Here’s a quick survey of the some of our most frequently encountered seaside flora.
Sea Almond or Indian-Almond (Terminalia catappa)
Known as almendro (“almond”) in Spanish, this large, salt-resistant, drought tolerant resident of Oceania inhabits most of the beaches of Vieques as well as private gardens and roadsides. It is easily to identify by its stiff horizontal limbs and huge, spoon-shaped leaves borne in great rosettes at the ends of their stubby twigs – hence the genus name Terminalia (terminal). The species name catappa is a South Pacific dialectal name for the tree. Its long, slender, yellow spikes of tiny white, fragrant flowers are followed by 2-inch, beaked, red (or sometimes yellow) fleshy fruit. This thin flesh is edible, juicy and subacid but either needs to be scraped away with a penknife or simply gnawed off – great fun for kids. However, it is the sweet, almond-like kernel (thus the common names) within the pit that are the real taste treat. Although incredibly difficult and timely to crack open, clever Viequenses employ the kernels to make brittles, cookies and other confections.
Noni (Morinda citrifolia)
Because of its high salt tolerance, you can find this tropical Asian and Australian species growing along most of Vieques’ seashores. It is easily recognizable by its great, rich-green, glossy, quilted foliage and small clusters of tiny white blossoms. But its greatest characteristic is its large, bizarre, juicy, milky-white fruit that vaguely resembles a well-scrubbed new potato. It has a strange cheese-like odor and tastes (to me) like a mixture of over cooked asparagus and radishes – not a taste sensation, to be sure. However, the fruit posses medicinal properties which have recently enjoyed great interest in the field of homeopathy. For millennia, the unripe fruit, leaves and roots were traditionally used in Polynesian cultures to treat menstrual cramps, bowel irregularities, diabetes, liver diseases, and urinary tract infections.
Sea Grape (Coccoloba uvifera)
This sturdy Tropical American tree is a ubiquitous resident of coastlines from southern Florida southward to Aruba. Here on Vieques, you’ll encounter it wherever you visit the sea. It is a popular, highly salt-resistant, wind tolerant and xerophytic (drought-tolerant) landscape subject as well. It has an unmistakable, heavy, “lazy” growth pattern. Its peeling grey bark reveals the creams and pinks of its inner bark. The foliage is remarkable; 8- to 10-inch wide, stiff, leathery leaves with prominent, waxy, bright red veins. As they age, they turn orange and red. Upon pollination, its inconspicuous spikes of whitish-green flowers produce long, pendant clusters of reddish-purple “grapes” that are delicious, mellow and sweet and prove to be highly popular with young and old alike. Called uva de playa (literally “sea grape”) in Spanish, the small fruit can be nibbled simply out of hand or made into jams, jellies, drinks and syrups.
In some areas of the Caribbean a strong, musky wine is fermented from them.
Manchineel (Hippomane mancinella)
This Caribbean native is also called beach apple and manzanillo (“little apple”) in Spanish, and is the tree parents should become familiar with on sight; all plant parts are injurious both externally and internally. In fact, it is the most poisonous tree on Vieques. It may grow as tall as 40-feet but is usually much smaller. It bears fissured, warty, dark-brown or grey bark and 2- to 4-inch long yellow-green leaves. Its spikes of inconspicuous yellow-green flowers result in 1- to 1-inch yellow-green or yellowish fruit tinged with red that truly resemble crabapples – hence the common names. All plant parts exude a caustic milky sap which may effect some indviduals far greater than others; especially the eyes and mouth. If suspected of eating the fruit, prompt treatment includes vomiting. If traveling with youngsters, perhaps a small bottle of ipecac syrup might be a worthwhile component of your beachside first aid kit.
This poisonous tree has been located by Fish and Wildlife Service on Punta Vaca and also Playa La Chiva at sites #13 and #20.