2011 International Year of the forest – the trees of our local forests

This post is also available in: Dutch.

After 17 articles in the series on local forests, in which several tree species were specifically mentioned, it seemed a nice ending of this series to devote some articles to specific plants and trees on the island. From the striking and familiar to the inconspicuous and largely unknown.

A bananaquit sitting on a Palu Santu. The heart shaped leafs can be seen clearly.

The Palu Santu – Seaside mahoe (Thespesia populnea)

The Palu Santu is a well known ‘beach’ tree. A loyal visitor of Daaibooibaai or former Hook’s Hut has consciously or unconsciously taken a good look at this tree. The tree can become quite large and has large dark green leaves that have a distinctive heart shape. With the dense foliage the tree produces welcome shade to beach visitors. The relatively large pale yellow flowers with deep purple interior are a striking sight and the fruits are also quite characteristic. These look like a sort of round, brown tubers. The plants can tolerate salt water and grows well near the coast. Anyone who has a house on the coast and has trouble finding local plants for the garden that can tolerate the salty air, will find in this tree an ideal plant. If you find a small plant of this species that has just germinated on the beach, then you can easily dig it up and take it home in a cup for further cultivating in a pot. The seeds themselves are also easy to grow.
In South America the wood of the tree is used for making furniture, despite the fact that the tree produces relatively little wood. The color of the wood is pink. The bark of the tree is very fibrous and seems to have been used to make ropes as well. It is unknown whether that was the case in Curaçao.

The Watapana shimaron with flowers

The Watapana Shimaron – Redwood (Acacia glauca)

The Watapana shimaron looks so much like the real Watapana, also known as Dividivi, that the plant received virtually the same name with the addition ‘shimaron’ to indicate that it is not the same plant. The watapana shimaron remains relatively small and, like the Dividivi, has feathered leaves. Another name for this type of leaf is compound leaves. In fact it is a leaf consisting of a large number of small sub-leaves that are arranged like a feather. A beautiful adaptation to the difficult climate, where lots of sun and heat would soon dry out or burn a large, continuous leaf. You’ll even see that the plant ‘closes’ its leafs on very hot moments. This plant will not grow much bigger than a shrub. The flowers are white-yellow in color and are grouped together in fluffy spheres. The spheres are grouped together in bunches. The most recognizable of the plant is the reddish-brown color of the twigs. The flat seeds are also reddish brown in color once they are dry. Because of the beautiful flowers and colorful seeds  this plant is an asset to the garden. With a little extra water the flowering time can be stretched pretty long.

The shiny, cream-colored fruits of Karawara.

The Karawara di mondi – Clammy cherry (Cordia dentata)

Few people consider this tree to be valuable and in many gardens they are removed. That’s a shame when you consider that this tree is extremely drought resistant and will thrive in windy areas. In the book by Frater Arnoldo Broeders, entitled ‘Guide to the use of indigenous and imported plants and trees in Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire’ from 1967, he already noted that this tree is well suited for the replanting of barren, deforested land because of its drought resistance and also the fact that it grows on all soil types. In gardens where the tree gets a little extra water it will stay green practically all year round and will get flowers several times a year, in cream-colored clusters. The large dark green leaves are coarse to the touch and can cause itching.

The fruits, round, glossy cream-colored berries with slimy, sticky and sweet flesh, are edible. In the past they were often thrown in water to freshen up its taste. According to Arnoldo, overeating the fruit has a slightly intoxicating effect, a fact that seems to be confirmed by my personal observation that Bare-eyed Pigeons, which tend to feast on these fruits a little too enthusiastic, generally move somewhat unstable afterwards. The juices of the fruit reportedly have been used on other islands for the sealing of cigars. Even today the slimy flesh is used locally by people with a ‘rasta’ look. The hair tangles better because of it and it seems to fend of insects.

It’s a ‘grateful’ tree in the sense that it grows quickly and will get a full crown of leaves with regular pruning. In no time the tree will transform into an entire biological system in itself and will be packed with all kinds of animals. Badjagas or large red ants with black heads sometimes cultivate a fungus garden on the leaves, that is regularly maintained. The fungus acts as food for the ants. These ants are in turn a welcome addition to the diet of Kaku’s (anoles). These are small tree lizards that wave their brightly colored dewlap when they feel that their territory is threatened.
The flowers of the tree are visited by bees and many species of butterflies. The slimy fruits are not only eaten by birds, but are also a treat for bats at night. They will use a circular movements to pull the fruit off the twig. Because of the stickiness the animals will rest in the vicinity in order to clean their mouths. At those spots you’ll often find some piles of bat poo, with or without Karawara seeds.

I would like to finish with a call for action. These trees are just a few of the variety of local trees that do well in the garden. The benefits of planting local trees are legion: little or no maintenance, and they are important links in the local ecology. Even easier is to let the naturally emerging shoots (eg from seeds from the bat poo) do whatever they want. Give your garden and nature a hand. Give local trees a chance!

About Michelle da Costa Gomez