travelog 132

Cuba IV: Flora I

In our short introductory travelog about Cuba we have already mentioned the flora, especially the fact that we have encountered our favorite plants, the main reason why we went to Cuba in the first place, (almost) without exception big and green. We were not sure at all, and still are not, if they all are "good" species. First, here's a list of all the 16 accepted agave species, including subspecies: Agave acicularis, A. albescens, A. anomala, A. brittoniana ssp. brittoniana, A. brittoniana ssp. brachyphus, A. brittonia ssp. sancti-spirituensis, A. cajalbanensis, A. grisea, A. jarucoensis, A. legrelliana, A. papyrocarpa ssp. papyrocarpa, A. papyrocarpa ssp. macrocarpa, A. tubulata, (A. tubulata ssp. brevituba is a synonym), A. shaferi, A. underwoodii, and A. willdingii (thought to occur in Cuba). Belonging to the Agavaceae are also Furcraea antillana, F. hexapetala, F. macrophylla, and F. tuberosa. The list of melocactus species, the main reason why Jean-Marc flew to Cuba, is - depending on you being a "splitter" or a "lumper" - longer or shorter. In addition, we absolutely wanted to see two endemic plants, namely Microcycas calocoma and Dracaena cubensis. Most of the agave species were described by Trelease in 1913, either based on herbarium specimens from earlier collectors, or on his own notes and photographs from his 1907 visit to the island. Trelease's agave taxonomy, according to Gentry, was partly brilliant and generally uninhibited in describing new species. Most of the Cuban agaves described by Trelease have at least one synonym or are synonym of another species. The Cuban botanist Alberto Alvarez de Zayas described more species. He, too, will most likely go down in agave history because he described many subspecies that could be neglected. Of course this is our personal opinion and this would make us "lumpers".

Cuba has about 3000 endemic plant species, 53% of the entire flora, that is these 3000 species don't occur anywhere else in the world. Cuba has one of the four richest island floras of the world with 7500 species of flowering plants, more than half of that of the entire Caribbean. The most notable endemic species are Pinguicola lignicola (the world's only carnivorous epiphytic plant), the above-mentioned Microcycas calocoma, Colpothrinax wrightii (the Cuban Big Belly or Bottle Palm), the Cuban magnolia (Magnolia cubensis), the Moa Dragon Tree (Dracaena cubensis), the Cuba pine (Pinus cubensis), and finally the Cuban Melon Cactus (Melocactus matanzanus). And many more, but to name all of them would go beyond the scope of this travelog and certainly bore the gentle reader.

Our goal is to see all the Cuban agaves, which of course turns out to be impossible. First we don't have the necessary time to do it; second one species plus subspecies occur on an island; and third our Chinese rental car with four people and their luggage is the wrong vehicle to drive on Cuban dirt roads. The normal roads take a lot out of the vehicle already, and the few dirt roads we're taking are rather suitable for horse carriages or ox carts.

First we visit Agave tubulata around Viñales. We particularly enjoy a round trip, of course dirt, past the Mural de la Prehistoria to Dos Hermanas and back out to the main road. We see the same big and green plants inaccessibly high up in cliffs above a cave with many other interesting plants. Just opposite the cave we walk through a field to get better photos but are surprised by a downpour. Later we drive to Valle Ancon where we finally find plants growing just next to the road in the bushes. Here, too, they are big and green. On the drive back to our casa we are caught in a tunderstorm that floods streets and makes us wait in the car in front of the house until the worst has passed. Masses of water rush down the little street into the creek which becomes a brown raging river in minutes, kissing the bridge. There's a power outage, or as the casa owners say, power was shut down as a safety measure to avoid damage to the installations. Viñales is famous for the mogotes and a favorite destination for backpackers in flipflops, shorts, and bikini. After two days we have enough of the hustle and bustle; leave driving through Pons and Sumidero to Guane on small country roads through a beautiful mogote landscape. We find a small local restaurant serving coffee at a big interesection in Guane. For one Cuban peso you get a tiny glass with one mouthful of sugar-sweet, strong coffee.

Agave grisea is our next destination. This one, too, is big and green but there are some blueish specimens, and the locality at the ocean's edge is beautiful. From Cienfuegos we drive past the never completed Jaragua nuclear power plant to Castillo de Jagua. The castle looks impressive with its huge walls, but we came here to see agaves. We ask around for the Caleton Don Bruno, wasting a lot of time going back and forth, until we finally end up at the gates of a university where we find an older couple who are happy to guide us to the caleton. We follow them on a small path through thick brush to a bay with incredibly turquoise cristal clear water. The agaves growing under the bushes are green and the leaves elongated from lack of sun; but, just on the low cliffs at the ocean's edge, we find large beautiful plants ranging in color from dark green to gray blue. On our way back to Cienfuegos we stop to look at Agave sisalana plantations where leaves are still harvested for sisal fibre production. Past Cienfuegos we visit the botanical garden which resembles more a wilderness than a well-tended garden, but our morning stroll under the many palms (they say that there are 280 palm species here) and other tropical trees is like a fairytale. Next to the parking is a small restaurant with flowering orchids, only the cactus green house is closed for renovation.

We take the coastal road to Trinidad, passing huge mango plantations. We stop at the bridge over the Rio San Juan but for the life of us can't see any agaves. In the small village we're assured that this is really the Rio San Juan. As soon as we stop some kids come running, asking for pencils or baseball caps or, in fact, just anything. Instead, we buy bunches of interesting looking fruits (Guaya = Melicoccus bijugatus) from one of the boys. Back to the bridge and this time Martin walks inland along a small track and suddenly whistles. We follow and reach a huge strangler fig tree, its root system growing over the rocks, sharing the space with Agave acicularis. There are more plants in the rocks further up. Climbing this hilll is arduous due to the extremely steep and slippery terrain where every rock starts moving downhill as soon as you set a foot on it. In our opinion, Agave acicularis would also fall into the category "big and green". The most beautiful thing in this place is certainly the river landscape with the Cuban Royal palms and the screeching parrots. On we go to Trinidad where, at the entrance into town, we can take photos of the next agave on the list, A. brittoniana. Trinidad is a favorite tourist destination and looks like a Cuban open-air museum with real people living in it. Cobblestone streets and alleys, a center free of traffic, colorful houses and terraces, the clip-clop of hooves in the morning, a cloudburst in the afternoon. Dinner at one of the restaurants is impossible because they ran out of gas for cooking.

From Trinidad we take the mountain road through the Topes de Collantes national park with its Escambray Kurhotel, a grotesque, stalinesque monster, to Manacal. As soon as we leave the coastal plains the road climbs up into the mountains in incredibly steep grades, opening magnificient views back down to the coast. Our Chinese rental car with its four passengers and luggage barely manages many of these grades only in first gear. This is the home of Agave brittoniana ssp. brittoniana, another one of the "big and green" category. Sometimes the plants grow so densely along the road that it would be impossible to get through, in case you dare wander into the bushes. Of course this is exactly what I am doing and this is most likely where I touch "guau". "Guau", the Black Poisonwood Tree, or in Latin Metopium brownei, belongs to the family Anacardiaceae. The tree secretes a sap that is visible as black patches on the trunk. If you touch this sap, you might have violent allergic reactions. I, Julia, sure did! After my excursion into the bushes I get small blisters on my skin. In my case the blisters start between the fingers, on the back of my hand and on the lower part of my back. If you scratch, the blisters burst secreting a liquid which, as soon as it gets in contact with other parts of your skin, produces more blisters. And so on... It is easier to control myself with my hand, but my back automatically rubs against the car seat and the blisters spread. We hear that there's "guau de montaña" and "guau de costa", and the locals say that you can have an allergic reaction if you only stood in the shade of one of these trees. There's even Cubans who tattoo themselves with the sap! Unfortunately we hear about natural antidote of the Black Poisonwood too late. The Gumbo Limbo tree (Bursera simaruba) grows together with Metopium. The tree sap relieves rashes, stings and burns. But back to the more enjoyable flora: further up the mountain, near the Kurhotel, we take pictures of Furcraea antillana and a green lizard on its leaves. Again and again we have spectacular views over the green jungle, for example at a viewpoint over the Hanabanilla lake. Near Jibacoa it is finally Jean-Marc's turn. The cliffs are home to Melocactus perezassoi, a bogcommon Melocactus harlowii for the lumpers (or probably M. harlowii ssp. perezassoi). The plants are best seen with binoculars hanging in the cliffs above a cave. To take pictures of them you need a good telephoto lens. We reach Manicaragua and get onto our first (and last) short cut, a road that is marked as a thick and prominent line in our Cuban road atlas. Our goal is Fomento but the kilometers are dragging on and on and the good yellow road turns out to be a bad dirt track suitable for donkey carts, big Russian trucks from the last century and bicycles, but certainly not for our Chinese rental car. We reach Fomento and a paved road with great difficulty. As soon as we are driving on asphalt, we turn onto another dirt road into the fields and drive to a dam to look for Melocactus guitartii, a synonym of M. curvispinus.

We get on with it, passing Sancti Spiritus, Camagüey, Las Tunas, Bayamo and Manzanillo to get to Pilón. Of course we don't do this in just one day. Cuba does not have too many freeways and the bigger highways, especially near villages and towns, have to be shared with many other transport vehicles such as bicycles, ox carts, horse carriages, tractors and, of course, people, leading to traffic jams - but not because of too many cars! We see many "botellas", bottles, along the roads, Cubans asking for a ride. Sugarcane fields and banana plantations alternate, interspersed with palm groves of various species but especially Cuban Royal palms. From time to time we pass a "Punto de Control", a check point, where my papers are thoroughly checked exactly one time. Police cars have this huge blue light on the roof. They look like out of a Monsieur Hulot, Inspektor Cluzot, or Louis de Funès movie. We pass villages with colorful houses and sometimes something like oversized pigeon lofts in the form of high-rise buildings. These are architectural crimes from the Sovjet era, the buildings look gray and sad, dilapidated, the only color comes from the bright colors of the drying clothes. This is also the only way to see that some of the apartments are still inhabited. Interestingly, these buildings often stand in the middle of nowhere, far away from the next village, and you have to wonder what these people do for a living. We stop for Agave underwoodii, green and big as well, along the winding road down to Pilón. The coastal road from Pilón to Santiago de Cuba is an adventure. The paved road stops shortly after Pilón and it's all dirt, sometimes better, sometimes worse, to Uvero. In some places only a few huge rocks separate us from the ocean; a tunnel has collapsed and the track climbs up to get around the obstacle; a long bridge buckled, i.e. it caved in, but you only see this when you have already passed it. So it is not only the plants that slow us down. Agave underwoodii growing in the open are beautiful, large, green plants, some are still flowering, others have already developed bulbils. Jean-Marc is excited about his Melocactus nagyi which, according to the lumpers, is just a synonym of M. harlowii. However, we not only stop for plants, but also for rocks. For example perfectly round rocks in shades of green and gray with dark dots. Or pieces of dead coral washed ashore. Everything is packed into the car to be sorted out later. In Chivirico we finally find a restaurant serving food. It is a camping place at the same time, all government-owned of course. We get one fried fish and one fried piece of pork and lukewarm beer, that's about all they have here. Coffee is included in the menu. It's not real coffee but made with "chicharo", dried peas, and pretty bitter. That's probably why they always add so much sugar. The waitress earns 10 CUC per month. A pair of the black stockings she has to wear in this heat (orders from above) cost 4 CUC.

August 2016

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen