Silver Thatch important to heritage

Know Your Islands

Chosen as the National Tree of the Cayman Islands, the Silver Thatch Palm has played an important role in the lives of Caymanians since the first settlers arrived on the islands in the early 1700s.

Silver Thatch Palm

Silver Thatch Palm

A valuable part of Cayman’s natural heritage, as well as part of the landscape, it is endemic to the Cayman Islands – which means that it is found nowhere else. Photograph provided by Frank Roulstone.

The Silver Thatch Palm is both beautiful and useful. Its slender trunk often grows more than 30 feet tall, and its crown produces a profusion of small white flowers that develop into berries that ripen from green to red to black. Bearing the scientific name Coccothrinax proctorii after renowned botanist, Dr. George Proctor, its leaves (or fronds) are what gives this tree its common name.

The upper sides of the leaves are a light green while the underside is a silvery colour that is particularly prominent in moonlight.

The leaves are also unusually tough and their broad shape makes them a useful covering.

In the past, Silver Thatch Palm leaves were frequently used to thatch roofs as they were cool and rainproof.

They were not, however, mosquito-proof, and needed replacing every 5-6 years (or 9 if, according to folklore, the leaves were cut at the time of the full moon).

Teams of eight to 10 men would work together to thatch a house roof, usually in exchange for a meal and help when their own homes needed re-thatching. Using open leaves, the thatchers had to work quickly as the leaves would curl if left to dry and cause the roof to leak.

The supervising thatcher would work from inside the house. If you look carefully at a thatched roof, you will appreciate the skill involved in creating this closely constructed covering that can be best observed (and guided) from the underside.

Thatching was not always restricted to roofs. Before the days of electricity, kitchens and cookrooms were often separate constructions, to reduce the risk of fire.

Some had thatched walls, which created a cool cooking area. With the availability of corrugated zinc roofing in the 1920’s, thatched roofs and thatching skills have now become rare.

Silver Thatch Palm leaves were also used to weave hats, baskets and fans. Shoes known as “wompers” were made with a flat leather sole and held on the foot by straps of thatch rope.

Nowadays, hats and baskets are in demand in tourist and craft shops.

Many of them are still made by those who were taught their skills over 50 years ago!

Items made from Silver Thatch Palm lasted far longer than similar products made using other materials available at the time. The tree’s real value, however, lies in the ability of its dried leaf to resist the effects of salt water. This proved particularly important in the rope-making industry.

Cayman had relatively few natural resources that could generate income, but the thatch rope was highly prized in Cuba and Jamaica for use in the shipping, fishing and sugar industries. While the men were away at sea, or busy with their farms, the women and children would make rope.

The finished rope would be taken to the local store and exchanged for flour, kerosene, cloth, sugar and other necessities.

The storekeeper would then sell the rope. The price fluctuated according to demand, but the work was never highly paid.

Grow Cayman Plants and encourage Cayman Wildlife! You can support native and migratory birds by keeping a natural yard. Plant a variety of native trees (Wild Fig attracts many species) and shrubs. They offer both food and protection for birds. Please control introduced animals – rats, cats and dogs! If you would like to get involved with the many activities in the National Trust’s Know Your Islands Program, please visit www.nationaltrust.org.ky, or call 949-0121.The weekly column from the National Trust is submitted by Marnie Laing, Education Programs Manager at the Trust.

Last week’s answer: The Harlequin Blenny generally lives in association with the pink-tipped anemone.

Trivia question: How much thatch rope was exported from the Cayman Islands from 1901 to 1906?

Look for the answer in next week’s feature!

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