Go for the blue iguanas. Stay for the exotic trees.
The Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park has developed a reputation as the best place for residents and tourists to see Cayman’s endangered population of blue iguanas. But while the iguanas are sometimes hard to see, a wide variety of interesting trees are standing in plain sight.
Stuart Mailer, the environmental programs manager of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, has a number of personal favorites in the botanic park that tell the story of Cayman’s history. Some of the trees have been imported from around the world, but others have played a key role in Cayman’s development.
One of Mr. Mailer’s favorites, a rainbow gum, stands directly in front of the botanic park’s visitor center. The rainbow gum is a tall and fragrant species of eucalyptus that originated in the Philippines and from other countries in that region, and it lends a bit of exotic beauty to the park.
“It’s exceedingly fast-growing, but what’s most striking about this tree is that the bark peels away, revealing different colors,” Mr. Mailer said. “The underlying fresh bark is green, so when a strip peels off, you get a green effect. Over time, that changes color to blue to purple and eventually to brick red.”
Mr. Mailer said he is not certain when the rainbow gum was planted in the botanic park, but he said it has visibly changed in diameter over the last few years. The tree is growing quickly, and its high limbs produce flowers that are fed on by parrots and pollinated by bees and other insects.
The botanic park has several trees imported from other locales, but it also has a section dubbed the Nature Trail that is dotted with trees that grew wild on Cayman. One such tree, an interesting species of red bean, caused the botanic park organizers to divert a planned walkway around it.
The tree, which was likely felled by a hurricane and then resumed growing in another direction, features beautiful flowers that are pollinated by birds. Mr. Mailer said the tree, like many others in Cayman, is a picture-perfect embodiment of the resilience of Mother Nature after adversity strikes.
“In this part of the world, big trees often get rolled in hurricanes. They get knocked over and then they grow back from the root,” he said. “The jury’s really out on whether this tree is native or not. They’ve been here a long time. But then Caymanians have been sailing around the region for a long time. It’s very difficult to say whether this tree was growing here before humans settled on the island.”
That dichotomy – the power of nature and the ability for living species to adapt – is evident wherever you look at the botanic park. There are tall and thin palm trees that have been blown to unnatural angles, and there are trees like the red bean that resort to new contours to keep alive.
One such tree, a silk cotton tree, has grown thick and leans at a seemingly impossible angle. The trunk bends approximately 80 degrees from the ground, resurrecting itself after catastrophic damage.
“I would use this as a symbol of recovery,” Mr. Mailer said. “When this happened – the devastation in the Botanic Park – it must’ve been depressing to see this massive tree on its side. But here it is: It’s the star attraction of the park. If it had never got blown over, it wouldn’t be this interesting feature.”
Much of the region was filled with large trees when people began to colonize and settle Grand Cayman, but the shipbuilding industry claimed many of those trees as material. Quickly, the big hardwood trees began to disappear in a spasm of logging, shipbuilding and local development.
“Many of the early settlers were woodsmen who were basically granted tracts of land for harvesting mahogany and other tropical hardwoods,” Mr. Mailer said. “There was enough mahogany to last for centuries, and people took that to mean it would last forever. They’d clear-cut an island and move on to another one. And there was always another island. Until they cut them all.”
Here in Cayman, he said, they cut the mahogany that was easily accessible and left the specimens off the Mastic Trail intact. Mahogany is known for its enduring strength, and some trees that were felled by Hurricane Ivan had to be chopped away and removed so people could access the Nature Trail.
Another local hardwood species, the ironwood tree, played a huge role in the early Cayman homes. Ironwood was used for the footings of Cayman cottages, and in some cases, these foundations have lasted for more than 100 years without withering away, despite sitting on quite moist ground.
“It’s so heavy that it sinks in water. It’s so hard, you can’t drive nails into it,” Mr. Mailer said. “These cottages weren’t nailed together or even screwed together. They were pegged together.
“A typical native Caymanian cottage was built more like a modern steel-frame building. The strength was not in the walls; it’s in the posts. They’d have a horizontal post pegged to a vertical post sitting up on the ironwood post up off the ground. And then the walls were comparatively flimsy. They were made from woven strips of split wood covered in a mortar made out of coral heated in the fire. It was a bit like cement, but no real strength. If you hit it with a sledgehammer, it would go right through the wall.”
The roofs of those early homes were made from palm fronds, but not from the trees some might expect. There are only three native palm trees in Cayman: silver thatch, bull thatch and royal palm.
All of the palm trees bearing coconuts, Mr. Mailer said, do not come from this region of the world.
The silver thatch, which has been chosen as Cayman’s national tree, is tall and slender and can be distinguished from the bull thatch by the silvery underside of its leaves. Those leaves, in fact, became quite a valuable commodity to the early Caymanians.
“Aside from using it in roofing materials, it’s also used in a multitude of thatch products. Handcrafted stuff. Hats and baskets and place mats and shoe straps,” said Mr. Mailer of the silver thatch, which is found in Cayman and nowhere else. “Most importantly, it’s used in rope-making. It has incredibly strong fibers. For many, many years, an important industry here was making rope. It was exported to other countries in the Caribbean and was considered the highest quality, natural fiber rope in the world.”