Notes from Puerto Rico

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By Joyce Tuharsky, Wild Ones member

I recently returned from a trip to Puerto Rico! In addition, to learning about the people and culture of the island, I delighted in discovering its unique tropical plants. Everywhere I turned were “new-to-me” plants: huge, lush leaves with unusual shapes and veining; intricate, lacy fronds; and colorful stem and bark…

Here are a few plants that I found:

Sea Grape Tree (Coccoloba uvifera) – Native to Puerto Rico as well as coastal beaches throughout tropical Caribbean and America, including Florida. This small evergreen tree/shrub has huge leathery leaves and white flowers that produce purple-green fruit, 1-inch in diameter, in grape-like clusters. Wind-resistant and highly salt tolerant, this tree is often used to stabilize beaches. It provides protective habitat for small animals and can help prevent sea turtles from being distracted by lights from nearby buildings.

Calabash tree (Crescentia cujete) – Native to Puerto Rico, and Central and South America. This is small, evergreen, understory tree grows up to 25 feet tall, with simple leaves and a rough bark. The branches spread outward long and horizontally, with almost no secondary branching. The flowers are funnel-shaped, light green in color with purple streaks, about 2 inches wide. These flowers, which seem to grow directly from the branches, bloom at night and are pollinated by bats, then wither away by noon the next day. The large spherical fruits, up to 6 inches in diameter, have hard shells that have been used as bowls, cups, or other vessels; sometimes painted and made into ornaments or musical instruments.

Wild cowpea (Vigna vexillate) – Native to Puerto Rico, Central and South America, and the West Indies. Wild cowpea is actually pantropical, which means it is found in tropical regions in both hemispheres. This fast-growing climbing plant produces long vines (up to 20 feet) from a tuberous, woody rootstock. The pea-like flowers are purple, later producing 3-4 inch-long seedpods. Like other plants in the legume family, Wild cowpea has nitrogen fixing capabilities that enrich infertile soils. Wild cowpea is an important food crop in several places around the globe, such as India and Namibia. The protein content of its tubers is very high. Almost all parts of the plant are edible. It is also grown as a ground cover crop.

Spanish stenocereus (Stenocereus fimbriatus) – Surprisingly, there are cacti on the Island of Puerto Rico. Southern portions of the island are located in the dry rain shadow of the Cordillera Central mountains and are studded with rare subtropical dry forests.

Spanish stenocereus is a treelike cactus with a candelabra appearance of slender, ridged branches can reach 30 feet in height. It has so many branches that it is hard to determine a central stem. The flowers, green with purple and white tones, are nocturnal, pollinated by bats and moths. The fruit is red and spherical in shape (2-inch diameter) with an edible flesh. This cactus grows at low elevations and is threatened by the expansion of agriculture, competition from invasive plants, and adverse climatic conditions (such as hurricanes!).

Coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) –Coconut palms are ubiquitous on Puerto Rico! Their huge, beautiful, waving fronds provide relaxing shade along long stretches of beaches, giving the island that fantastic tropical look that tourists expect…. But NO, Coconut palms are not native to Puerto Rico. This species was naturalized from Asia. It is widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions around the world.

Plants of Puerto Rico Website – Even though Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, many of our botanical resources only marginally include data on the island’s flora. However, the website: Plants of the Island of Puerto Rico, launched relatively recently (2015), contains a database listing more than 3,500 vascular plants recorded for Puerto Rico. It includes 2,329 native species and 1,077 introduced species—some only cultivated, some naturalized. A preliminary assessment indicates that about 1 in 3 vascular plant species native to Puerto Rico may be extremely rare or extinct. 

The website states that its two main functions are to help people learn about the plants of Puerto Rico and to contribute to their conservation. The website further states:

“As citizens of the planet, we all have a responsibility to halt the extinction of species…. Many species may be rare in one region while being common in others, or they may have very large global ranges. Even so, they are part of our natural heritage…. Conserving them is a task for regional societies. If regionally rare species are lost from the Island of Puerto Rico, then an important part of the natural heritage of Puerto Rico will also have been lost.”

Photo credits all via Wikimedia Commons:

Sea Grapedrytortugasnps, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Calabash Tree – A. Benedito, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>

Wild Cow Pea – Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia, CC BY 2.0 <>

Spanish stenocereus – Frank Vincentz, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>