Puerto Rico

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It's Different Abroad: Sub-tropical Puerto Rico

"Why don't you come for a visit?" said Paul. He's been working in Puerto Rico since sometime in April, home every couple of weeks for a weekend. That's better than not at all, but not as nice as spending day-to-day in each others company. So without further ado I said "Why not?" and plans were made for a week-long stay, with a day at either end for travel. Though less than a four hour flight from Newark Liberty Airport there's the current hassle of getting to the airport, getting to the airport the necessary security check-in time ahead of the flight, seemingly "standard" departure / arrival delays - a day at either end for travel made my week in Puerto Rico less of a rush, allowing me more island time.

Puerto Rican weather (especially in July!) is hot and humid, and it rains frequently. Closer to the equator than New Jersey, the days are have less seasonal shift. Year round the days are of more consistent length. In the evening the sun sets quickly, earlier than my summer expectations. Frost-free, I'm not quite sure why it is considered merely sub-tropical rather than truly tropical.

At the Hotel

Room with a view: a lovely curve of sea and sand as seen from the balcony.

At the back of our hotel in San Juan's Isla Verde area there's a terrace, some palm trees, and sand.

A line of hammocks invite you to choose one for a snooze, lulled by the sound of the surf.

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Wednesday, 12 July 2006: Along the Boulevards and Back Alleys

Every time I went somewhere - riding in a car or taxi or on the bus, or walking down the street - I saw wonderful plants. So I decided to spend some time on this last full day here in Puerto Rico just walking around and admiring plants. I strolled into fancy hotel forecourts, down little side streets, into car parks, and peered at gardens through the ubiquitous security grates. There were plants I recognized, others that might be familiar yet altered by the sub-tropical growing conditions, unknowns I managed to identify, and others that still baffle me. What fun I had!

A philodendron, clambering up a tree at the edge of a hotel parking lot.
When these manage to vine their way up into more sunlight they seem to develop split leaves.

Call it an herbaceous perennial rather than a vine, given its bushy growth.
I think this is Philodendron 'Xanadu'.

Hibiscus were everywhere. Bright red, smallish flowered ones on El Yunque, large flowered ones in gardens.
I thought this dainty pink one, embellished by its red stamens, was quite attractive.

Crown of thorns or Christ-thorn, Euphorbia milii, is a familiar houseplant.
This large flowered cultivar will flower throughout the year here in the sub-tropics,
cycling into bloom with rain after a dry spell.

Yellow allamanda, Allamanda cathartica, is grown in New Jersey as a temperennial, discarded at summer's end.
Attractive enough, but never as rambunctious as the strong, robust plants I saw in Puerto Rico.

Pink allamanda, Allamanda violacea, is a lovely species I've not seen before, said to be less vigorous than its golden cousin.

I'm not sure what this shrub with masses of pink "flowers" might actually be. I suspect the yellow bits are the true flowers.
And the pink bits are bracts, similar to a poinsettia. Maybe it is a Mussaenda species, but I'm not sure.

Update: Jerry, bless his heart, checked with some of his friends who are expert in tropical flora. This is, indeed, a Mussaenda, many species of which are native to tropical Africa and Asia. Throwing caution to the wind, I'm going to speculate that this is some cultivar of M. erythrophylla, from tropical Africa. 'Queen Sirikit' is described as having drooping branches with broad wavy leaves, and - the clincher for me - flower heads of enlarged deep pink calyx lobes.

Haven't a clue what this is, and while it would be nice to know I really don't care. It is glorious!

Eureka! I found its name. This is Spathodea campanulata, or African tulip tree, a member of the Catalpa Family.
Robert Lee Riffle, author of The Tropical Look calls it "the world's most beautiful flowering tree." He gets no dissent from me.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006: Vieques

Before travelling to Puerto Rico I did some research, checking to see if any of the societies to which I belong have members there. Lo and behold, Garden Writers Association lists one member, Scott Appell, on Vieques, the "little sister" island southeast of San Juan. A telephone call, several e-mails, and arrangements were made for a visit. Now, as Scott advised me, getting there is not like taking the Staten Island ferry. There is a ferry, but it plies the waters of the Strait of Vieques on an infrequent schedule. While a boat ride (with the possibilitiy of seeing whales, dolphins, and manatees) would be delightful, since I was only making a day trip to Vieques travel time was a consideration. I decided to fly.

I've been on small airplanes before, the sort where every passenger gets a window seat, and every passenger has an aisle seat. The Cessna 402 operated by Cape Air that plies the skies between San Juan and Vieques is smaller yet.

Carrying a maximum of eight passengers plus pilot, at check-in I was not only asked my weight, my carry-on bag was weighed.

Approaching the Vieques airport. No cockpit doors on this airplane.

Scott was waiting for me and off we went on a most delightful day filled with plants and gardens, casual and interesting conversations, delicious food, and an emerging friendship.

At five miles wide and 25 miles long Vieques nicely fits my preconceptions of "islands" as having modest size. Within that area it manages to fit beautiful beaches, attractive overlooks,

interesting history, charming cottages and bungalows in various styles, and the tropical flora I've come to find so fascinating.

Scott's background (former director of the botanical garden on St. Croix) meant questions that kept bubbling up in my conversation, frequently "What's that plant?" - were readily answered, complete with background information and Latin names. We'd drive, stop, walk, talk, drive some more. I did find all the mangoes ripe enough to fall from the numerous trees and just rotting on the ground a source of great frustration. I love mangoes, and the hotel's breakfast buffet featured Red Delicious apples, watermelon, cantalope, and honeydew melons, when my mouth was set for mangoes, papayas, guavas, and such-like tropical fruits. I take that back. They did offer fresh pineapple. Papaya, once in the 8 days I had breakfast there. Did wangle a mangoe one evening at the manager's cocktail hour though.

A stroll along the seaside promenade was delightful, with sound of the surf and salty sea smell.

Horses stroll down the streets too - here a stallion, mare, and her foal.
They can really do some damage, Scott told me, when they get into a garden.

photo credit Bill Shank

Luncheon at Bill and Scott's house, with a refreshing glass of wine embellished with a sprig of herbs fresh from Scott's garden.
Don't I look relaxed and cossetted though!

All too soon it was time to leave. Even on Vieques one must check in early at the airport. No time to visit the magroves along the coast, and look for brown pelicans. Though I did see three kinds of hummingbirds, and the little yellow bird of song as we went around in and out of gardens. But there was one more stop to make, Scott assured me.

photo credit Scott Appell

Here I am at the grandfather of all the island's trees, a Ceiba or Kapok Tree, Ceiba pentandra.
Hundreds of years old, sacred to many of the island's religions.
Sheltered by its broad crown and butressing roots, I can but hope that it will bring me back to Vieques again.

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Monday, 10 July 2006: Viejo San Juan

It rained in the morning, bucketing down hard enough to splash back up. Not a good day for outdoor activities. But by mid-day it had cleared to merely overcast and I decided to go as planned to the old city, Viejo San Juan. It was easy enough to walk from the hotel to the stop where I boarded the A5 bus. Fortunately I had the exact change for the 75¢ fare as that's what is required. With zigs and zags and stops to let passengers on and off we made our leisurely way to the terminus at Viejo San Juan where a free tourist trolley was waiting. Get on, get off, reboard - it makes it very easy to get around. Narrow streets and narrower sidewalks, numerous little shops with balconied apartments on the upper floors.

Many of the streets are paved with blue glazed tiles.

When I came to Parque de las Paloma, park of the pigeons, there were so many birds it looked as if the ground was paved with them!

Wandering hither and thither on the charming little side streets I saw numerous cats asleep in doorways. Apparently the colonial cats of Viejo San Juan are included on the worldwide list of protected animal sanctuaries, joining the cats of Rome's coliseum and those at Hemingway House in Key West, Florida. Local cat rescue groups have an active trap / neuter / release program. More information can be found at Save A Cat.

In addition to the unanticipated cats and pigeons, I saw many plants - in little parks and plazas, growing in pots along the streets and up on the balconies. I especially enjoyed the plants at Casa Blanca, at the end of Calle San Sebastian.

Built for Ponce de Leon (who never actually lived here) it was inhabited by members of his family for 250 years.

There is a charming side garden with a Moorish flavor created by a fountain and narrow water channel.

And at the end of the garden the high brick wall has a lion head fountain spouting into a basin, with luxuriant tropical foliage surrounding it.

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Sunday, 9 July 2006: Piñones

East of Isla Verde is the community of Piñones. We drove there on Sunday morning, left the car in the parking lot at the western end of the boardwalk and went for a stroll.

The sea was to our left, with rocks in the surf washing up on the sand and dense vegetation to our right.

It's obvious that there's been changes in the lay of the land. Just look at the dense roots of this sea grape clutching at the vanished sand.

Sea grape, Coccoloba uvifera, is a first invader / survivor along the coast of Caribbean islands, tolerant of salt spray, strong winds, and poor soil.

It offers shelter, notes the English edition of Flowers of the Caribbean, for many birds, lizards, and iguanas.
The iguanas, in turn, eat the fruits and disperse the sea grape's seeds.

I found this beautiful Hymenocallis caribaea flowering near one of the rustic food stalls at the boardwalk's western end.

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Saturday, 8 July 2006: El Yunque

We had decided that on Saturday we would drive to El Yunque, the grandfather mountain dressed in a tropical rain forest, the only one managed by the USDA Forest Service.

Rain is the operative word. Annual precipitation on El Yunque is 20 feet of rain.

As might be anticipated, the combination of lots of water and steep terrain results in spectacular waterfalls.

Aroids such as this elephantine colocasia luxuriate in the warmth, moisture, and ample organic matter.

One clever fellow fashioned this elegant headgear from fallen leaves.

There are several picnic shelters just off the road, where people can grill their meal.
This grandmother is having a relaxing time in the hammock so thoughtful packed in along with the groceries.
A pleasant way to pass a rainy afternoon.

Paul stepped into a sink hole. "Like stepping into a swimming pool." he announced.
So it didn't matter to him that it was raining. He was already as wet as he could get.

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Friday, 7 July 2006: At the Botanic Garden

Lush tropical plants are prominent along the garden's many rivulets. Many heliconias have vivid, strikingly colorful bracts.
This soft, peach-apricot heliconia with bold foliage is relatively subdued.

Gingers also seem to enjoy shade and moisture.
This vivid scarlet specimen adds a brilliant splash of color to the shady watercourse.

Paths are sometimes paved and sometimes not. Steps ease the transition from place to place.
Shade is welcome in the day's heat.

A charming little bridge (there are several others elsewhere in the garden) takes you dry-shod across a little waterfall feeding in to the large pond.
It also makes a pleasing focal point when viewed from the pond's other side.

Water is a frequent feature in the garden: flowing from here to there, as a water-lily filled pond,
or, as here, wonderful fountains, exquisite in their simplicity.

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Thursday, 6 July 2006: Festival de las Flores

Now, "island" somehow implies a cozy size to me. Forget that. Much of Puerto Rico is terra incognito for me. My explorations were in San Juan, with two exceptions. Before setting off I had searched on the Internet for things horticultural to occupy my time while Paul was at work. Interestingly, there was mention of Festival de las Flores in the town of Aibonito. Held every year from the last weekend of June to the first weekend of July, this year it was pushed a week later. That meant I'd be in time to visit. But I'd need a car to get there. Paul caught a ride to work and left me the rental car's keys. A bright red little Hundyai Brio, it looked like something one should wind up, or maybe get out and push when going uphill. So that solved transportation. Navigation was the next consideration. Oh I had directions. But simultaneously driving and navigating was a little daunting. Not a problem. Jody, also visiting her husband, had one more day before returning home. What's more, she likes plants and gardens. With nice symmetry, her husband even gave Paul the necessary lift to work.

Jody and I navigated our way out of the hotel, avoided going to the airport, found the proper highways and worked our way up into the green mountains. Warmth and rain results in lush growth. I never knew there were so many kinds of palm trees. Puny plants grown as houseplants here at home exuberantly burst forth when - free at last from the confines of a flowerpot - they find themselves growing with their roots in the ground. Vining plants hurl themselves skyward, clutching trunks of towering trees for support. The ground is covered with dense mats of tradescantia (perhaps taxonomically re-ordered in setcresea, you know how quickly names change.) Bromeliads wedge themselves into forks of branches sizeable enough to be a tree were they growing anywhere else.

Following Jody's attention to directions, moderated by a modicum of "look at that!" and only one stop at a scenic pull-out we arrived at Aibonito. A modest $4 entry fee, and we strolled in to the 38th Festival de las Flores. Lots of booths selling heliconias and hedychiums, orchids and hibiscus and bougainvillea and bromeliads and nepenthes - and even a few marigolds and petunias too. But we were really there to see the exhibits.

The display space for each exhibitor was of uniform size. All were landscaped like little gardens.
Foliage was often a major component of the exhibits. Many included a water feature.

Jody refreshed herself with a non-alcoholic pina colada served in a pineapple shell.

The vendors, many if not all of whom were local, were selling beautifully grown plants for what seemed to us to be reasonable prices.
It was probably a first for both me and Jody, that we would come away without having bought some plants!

As well as flowers, lush variegated foliage was a key feature.

Here, as everywhere else I traveled, little chameleons would dart about, then pause.

All excellent outing for my first full day, and with a new-found friend to talk to, rehashing what we'd seen as we drove back to the hotel.

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