While in Puerto Rico I had the opportunity to participate on a guided tour led by the supremely knowledgeable Robin Phillips of Rainforest Fruit Farm. The day-long adventure was nothing short of a horticulturist’s delight. A biologist
and former professor, Robin shared his wealth of knowledge about El Yunque national rainforest located in the northeastern region of Puerto Rico.
Our 6-hour hike was filled with a myriad of interesting historical facts as well as plant identification. He told us about Monkey Island off the coast of Puerto Rico where medical tests are conducted on captive primates. Some of them have been able to swim to the mainland where they now run wild. There is also a bioluminescent bay called Mosquito Lake in southwestern PR. Since I am always the first person to get attacked by mosquitos I decided to keep my nature experience limited to the rainforest, where the iconic Coqui frogs (Eleutherodactylus coqui) eat the mosquito eggs. I can attest that I didn’t have a single mosquito bite the entire four days and nights I spent in the rainforest.
The sweeping ocean views from the top of the rainforest were absolutely stunning, and often accentuated by the most brilliant rainbows. As we hiked through a trail that was fenced off with barbed wire, Robin told us about the occasional rabid mongoose, and proceeded to provide our group with a demonstration on the best way to incapacitate a potential attacker with your bamboo walking stick. I preferred to stay in the middle of our group after hearing that.
The trails and roadways in the rainforest are lined with giant clumps of common Bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris). It was originally brought in from Burma to help prevent erosion. The flowers, which only appear once every forty years, are scheduled to bloom sometime between 2017-2018. Supposedly the flowers will synchronize with the parent bamboo plants still in Burma.
Once you leave the paved paths (where you are supposed to hike) covered with wild Impatiens and Begonias, you get to see a more wild side of the rainforest. Tree limbs are saturated with clusters of bromeliads which create an ethereal feel when massed together. There are over twenty species of orchids in Puerto Rico but the best time to see them in bloom is November and December. We did get to see one known locally as the “African Orchid” with dainty purple flowers.
As we progressed deeper into the wild, we passed Tree Ferns, tons of Elephant’s Ear (known as Taro or Colocasia esculenta) and Heliconia. You may recognize Heliconia as it is often sold as a cut flower. It grows like a weed on the eastern face of El Yunque. Robin went to work chopping a branch down and splitting it open to show us the water saturated fibrous stem. You can actually eat the inside of a Heliconia and it tastes a bit like cucumber.
Entwined in the vines and leaves hanging from the trees are “air potatoes” which locals call “Bunda.” They literally look like little potatoes hanging from thin vines. If you take one and plant it in the ground it will grow into a large starchy potato-like object which can then be harvested and eaten. Other delicacies of the rainforest include Kundi amor, or bitter melon (Momordica charantia), which has edible seeds sold as candy, and wild raspberries.
The highlight of the hike was scaling the slippery slopes of a waterfall. As we rose above the giant palmate leaves of the Cecropia trees to take in a grand view of the sweeping landscape, I asked myself if there could be a better experience than to learn and experience new plants firsthand. Now I’m ready for another plant adventure in South America…think Orchid Fever.