Josna Rege

344. Tropical Botanicals

In 1970s, Nature, places, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases on September 25, 2015 at 9:36 am
Rhizophora mangle, or Red Mangrove (mangrove.at)

Rhizophora mangle, or red mangrove (mangrove.at)

Forty years ago, in April 1975, a group of us in the co-op house at university decided to go down to Key West, Florida for our Spring Break. We drove non-stop, getting from Boston to the northern border of the state in just 24 hours, and headed first to Miami. Unusually for college students on Spring Break, our first destination was not the beach, but, because we had a budding botanist among us, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Once there, we made a beeline for the area where the Garden maintains a small simulated tropical rainforest; visiting that hot, moisture-drenched paradise alone made our entire trip worthwhile.

Erythoxylum coca

Erythoxylum coca (altoona.psu.edu)

Peter, our resident botanist, had inside knowledge about the Garden; he knew the exact location of plants that were not labeled for fear that they would be stripped and stolen. The plant he took us to visit was Erythroxylum coca (var. coca), or, in common parlance, coca, notorious because it is the basis for the production of HCl, or cocaine, a dangerous, illegal substance, highly lucrative for black-market drug traffickers. However, coca is not illegal in South America, where its leaves have been used medicinally for centuries, and workers chew them for energy and stamina during their long hours of hard manual labor. Being a conservationist, not a Yahoo, Peter carefully, reverently, pinched off a few sprigs, which we slipped into a bag as we slipped away unnoticed, leaving the little bush all the healthier for its expert pruning.

Next on our botanical tour of Florida was the Everglades National Park, when we headed straight for the mangrove swamps along the coastline. The term mangrove refers not to one particular plant, but to a number of species of trees that grow along the coast and are tolerant to salt. Mangroves thrive in the tidal waters of the Everglades, where saltwater and freshwater mix, and the national park protects the largest contiguous stand of protected mangrove forest in the hemisphere.

Rhizophora mangle, or the red mangrove, is a strong and adaptable plant, the most common mangrove on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in both tropical and subtropical zones. Its Latin name, Rhizophora, which means rootbearer, refers to its aerial prop roots, which also give it the common name (one among many) walking tree, because it looks as if it is walking on water. Its propagule (what a terrific word!), or unit of propagation, drops live off the parent plant, and is immediately capable of rooting and creating a new tree.

Propagules growing before dropping from the parent plant (wikipedia, uploaded by Hlucha)

Propagules growing before dropping from the parent plant (wikipedia, uploaded by Hlucha)

The red mangrove is in no danger of being over-picked—in fact, it has become an invasive menace in Hawai ‘i, where the climate in ideal for it. Still, Peter oversaw the careful removal of a small red mangrove plant to try propagating back home in New England (where it is in no danger of becoming an invasive species).

The rest of our trip, as we continued down through the Florida Keys to Key West and back, though memorable, was probably not very different from the typical Spring Break experience: beach by day, bars by night, camping, companionship, and in my case a chance to relax before the last big exam period of my senior year in college. On the trip home, when it came to my nighttime driving shift, I chewed some of the Erythroxylum coca leaf we had brought back with us. Like a Peruvian worker from the Andes, I was able to drive steadily through the night without a trace of fatigue, my only other symptom being a mild numbing sensation in my mouth and throat.

When we got home, we put our little mangrove in one of the bathtubs of the Co-op House, and tried to make it a home away from home, complete with salty water and simulated tides twice a day. It lived and even thrived until sometime later that summer, when one of us went away and others forgot to refresh its water, as students are wont to do. But that one short trip so many years ago helped to instill in me a lifelong respect for plants, miraculous living beings like ourselves, that share our planet and make our own lives possible.

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  1. Interesting. This means the plant had no effect on driving precision?

    • Not at all (although, of course that’s subjective); it has long been used for endurance, and as I recall I drove steadily through the night, free from fatigue, my mind clear but not racing, and with no ill-effects afterwards.

  2. If you chew the leaves at any rate. This trip sounds much more pleasant than your trip north without winterization.

    • Yes, critical distinction, Kristin. The chemically synthesized commercial product is a different thing altogether, and I would never want to confuse the two.
      And yes, I had forgotten that I took those two trips in the same year, just a couple of months apart!

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