Plant Life

Wet Forests

Puerto Rico was almost entirely clad in a thick, verdant forest 500 K^td years ago. Settlement, agriculture and industry felled most of it, and although reforestation efforts since the 1970s have restored about 40% of tree cover to the island, only 1% of virgin forest remains (most ofit in El Yunque). The wet forests are categorized into distinct zones, and all are crawling with rich vegetation and animal life. At its highest elevation the dwarf, or cloud, forest is usually bathed in mist, with gnarled trees stunted by the strong winds. Below this is rain forest with palm and hardwood trees tangled in ferns and vines. The only officially designated rain forest is El Yunque, although you will notice many of the same species throughout the mountainous interior. At lower elevations, subtropical wet forest, lower wet forest and subtropical moist forest climates cover most of Puerto Rico.

Tropical Dry Forests

Found mainly on the South Coast and on offshore cays and islands, Puerto Rico has some of the finest examples of tropical dry forest in the world. With rainfall as little as 20 inches a year, these areas are characterized by a tangle of leathery trees and dusty vegetation, tall cactus spears and desert blooms. It's a rare and complex ecosystem. The 1,640-acre UN Biosphere Reserve at Guanica has more than 700 species of plants (48 endangered and 16 endemic), and attracts botanists, ornithologists and nature-lovers from all corners of the globe. With impenetrable nesting cover, more than half the bird species in Puerto Rico are found in the island's dry forests, which crawl with land crabs, toads, lizards and about 1,000 species of insect.

RECOMMENDED READING: HerbertRaffaele's illustrated Guide to the Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is a valuable resource.

Mangroves

Mangroves are a diverse group of salt-tolerant shrubs that grow along coastal tropical and sub-tropical zones, forming numerous narrow canals and channels that create a protective barrier against tropical wind and waves. Tangled knots of red, black, white and buttonwood mangroves snake their way across 22,971 acres of Puerto Rican coast, sheltering numerous migratory birds, shallow-water amphibians and fish. They are perfect spawning grounds for many species, and during hurricanes islanders stash their boats in the protective network of narrow mangrove canals and channels. Marine, animal and bird species ride out storms there, too, and ecologically mangroves are an essential barrier protecting the land mass from erosion. Despite the importance of mangrove estuaries, however, they often fall victim to developers in constant search of new coastal property to urbanize. The largest mangrove system on the island is in Piñones, just east of San Juan, and some of the prettiest and most user-friendly are on the south coast at the Parguera and Aguirre reserves. All are perfect for exploration by kayak.

Trees

More than 700 tree species take root in Puerto Rico, of which about 550 are indigenous to the island. El Yunque is, of course, a star attraction, with giant tree ferns and palms interwoven with the vermilion blooms of African violets and rainbow colors of orchids. On lower trails, cecropia trees form tunnels under a canopy of silvery-bottomed leaves. This is one of the fastest-growing species in the forest, quickly filling bald patches left behind by tropical storms and hurricanes. The majestic tabonuco flourishes on the "big tree trail" of El Yunque and is distinguished by the sticky, pungent white sap that oozes from its bark. Around the island, you are bound to come across the giant ceiba tree, which grows to hundreds of years in age and is characterized by elephantine roots that surround its base like a pile of distended legs. Another ancient is the extremely rare guayacán, which has wood so dense that it sinks in water; in the past its wood was used as currency. Its extract, guayacol, was once considered an effective remedy for cholera. Another tree recognized for its healing properties is the campeche, whose sap contains the active ingredient haematoxylin, used in treating dysentery.

A wide variety of fruit-bearing trees flourishes on the island, including the papaya, breadfruit and plantain. Between coconut palms along the beaches, you'll often see almond trees. The national tree of Puerto Rico, however, is the stunning flamboyan. The most common is the red-flowered variety, which can be found island-wide. When it drops its petals during summer months, whole stretches of highway become carpeted in flaming petals. Flamboyan trees with yellow or blue blossoms are more rare, and have a shorter flowering season.

DID YOU KNOW! Puerto Ricans say that when there are many avocados on the trees, the island will be safe from destructive hurricanes for another year.

Fruit

Puerto Rico has an abundance of fruit and vegetables - some easily recognizable, others strange and unfamiliar. Depending on the time of year you visit there will always be something in season, often being sold for a pittance on the roadside. In May, grapefruit season is followed by the ripening of mangos, which pile up in great yellow heaps along the roadsides from June to the end of August. Larger, purple-tinged mangos ripen later and are less stringy than their smaller yellow cousins. Avocados come into season in late August, as do breadfruit - introduced to the island as cheap food for slave workers. The breadfruit tree has broad leaves yielding large, knobby, green fruit, which is used like plantain or potatoes in cooking. In summertime, fruit sellers line the roads with bunches of quenepas. Crack the hard green outer shell with your teeth to get to the slimy, ivory- colored flesh (it tends to stick to the roof of your mouth, and is an acquired taste). Quenepas are curiously addictive, however. Another common snack is the uva caleta, or sea grape, named for its purple skin and mildly sweet white flesh. Plantains are the staple fruit of the Puerto Rican diet (fried or baked), but look for the tiny banana known as the manzano - the sweetest variety on the island. Coconut palms and almond trees are both laden with fruit for several months beginning in late September.

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Responses

  • osman massawa
    What plants grow in puerto rico?
    22 days ago

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