Discovering the palms, pines and poincianas of a Caribbean paradise.

A Disney cruise last summer afforded me the opportunity not only to relax and enjoy the Disney razzmatazz, but also to see some interesting tree species.

Disney has created its own tropical paradise island called Castaway Cay, near Great Abaco Island, in the Bahamas, a stop-off point on the way to Nassau, the capital city.

Forestry Journal: Bougainvillea trees add colour right across the Bahamas.Bougainvillea trees add colour right across the Bahamas.

Castaway Cay has the distinction of being the first private island in the cruise industry where ships docked, rather than using tender launches to drop off passengers.

The Disney Corporation has developed only around 55 acres of the 1000-acre island. Its former name of Gorda Cay was infamous during the 1930s for being home to countless bootleggers and then, later on, for secretive drug smugglers. I had read there was an enormous palm tree right in the middle of the island and I was looking forward to seeing it with my own eyes. It turns out this ‘tree’ is, in fact, a gigantic telecommunications tower which Disney dresses up with lots of fake branches. On my visit, however, it just looked like a phone tower.

Palm trees do, however, feature right across Castaway Cay. Some are there as part of the natural regeneration of the central hinterland, but countless others have been planted there by Disney. They have been used to add both amenity and shade for the thousands of guests disembarking from the cruise ships. That said, there is one solitary palm which attracts attention more than the others, as it grows quite contentedly right in the middle of the Family Beach. It looks like it has quietly and deliberately moved away from the other trees further along the beach.

Perhaps not surprisingly on a magical topical island, coconut palm trees (Cocos nucifera) grow serenely on Castaway Cay, complete with their green coconut fruits. These trees are not native to the Bahamas, having been introduced by those who came to the islands in the past. I am guessing at Castaway Cay they are there to add to the overall appearance of the island, rather than for their historical natural uses, which include food and drink as well as construction material.

Forestry Journal: Coconut palm trees are used on Castaway Cay for both shade and decorative purposes.Coconut palm trees are used on Castaway Cay for both shade and decorative purposes.

‘Quirky’ is perhaps the best word to describe some of the other trees on the island. These include a gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba) tree that the Disney workers apparently call the ‘sunburn tree’. It is said this is because of its peeling red bark, which resembles the way many of the guests who visit the island look after having spent a whole day under the strong tropical sun. Actually, this tree species, normally found in coastal mangroves, is known as the ‘tourist tree’ for the same reason.

One of the most distinctive palm trees to be found on Castaway Cay is the Florida silver palm (Coccothrinax argentata). Native to South Florida, the West Indies, and the Bahamas, it grows in coastal areas quite naturally and links well into the surroundings that Disney has created. Also, at an average height of around 15 ft, they are tall enough to offer considerable shade.

Forestry Journal: There are a number of highly decorative Bismarck palm trees that grow in Rawson Square, Nassau.There are a number of highly decorative Bismarck palm trees that grow in Rawson Square, Nassau.

Australian pine (Casuarina equisetifolia), which is native to Australia, the South Pacific, and the Pacific area in general, is found right across the Bahamas, including on the island. Having been introduced there and in southern Florida in the 19th century, it is now seen as an invasive tree in the Bahamas. This tree is salt and drought tolerant and so has spread quickly in the region. On Castaway Cay, a number of the trees are to be found growing along the shoreline, being used as wind breaks.

It is deemed an invasive species now, due to its fast growth and because its root systems contain a toxin which impacts on other plants, inhibiting their growth, and because the needles from these trees cover the ground, again preventing other species from growing.

Locals also pointed out the poisonwood (Metopium toxiferum), warning of the tree’s ability to give off an urushiol, an oily sap which can cause allergic skin reactions to those who are unfortunate enough to let it come into contact with their skin. One particular tourist guide was especially vocal in telling guests of when, as a boy, he was warned of the dangers of these trees by his mother.

Forestry Journal: Bismarck palm trees on Castaway Cay.Bismarck palm trees on Castaway Cay.

Behind the shoreline, running the length of the island’s runway, there is quite a wide range of tree species to be found growing, including sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera), and colourful numbers of the national tree of the Bahamas, lignum vitae (Guaiacum sanctum), as well as many bougainvillea (Bougainvillea glabra). Sea grape clearly thrives here due to being tolerant of salt, as well as being used to growing along beach edges. At the time of my visit, the grape fruits that are a feature of these trees, at the end of the summer, were just starting to form.

Departing Castaway Cay aboard the Disney Dream, cruising to Nassau, there was a last chance to look back at this tree-rich island. If the lignum vitae (Guaiacum sanctum) and bougainvillea (Bougainvillea glabra) on Castaway Cay were small in numbers, that was certainly not the case in Nassau itself. It seemed that everywhere I went in the capital I was never far away from these trees. Lignum vitae (Guaiacum sanctum) is also known as the ‘tree of life’ in the Bahamas, because of its medicinal powers.

Sap from these trees has been used to treat a variety of ailments over the centuries. These trees’ branches carry a purplish flower, which blooms almost continuously throughout the year, adding to the already colourful capital of the Bahamas. Interestingly, the wood from these trees is recognised as being one of the hardest woods in the world and has been used for making a wide range of products, including British police truncheons.

Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea glabra) also adds colour across the city of Nassau. However, perhaps the most stunning hues come from the profusely flowering royal poinciana (Delonix regia) trees, with their vast numbers of red-orange blooms. At their best from May to July, and with June being the time of my visit, these trees were stunning to witness, especially when viewed from some of the city’s high points. There were great views to be had of them from Nassau’s famous historic forts, Fort Charlotte and Fincastle, as well as walking down the Queen’s Staircase.

Forestry Journal:  Royal poinciana, which is known as the flamboyant tree, is in plentiful numbers in the Bahamas. Royal poinciana, which is known as the flamboyant tree, is in plentiful numbers in the Bahamas.

Royal poinciana (Delonix regia) is also known as the ‘flamboyant tree’, and it’s easy to see why. Sadly, these trees are now an endangered species in their native Madagascar.

The autograph tree (Clusia rosea) is another I came across in Nassau, primarily used for ornamental purposes. This tree species is tolerant of sea spray and winds, which is probably why it thrives in Nassau and other coastal regions across the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and southern Florida.

Bay Street, the main thoroughfare in downtown Nassau, is well populated by countless numbers of tourists arriving daily off the many cruise ships that dock in the port. It also has many strangely shaped trees that grow out of the pavements and, in some cases, up through the buildings, such as the Florida royal palm trees (Roystonea regia) in and around the Straw Market. This tree species is the national tree of Cuba and in some countries, it, or rather its leaves, play an important role in Palm Sunday religious ceremonies.

Forestry Journal: Sea grape growing near the beach area on Castaway Cay.Sea grape growing near the beach area on Castaway Cay.

Another ornamental tree planted throughout the tropics, including in Nassau, is the geiger tree (Cordia sebestena). This shrubby-looking tree has quite dense-looking dark green foliage, which makes it quite noticeable. It has distinctive orange flowers during the spring and summer, followed by long-looking pear-shaped fruits. Yet another tree that can grow in the Bahamas because of its tolerance of salt spray from the sea, as well as the hot, sunny climate.

Leaving the cruise terminal at Nassau and heading into the downtown area, visitors arrive at Rawson Square. Here, there is a pedestrian area with seats to allow people to relax and watch all the hustle and bustle of a major tourist city. There is also a bronze bust of Sir Milo Butler, the first Bahamian Governor General in an independent Bahamas. This area has some fine, graceful bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis), another species native to Madagascar. It was named after the first chancellor of the German Empire, Otto Von Bismark. The trees here have striking silver blue foliage.

It is recorded that the Bahamas has around 120 native tree species with seven different types of palm trees and numerous fruit trees, which thrive and prosper there because of the region’s tropical climate. Trees considered native to the Bahamas include lignum vitae (Guaiacum sanctum), Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea), red cedar (Pinus caribaea var. bahamensis), mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) and candlewood (Phialanthus myrtilloides). There are several examples of native wild fruit trees, including sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera), coco (Chrysobalanus icaco), pigeon plum (Coccoloba diversifolia) and sugar apple (Annona squamosa). Non-native trees include many of the ones I saw on my brief visit to the Bahamas: Australian pine (Casuarina equisetifolia), Royal poinciana (Delonix regia) and bougainvillea (Bougainvillea glabra), as well as Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius), silk cotton (Ceiba pentandra) and Hawaiian sea grape (Scaevola taccada).

It’s certainly an enjoyable experience to visit the region while looking out for these many different tree types.

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