Mangrove (Spanish: Mangal)
To botanists, a “mangrove” is a plant and a “mangal” is a plant community and habitat where mangroves thrive. Mangals are found in tropical tidal areas such as lagoons and estuaries. About 110 different mangrove plant species have been identified as part of mangals, and each has had to overcome the problems of high salinity, intense sunlight, frequent flooding and lack of oxygen in the root zone in order to survive.
Some of the mangrove plants have adapted to the flooding and lack of oxygen by propping themselves up above the water level with stilt roots. They then can take air in through pores in their bark. Other mangrove plants make breathing tubes that stick up out of the soil like straws and draw in air. One adaptation to cope with the high salt level is to have rather impermeable roots which act as ultra-filtration devices. These devices can filter out over 90% of the salt. Other plants have salt glands at the base of each leaf which can directly secrete salt. Another adaptation is to store salt in old leaves which are then shed.
Mangroves also have special tricks to help their offspring survive. All have buoyant seeds that can float, but many mangrove plants are viviparous; their seeds germinate while attached to the parent plant. The baby plants grow there until they can photosynthesize and then drop off and float away. These propagules can survive drying and remain dormant for months or more until they arrive at a suitable environment. Once there, the plant changes its density so it floats vertically rather than horizontally and its roots are more likely to lodge into the mud and take hold. If it does not root, the propagule can reverse its density so it floats flat in the water and journeys off again in search of more favorable conditions.
Mangals protect the coast from erosion, surge storms and hurricanes through their massive root systems that dissipate wave energy and slow tidal flows. The mesh of their roots forms a quiet marine region for many young organisms: oysters, barnacles, crabs, shrimps, fish and other crustaceans. They are key nursery habitat for many species of marine life and support many kinds of shore birds. Dredging for coastal development has destroyed many mangals, but the United Nations Environmental Program has estimated that a quarter of the destruction of mangrove forests stems from shrimp farming.
The lagoon at Barra de Potosi is ringed by a rich mangal and you should consider taking an early morning kayak paddle or boat tour to see this special environment.
Palms (family Arecaceae or Palmae; Spanish; Palma)
There are roughly 2600 species in the family Arecaceae or Palmae, most of which are restricted to tropical or subtropical climates. The majority of palms are distinguished by their large, compound, evergreen leaves arranged at the top of an unbranched stem. However, there are many exceptions and palms exhibit an enormous diversity in physical characteristics. As well as being morphologically diverse, palms also inhabit nearly every type of environment within their range, from rainforests to deserts.
Human use of palms is as old as or older than human civilization itself, starting with the cultivation of the date palm by Mesopotamians and other Middle Eastern peoples 5000 years or more ago. An indication of the importance of palms is that they are mentioned more than 30 times in the Bible and at least 22 times in the Quran. Today palms are important agricultural plants yielding coconut products, oils, dates, ivory nuts, carnauba wax, rattan cane, and raffia.
Like many other plants, palms have been threatened by human intervention and exploitation. The greatest risk to palms is destruction of habitat- especially in the tropical forests- due to urbanization, wood-chipping, mining, and conversion to farmland. Palms rarely reproduce after such great changes in the habitat, and palms with a small habitat range are extremely vulnerable. The harvesting of heart of palm, a delicacy in salads, also poses a threat because it comes from the inner core of the tree and harvesting it kills the tree. The use of rattan palms in furniture has caused a major population decrease in some species resulting in a negative impact on local and international markets as well as a decline in biodiversity in the area. The sale of seeds to nurseries and collectors is another threat since the seeds of popular palms are sometimes harvested directly from the wild. At least 100 palm species are currently endangered, and nine species have reportedly recently become extinct. The rarest palm known is the Hyophorbe amaricaulis; the only living individual that remains is at the Botanic Gardens of Curepipe in Mauritius. The threat to palms is complicated by the fact that several factors make palm conservation more difficult. Most palm seeds lose viability quickly, and they cannot be preserved in low temperatures because the cold kills the embryo. Using botanical gardens for conservation also presents problems, since they can only house a few plants of any species. There is also the risk of cross-pollination which leads to hybridization and loss of the original species.
In addition to coco palms which are discussed below, two common palms in this area are the Christmas Palm (Adonidia merrillii), known locally as Palma Kerpis and Palma Redondo, the palapa palm. The Christmas palm is a slender palm reaching 20 to 30 feet,used ornamentally. The common name derives from the crimson red fruit sprouting from its white floral bract. The palapa palm, not the coco palm, is the tree used for thatching roofs. It is a low growing palm, maybe six feet high, topped with meter long leaves each ending in a fan shaped spray.
Coco Palm (Cocos nucifera; Spanish: Coco)
The origins of this plant are the subject of controversy, with most authorities claiming it is native to South Asia (particularly the Ganges Delta), while others claim its origin is in northwestern South America. Fossil records from New Zealand indicate that small, coconut-like plants grew there as long as 15 million years ago. Even older fossils have been uncovered in India. Regardless of its origin, the coconut has spread across much of the tropics, probably aided in many cases by sea-faring peoples. The fruit is light and buoyant and also presumably spread significant distances by marine currents. Fruits collected from the sea as far north as Norway have been found to be viable and cocos are now ubiquitous to most of the planet between 26ºN and 26ºS.
The coconut palm thrives on sandy soils and is highly tolerant of salt. It prefers areas with abundant sunlight and regular rainfall and needs high humidity (70–80%+) for optimum growth, which is why they are rarely seen in areas with low humidity, like the Mediterranean, even where temperatures are high enough. Given the conditions at Playa Blanca, it is little wonder that the area is lined with coco plantations.
A coco palm can live as long as 100 years producing an annual yield of 50 to 100 coconuts. Coir is the fibrous husk of the coconut shell and it is used in floor and outdoor mats, aquarium filters, cordage and rope, and garden mulch. Copra is the meat of the coconut; and in shredded form, it is probably the most familiar form to those who do not live in the tropics. It is an oil-rich pulp with a very light, slightly sweet and nutty flavor. The most popular use of coconuts in this area is to drink the water from a chilled coco. Coconut water and coconut milk are not the same thing. The lightly flavored liquid inside a coconut is called water and is typically drunk straight from the coconut for a very refreshing and nutritious drink. It loses nutritional value quickly and will begin to ferment once removed from the shell. Coconut milk is made from shredded or grated coconut pulp mixed with hot water to extract the oils and flavors. It then is used in cooking and as a replacement for cow's milk.
Indonesia is the world leader in coconut production followed closely by the exponentially increasing product of the Philippines. Mexico ranks seventh with 959,000 metric tons in 2005.
Mango (genus Mangifera; Spanish: Mango)
Mangoes are thought to have originated in South East Asia. They have been cultivated in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years and grown in East Asia since between the 5th-4th century BC. By the 10th century AD, they were transported to East Africa and then into the Americas. There are over 1000 varieties and mangoes make up almost half of all tropical fruits grown worldwide. Mexico produces 1.5 million tons per year.
The trees reach as high as 40 meters although the ones in orchards are usually trimmed to ease in harvesting the fruit. The flowers are small and white with five pedals. After the flowers finish, the fruit takes from three to six months to ripen. Spring through summer is the prime season for fresh mangoes in Mexico.
There are a number of health benefits claimed for mangoes. They are rich in dietary fiber and very high in antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, comprising 25%, 76% and 9% respectively of Dietary Reference Intake for these vitamins in a 165 g serving. Cuban doctors have isolated an extract of mango bark with antioxidant properties on blood parameters of elderly humans and the Muslim world has recognized mango as a possible supplement for sexual potency.
For eating, the fresh fruit is often sliced in three lengthwise pieces; the seed in the middle and two side slices. The side slices are then scored from the inside down to the skin in a cross hatch pattern. When the skin is pushed out, the square pieces of mango pop up in what we call the “hedgehog” cut.
Papaya (Carica papaya; Spanish: Papaya)
The papaya was cultivated in Mexico even prior before the emergence of the Mayan and Aztec cultures. It grows as a tree-like plant with a single stem reaching from 5 to 10 meters tall. The leaves are large, 50-70 cm in diameter and divided into seven deep lobes. The green fruit and the tree’s latex are both rich in an enzyme called papain, which is useful in tenderizing meat. Its ability to break down tough meat fibers was utilized for thousands of years by indigenous Americans and is included as a component in powdered meat tenderizers today. Besides being a delicious fresh fruit, it has a variety of medicinal uses. Papain is marketed in tablet form to remedy digestive problems and fermented papaya flesh is used as an ointment for cuts, rashes, stings and burns. Harrison Ford was treated for a ruptured disc incurred during the filming of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” by having papain injected into his back. Women in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other parts of the word have long used papaya as a folk remedy for contraception and abortion, and medical research with animals has supported these capacities.
Tropical Almond (Almendros terminalia catappa; Spanish: Almendro)
This is a large, deciduous tree recognized by its stiff, horizontal limbs and huge – 9 inch- spoon shaped leaves set in rosettes at the tips of stubby twigs. The branches are always in pairs and usually nearly equal in length. Twice a year, in early spring and late summer, the tree suddenly sheds all its leaves and then sprouts thousands of greenish white star-shaped flowers. These then form elliptic flattened edible fleshy fruit that draws fuit bats at night.
Earpod Tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpum; Spanish: Parota)
These are the local giants - immense stocky trunk radiating surface roots, heavy limbed horizontal canopy, ferny foliage with up to 24 paired leaflets on each leaf. The fruit is the earpod- a flat donut up to four inches across that is used as fodder and then hardens into a black woody disk. Artisans polish the mature fruits for sale. Young fruit and leaves are used for animal feed. Seeds are eaten roasted. The mature hard wood is highly prized for its water and termite resistance and is widely used in furniture. But because of over exploitation, the trees are now protected and only certified wood can be legally used for any purpose. On the road to Los Achotes, near the cemetery, there is a parota that bears the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on its trunk. Look for the small shrine built around its base.
Poinciana (Delonix regia; Spanish: Tabachin)
This decorative flowering tree originated in Madagascar, but has spread throughout the tropics. It has a spreading canopy, wider than tall and it stands naked during the dry season dangling only long, dark sabre-like seed pods. With the first rains, it explodes into flamboyant vivid red or orange blooms.
Tamarind (Tamarindos indica; Spanish: Tamarino)
Slow-growing but hardy enough to endure hurricanes, droughts and fires, the tamarind tree likely originated in tropical Africa. It can reach 80 feet in height and is recognized by the 4 inch long leaf clusters each with 10-18 small leaflets paired opposite one another on the stem, giving the leaves a fern-like appearance. The leaves are bluish green on top, paler green below. The tree produces showy, fragrant, pale-yellow blossoms tinged or spotted with scarlet. The fruit is a legume; like a bean pod and the pulp of the fruit contains sucrose and acetic, tartaric and citric acids. It is rich in Vitamins C and B complex as well as minerals and has long been used medicinally. It forms the flavor base for English Worcester Sauce and is commonly used in Mexico in many candies and sweets. A number of fine specimens are growing on the properties just north of the enramadas at Barra de Potosi.
Ficus/Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina; Spanish: Ficus)
This potentially large—up to 262 feet high—evergreen foliage tree originating in Australia or Southeast Asia is now used as a shade tree in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world; including in many of the town squares in Mexican villages. The leaves are 4 by 2 inch ovals; bright green and very glossy. The flowers are inconspicuous as are the small berry-like fruit. It is very commonly planted in yards along Playa Blanca.
Cashew (Anacardium occidentale; Anacardium curatellifolium; Spanish: Nuez de India)
This small evergreen tree; growing to 10-12m (~32 ft) tall, with a short, often irregularly-shaped trunk; is native to northeastern Brazil. It is now widely grown in tropical climates and is common around Playa Blanca. You can see several at the Frida Kahlo School in Barra de Potosi. The leaves are spirally arranged, leathery textured, elliptic to obovate, 4 to 22 cm long and 2 to 15 cm broad, with a smooth margin. When in fruit, the trees are easy to recognize from their fruit.
What appears to be the fruit of the cashew tree is an oval or pear-shaped accessory fruit or false fruit that develops from the receptacle of the cashew flower. Called the cashew apple, better known in Central America as "marañón", it ripens into a yellow and/or red structure about 5–11 cm long. It is edible, and has a strong "sweet" smell and a sweet taste. The pulp of the cashew apple is very juicy, but the skin is fragile, making it unsuitable for transport. It is often used as a flavor in agua fresca.
The true fruit of the cashew tree is a kidney or boxing-glove shaped drupe that grows at the end of the pseudofruit. Actually, the drupe develops first on the tree, and then the peduncle expands into the pseudofruit. Within the true fruit is a single seed, the cashew nut. Although a nut in the culinary sense, in the botanical sense, the fruit of the cashew is a seed. The seed is surrounded by a double shell containing a dermatogenic phenolic resin, urushiol, a potent skin irritant toxin also found in the related poison ivy. Some people are allergic to cashew nuts, but cashews are a less frequent allergen than nuts or peanuts.
Originally spread from Brazil by the Portuguese, the cashew tree is now cultivated in all regions with a sufficiently warm and humid climate. Although it has a low yield, it is produced in around 32 countries of the world. The major raw cashew producing countries are Vietnam, Nigeria, India and Brazil who together account for more than 90% of all cashew kernel export.
Anacardic acids found in cashews have been used effectively against tooth abcesses due to their lethality to gram-positive bacteria. They are also active against a wide range of other gram-positive bacteria. Many parts of the plant are used by the Patamona of Guyana medicinally. The bark is scraped and soaked overnight or boiled as an antidiarrheal. Seeds are ground up into powders used for antivenom for snake bites. The nut oil is used topically as an antifungal and for healing cracked heels.
Kapok (Ceiba pengtandra; Spanish: Ceiba, Pochote)
Unmistakable, this sometimes gigantic tree has a trunk and limbs covered by cone-shaped spines. It can stretch up to 230 feet high with a towering layered canopy all buttressed by immense roots. The leaves are palm-shaped, 8 x 1.5 inches and bright green. The flowers are small and give off a milky odor that attracts night pollinating bats. After pollination, the flowers give way to large, boat-shaped pods up to 8 inches long. These are filled with kapok, the silky hairs used to fill pillows and cushions. It is also important in honey production.
Sea Grape Tree (Coccoloba uvifera; Spanish: Uva de Mar)
This tree is ubiquitous along the coastlines of tropical America. It can grow up to 49 feet tall and has a trunk of smooth pale grey bark that flakes to reveal cream and salmon patches. The leaves are round thick platters spanning up to 8 inches. The flowers are small, white and fragrant leading to clusters of green to reddish purple fruit hanging in bunches a foot or more long. Bees love the flowers and the fruit are enjoyed by many species, including locals who eat them fresh and make them into drinks and jellies. In this area, the Sea Grape Tree typically grows in fringe areas in a roundish shape with its canopy low to the ground.
Golden Trumpet or Copa de Oro (Allamanda carthartica; Spanish: Copa de Oro)
This shrubby climber is one of the most commonly cultivated summer bloomers in the area. Its vivid yellow flowers are trumpet-shaped, fragrant and 3-5 inches wide. The leaves are elliptic, 4-5 inches long and glossy.
Bougainvilla (genus Bougainvillea of the family Nyctaginaceae; Spanish: Bougainvilla)
With their stunning colors, these thorny, woody vines are almost a signature plant for Mexico. The name comes from Louis Antoine de Bougainville, an admiral in the French Navy who encountered the plant in Brazil in 1768 and first described it to Europeans. Admiral Bougainville was the first Frenchman to sail round the World.
They grow anywhere from 1-12 meters tall, scrambling over other plants with their hooked thorns. The thorns are tipped with a black, waxy substance that is easily left in the flesh of an unsuspecting victim. They are evergreen where rainfall occurs all year, or often deciduous if there is a dry season. The actual flower of the plant is small and generally white, but each cluster of three flowers is surrounded by three or six bracts with the bright colors associated with the plant, including shocking pink, magenta, purple, red, orange, white, or yellow. Bougainvillea glabra is sometimes referred to as "paper flower" because the bracts are thin and papery. Single and double flower forms are available. Double forms tend to carry their blooms near the end of the stems rather than distributing them evenly over the plant. The bloom cycles are typically four to six weeks. Bougainvillea generally blooms on new growth.
Plumeria or Frangipani (Plumeria; Spanish: Flor de Mayo)
Plumeria is a small genus of 7-8 species of mainly deciduous shrubs and trees native to Mexico, Central America, and Venezuela that produces flowers ranging from yellow to pink depending on form or cultivar. From Mexico and Central America, Plumeria has spread to all tropical areas of the world, especially Hawaii, where it is used for leis and grows so abundantly that many people think that it is endemic to there.
Plumeria is related to the Oleander and both possess a poisonous, milky sap. Each of the separate species of Plumeria bears differently shaped leaves and their form and growth habits are also distinct. The leaves of P. alba are quite narrow and corrugated, while leaves of P. pudica have an elongated oak shape and glossy, dark green color. P. pudica is one of the everblooming types with non-deciduous, evergreen leaves. Another species that retains leaves and flowers in winter is P. obtusa; though its common name is "Singapore", it is originally from Colombia. Frangipani can also be found in Eastern Africa, where they are sometimes referred to in Swahili love poems.
Plumeria flowers are most fragrant at night in order to lure sphinx moths to pollinate them. The flowers have no nectar, and simply dupe their pollinators. The moths inadvertently pollinate them by transferring pollen from flower to flower in their fruitless search for nectar.
The genus is named in honor of the seventeenth-century French botanist Charles Plumier, who traveled to the New World documenting many plant and animal species. The common name "Frangipani" comes from an Italian noble family whose sixteenth-century marquess invented a plumeria-scented perfume.
In Playa Blanca, you often see them planted in yards where they grow as small gangly trees with few leaves and strikingly fragrant large pink or yellow flowers. Unfortunately, many visitors do not have the opportunity to enjoy the full beauty of this tree as it flowers and leafs and is at its best in the rainly season.In Mexico, the Nahuatl (Aztec language) name for this plant is "cacalloxochitl" which means "crow flower."
Jamaica (Hibiscus sabdariffa; Spanish: Jamaica)
This is an awkward, woody plant with an exotic waxy flower calyx, unlike any of the other members of its hibiscus family. It grows to six feet high. The leaves are deeply three to five lobed, 8-15 cm long, arranged alternately on the stems. The flowers are 8-10 cm in diameter, white to pale yellow with a dark red spot at the base of each petal, and have a stout fleshy calyx at the base, 1.5–2 cm wide, enlarging to 3–3.5 cm, fleshy and bright red as the fruit matures. It is an annual plant, and takes about six months to mature.
Though native to India and Malaysia, jamaica is a staple of the Mexican culinary arena. With a flavor that is faintly cranberry or currant, it is the basis for jellies, sauces, refreshing drinks and teas rich in vitamin C and anthocyanins. It also is grown for its flowers that make extremely long lasting and exotic floral bouquets. The flowers are harvested annually, stripped from the hardy, woody stalk, and dried in the sun. The dried flowers are sold for the particularly popular drink of Jamaica for the Christmas season. The process of stripping and drying is a long and slow effort, constantly threatened by the calamity of rain. For all their work, farmers earn only pesos for kilos of dried flowers.
Guayacan (Guaicum coulteri; Spanish: Guayacan)
A slow growing, multi-trunked Mexican native tree, related to the creosote bush and puncture vine weed, it is noted for hard wood and for producing resin. Guayacan has a dense canopy with short lateral branches and varies in height from two feet to eight feet. The violet or purple flowers have 5 petals and are 1/3 to 3/4 inch in diameter. The leaves are small with four to eight pairs of leaflets, each about 2/3 inch long. The leaves tend to fold up about half way during the heat of the day. The bark of the root has an ingredient used for making soap. The root extracts can be used to treat rheumatism and venereal disease. Locally, the clusters of deep blue-violet flowers are appreciated at intervals throughout the year by the local human population and much loved by various species of butterflies.
Prince of Orange (Ixora spp; Spanish: Ixora)
This ornamental shrub originated in South and Southeast Asia. It grows up to 12 feet high and displays small trumpet-shaped flowers throughout much of the year, often in red and red orange, but ranging to pink, yellow and white. You can identify it by the foliage; the leaves are simple opposing pairs alternating with four smaller leaf stipules arranged in a cross. It flowers almost year round and is very attractive to cinnamon hummingbirds and butterflies. It is often used as a hedge plant in private yards along the playa.
Bromeliads (Bromeliaceae; Spanish: Bromeliad)
Bromeliads are a large family of plants whose most famous member is the Pineapple. Bromeliads entered recorded history some 500 years ago when Columbus introduced the pineapple (Ananas comosus) to Spain upon return from his second voyage to the New World in 1493. On that voyage he found it being cultivated by the Carib Indians in the West Indies.
All bromeliads are composed of a spiral arrangement of leaves sometimes called a "rosette". The bases of the leaves in the rosette may overlap tightly to form a water reservoir. This central cup also collects whatever leaf litter and insects happen to land in it. The more ancestral terrestrial bromeliads do not have this water storage capability and rely primarily on their roots for water and nutrient absorption. Tank bromeliads, as the water storing species are often called, rely less heavily on their roots for nourishment and are more often found as epiphytes. The roots of epiphytic species harden off after growing to form holdfasts as strong as wire that help attach the plant to its host. Even though bromeliads are commonly called parasitos in Spanish-speaking countries, these epiphytes do not take sustenance from their host but merely use it for support. In some species, the bases of the leaves form small chambers as they overlap and these protected spaces are often home to ants. In exchange for shelter, the ants' waste may provide the bromeliad with extra fertilizer.
Bromeliads are appreciated for their exotic forms, foliage and flowers and are popular houseplants in the United States. Once the plant flowers, it will die; although the process is slow and ‘ pups’ or offsets are formed for new plants during the decline of the mother plant. The green, leafy top of a pineapple is in fact a pup that may be removed and planted to start a new plant.
Many bromeliads are natives of Mexico and a variety can be seen locally especially late in the dry season when the deciduous trees and shrubs around the lagoons of Playa Blanca are in their leafless stage.