Under the Wings of the Tocororo
‘El Crocodrilo’ is the playful term Cubans use when speaking of their island. On the back of the crocodile are six biosphere reserves protected by UNESCO containing 7,000 plant species, about half of which are endemic to the country. In February, I travelled for 12 days around the eastern tail with a group whose members have a white-hot interest in this plant life. We visited two of the reserves.
In my guide book the eastern part of Cuba is described as serving ‘up the authentic Cuba without the wrapping paper.’ It is where the US Guantanamo base is located. The area is graced with scenic mountains, glorious coastlines, and has the distinction of producing the lion’s share of Cuba’s revolutionaries, including the Castro brothers.
Before setting out on plant finding I had to satisfy myself about generally shared impressions of Cuba; the 1950’s American cars, the ubiquitous music, rum, cigars, generally bland food and so on. They all checked out in spades. What I understood as true, but could not appreciate until it was offered, was the unfettered welcome of the people. The willingness of strangers on the street to make eye contact and smile bathed us as warmly as the tropical sun.
On our first plant sortie our group was greeted by a gentle melody from above. Pavel, our guide, fluent in Russian, English, French, impersonations and bird spotting, besides his native Spanish, raised a finger in the air. “That is the Tocororo*,” he said with a broad smile in response to the trill. “It’s the national bird because its colors are those of the flag.” Indeed, it sports a blue head and back along with a sassy red stripe dividing the white chest and tail. Welcome to Cuba’s biodiversity it seemed to say.
Lucia, our local botanist and guide has a passion for plants that is as vigorous as those we viewed. Her knowledge is deeply scientific but also reflects the tortured history of the island. She pointed out an agave (some of which are as big as Christmas trees) and noted that in the so-called ‘special’ period after Cuba lost the support of the Soviet Union, women used the sap as laundry detergent. Another low growing plant Lucia noted was commonly called tilo. The leaf produces a calming tea and is still frequently imbibed. Lucia explained with a giggle, she took it herself before taking a test for a driver’s license.
The sheer abundance of bromeliads, palm trees, and orchids growing in the eastern part of Cuba daunted while it delighted. But this bounty, some of it extremely invasive, was to be expected in the tropics. We were warned that Cuban orchids tend to the small so the bigger, showier ones, despite their beauty were mostly unwelcome guests. Ferns were the biggest surprise. Over 3,000 varieties were available for viewing ranging from tree forms to some microscopic ones clinging to inhospitable rocks. One that took my fancy (Spathelia cubensis) turned out, quite unexpectedly, to be a tree. It’s common name of Bonita or beautiful was most apt.
What was also unexpected was the discovery of pine forests on the island and two pine species endemic to Cuba. One, Pinus cubenensis has only 2 needles sprouting from the node or fascicle, a relative rarity in the pine tree world. The other, Pinus caribaeae var. caribaeae offers three needles from each fascicle. Who knew? Bonita, the tree masquerading as a fern, tends to grow within their shadows and is thus known as Bonita del Pinar.
Another botanical oddity was the Clusia major or the Autograph tree: the lush green leaves sustains writing and became the message boards for the revolutionaries living in the mountains of eastern Cuba.
Our attention was also directed toward the sugar cane, coffee and cacao crops, all of which support the Cuban economy and the soul of the tourist and citizen alike. After a day of plant spotting, a cup of coffee with a dab of cocoa powder and a shot of rum made me feel enormously relaxed. Cuba is indeed bonita.
* Tocororo (Priotelus temnurus) is also known as the Cuban trogon. The local name is derived from its repeated call, toco-toco-tocoro-tocoro.