It is impossible to imagine the Caribbean without palm trees or coconuts. However, coconuts are not native to the Caribbean. But Pine trees are.
Coconuts are the Swiss Army knife of the plant world: literally every bit and piece of a coconut and its palm tree can be used. Besides the obvious high-calorie food, potable water and firewood, coconuts can be turned into jewelry, cutlery, alcoholic beverages, weight-loss supplements, charcoal, creams and oils, floatation devices, vehicle fuel… as a matter of fact, coconut water is so antiseptic, it can be used as an alternative to blood transfusions (as a last-last resort).
I’ve Got A lovely Bunch Of Coconuts
There are certain tropes that have established themselves in our minds as being true: such as the fact that palm trees and especially coconuts are part of what we imagine when we imagine the Caribbean. However, coconuts aren’t really from the West Indies… they’re from the East Indies. Specifically, India. So how did they get all the way from India to the Americas?
It’s all thanks to the unique creatures that have influenced our planet in ways few have thought possible. The beings that are responsible for most of what is going on on this planet and have pushed, kicked and beat the planet’s existence toward the brink of their own annihilation.
Well, aliens to the American continent, anyway. One of these alien invaders was known by the name of Christopher Columbus. When he and his entourage of
plunderers conquerors adventurers landed on the islands to conquer liberate visit, there were no coconuts. The local population had never even heard of them. However the Spaniards did. They were well known as a source of water and food, and already thrived on the African coast and the Canary Islands. While we don’t know if Columbus personally pitched a few on board for the journey (although it’s very likely), we know that in the years that followed travelers to the West Indies schlepped along coconuts as snacks and then dumped the leftovers as trash wherever they went. In fact, the spread of coconuts throughout the Caribbean mirrors the spread of the European invasion colonization of the Americas. If anything, coconuts — like christendom — symbolize the success of an alien invasion, having become an involuntary invasive species.
It’s interesting to note that DNA studies have revealed that the coconuts on the Pacific side of The Americas are of a different species. However, their arrival was also caused by the Spanish and Portuguese travelers coming from the Pacific islands. See what happens when you don’t dispose of your travel trash? It becomes endemic and then everyone thinks that’s how it’s supposed to be.
While coconuts and palms aren’t endemic to the Caribbean, pine trees are.
Never Leaf The Caribbean
Again, tropes will have us believe that pine trees are more something from Europe or North America. However, they are actually wide-spread throughout the American continent. In fact, most Caribbean islands each have their individual species. Off the Cuban coast there is a small island known as Isle of Pines, named so because… well, the obvious. At least that was its name until Fidel Castro renamed it “Isle of Youth”.
In the Dominican Republic and Haiti pines trees have been around for as long as the island has been. There are dozens of pine tree variations, but it’s most common species — the Pinus occidentalis or pino criollo — is extremely widespread throughout the hills of the island, especially in the more mountainous regions of Jarabacoa and Constanza, all the way into Haiti. It is home to dozens of species of birds and insects, many themselves unique to the island.
Dominican laws concerning deforestation — and indeed cutting down trees — are very strict and illegal loggers are prosecuted. While that doesn’t always stop logging, it has considerably slowed the deforestation. Besides that the government’s forestry department has been busy reforesting wide areas islandwide. Thus the only real danger the pino criollo faces is that of wild fires, often caused by humans. Poor pines just can’t seem to get a rest.
In Haiti matters concerning ecological protection are different… in fact, nearly nonexistent. That means the pinus criollo is being cut down to an extreme extent. A lot has to do with financial gain but also cultural myths: one of which blames trees for a lack of water. While the DR has much stricter rules concerning logging, it should be noted that it is the primary importer of wood from Haiti.
Next time you imagine the Caribbean, try thinking of beach and pine-cones as opposed to beach and coconuts. It doesn’t work quite the same way… but it’s scientifically more accurate.