BOTANY OF AMBERGRIS CAYE, BELIZE
There are many varieties of trees on Ambergris Caye, some of which can be seen in San Pedro and within walking distance of town. There are two adaptive types of interest, some adapted to a harsh salt environment (halophytes) while others are adapted to fresh and brackish (slightly salty) water. As one goes from south to north on the island,-the amount of fresh water in the subsurface increases and hence the numbers of trees that need fresh water also increases northward. Many of the trees here are indigenous to Ambergris Caye while others have been imported from other areas of the world. Where the origin of a tree or any other plant in this book is known, it is given in the text describing a species. In the descriptions, the common name is given first and the scientific name, if known, appears last and is underlined. At times Spanish and Maya names are also given.
At first glance, coconut palms appear to be the largest and most visible tree on Ambergris Caye. The palms and hardwood trees still do provide raw materials, as they have in the past, for many different commercial enterprises. The trunks are used for construction of buildings, docks and as rollers to launch and beach boats. The fruit of the coconut palm (the coconut) is edible and the husk has been used to make rope. Palm tree leaves are used as thatch for roofs, and some palm trees are grown as ornamentals. All in all there are 18 different kinds of palms found in Belize.
Coconut Palm: Cocos nucifera: Family Palmae
For all its beauty and usefullness, it is not wise to sit or nap under a coconut tree: the falling nut can do considerable damage.
This is still one of the most graceful and useful trees on Ambergris Caye and is probably of Indo-Malayan origin. The tree grows only in tropical and subtropical climates and was introduced and cultivated for centuries throughout the tropics as a cash crop. In 1577, Sir Francis Drake encountered the coconut in the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa and Captain James Cook, in his voyage of 1768 to 1771, reported them on most of the islands of the South Pacific. Reportedly, the Maya had no name or glyph for the coconut tree, it may have been unknown to them.
The coconut palm has a relatively slender trunk, often curved or twisted, marked with external rings each year by the scars of fallen leaves. The tree can attain a height of 130 feet (40 meters) and is crowned with a cluster of very large, pinnate ( feather like) leaves 8 to 12 feet long. These trees are most-common along the windward side of Ambergris Caye. The fruit is the well known coconut which, when ripe, contains a white fleshy meat and a sweet liquid called milk. The young green coconut also contains abundant liquid that is quite refreshing. It takes about 1 year for an individual flower to produce a ripe coconut.
The tree reproduces by dropping its coconuts, which are encased in a thick woody husk and look rather like a football and turn from green to light brown when ripe. They can grow where they fall, or, if dropped in water, be transported by waves and currents to other islands. After the coconut has dropped from the tree, the milk congeals into a spongy white ball filling the inside of the fruit and is the initial food source for a sprout (which comes out of an eye in the coconut) and a root, which comes out of the husk. This congealed milk serves the same purpose as the yolk sack in an egg, food for the embryonic tree. The sprout and the congealed milk are called a growing, and are edible. After sprouting, the tree requires about 6 years to reach maturity (the first coconuts appear) at which point the tree is usually 8 or 9 feet tall. Commercial coconuts are planted 20′ to 301 apart and an acre of coconut trees may yield 10,000 coconuts a year, with an individual tree producing up to 450 fruits a year. In 1952 Belize (then British Honduras) exported 2,531,730 coconuts and about 400,000 pounds of copra. A grove of coconut trees is called a coconut walk or a cocotal.
The unexpanded flower spates form “toddy” which may be boiled down to sugar, or when fermented and distilled yields a spirit know as arrack. Coconut oil is also used to make marine soap which lathers in sea water.
The coconut tree is still a commercial tree on Ambergris Caye. The nuts when they fall are harvested,and husked (remove outer layer).The coconut meal is ground and boiled with water. The oil floats to the surface and is skimmed of the top.The meat is also shredded, mixed with warm water and squeezed in a cloth to yield the white coconut milk.This milk is used in soups, and is poured over seafood dishes.