut flowers in 1984 & now cultivates ornamental plants to diversify his produce.
Another hour of daylight & the temperature began to rise. He ushered me to his secret garden as I gaited on the paddy smelling the sweet scent of roses.
Just when I thought that I already had the best view, his hilltop garden is even more seductive. Well-manicured plants surround it, perhaps the loveliest I have been to in Benguet.
“A bundle of roses is not even a hundred pesos yet we struggle everyday with all sorts of challenges to produce the loveliest blooms”, sighs Jeffrey. His hands are calloused & his skin is burned but I could feel the firey passion.
Sitting on a bright prairie bed, I surely didn’t want to leave. But I had to bade him goodbye as there were more to explore.
The Float Makers
The grand float parade is always the festival’s biggest crowd-drawer. As early as dawn, people line up the streets just to secure the perfect spot. But do you ever wonder how these huge moving floral art pieces are pulled off all together in one spectacle?
My quest led me to the workshop of King Louis, one of the best float makers since Panagbenga started in 1996.
Francis Gener & his team were drowning in flowers & mammoth structures when I arrived. With coffee in one hand & flowers on the other, he waived at me to come in. “Sorry for the mess, but I’ll find a space for us to talk.”
If messy means being in a sea of flowers & crisp scents of the freshest blooms, then I don’t mind all these shambolic prettiness!
King Louis, along with Baguio Country Club & SM are Hall of Fame awardees. Although they cannot anymore join the competition, their works are still the most awaited entries in the parade.
“Making a float is like leading an orchestra. I am the conductor, orchestrating a team of designers, florists, carpenters, welders & artists to serenade you with a beautiful masterpiece.”
Francis, Bulaceno by birth but Cordilleran by heart, has been with the Puyat Farm for more than 40 years. He began as a plant propagator at 17 then worked around its different agri businesses. He rose from the ranks & now fully manages King Louis.
The preparation of the float comes as early as 6 months before the Panagbenga Festival. It begins with ideation, design approval & preparing the planting materials.
Francis shared that precise timing is very important, “we are working with fragile materials & we can’t afford to miss every detail, otherwise we will be in big trouble”.
A big float normally takes 2 weeks to mount. The biggest task is fabricating the frame & arranging all the steelwork details. But the most crucial part is when the flowers are loaded into the float. One by one they are stuck to the floral foam or glued on the mold.
Big floats use about 6,000 buds & 800 flowering potted plants. Add the kilos of grass, moss & woven leaves & what you have is a ton of work! Clients spend at least P600,000 for each showpiece & it could even rake to a million if moving mechanisms & other special effects are added.
I really wanted to linger much longer but everyone was already terribly busy. “See you at the parade”, Francis winked, leaving him & his team with a heart full of excitement.
The day of the parade finally came. One by one, the floats rolled down the streets of Baguio as the audience scrambled to take the best snaps.
Each one floated in the blossoming romance of yellow marigolds & sunflowers, pink daisies & azaleas. It was passionately fired in red roses, liliums & gerberas. Cheers were muted by the purity of petunias, hydrangeas & daffodils.
As I watched them pass by, it made me remember Jeffrey, Francis & the many other unseen hands that put all the magic together. I can’t help but be awed by the masterpieces labored by the all the farmers & artists who toiled day & night for a half-day spectacle.
Oh, Panagbenga Festival, I’m seduced!
Know Your North | Blog Series
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