Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Homogenized World--Tropical Plant Distributions

Caribbean beach

I am writing a novel about Paraguay in 1630--because when I saw northern Argentina and Paraguay in the 1980s I was surprised by their natural history and history and have wanted to share their stories.

In trying to bring the 17th century to life, I have to describe what was there and that has been quite an adventure because there has been so much change.

Beginning in the 1500s, conquering and colonizing, European powers carried useful plants all over the world. To describe our world early in that process, I have to figure out what plants are native to the Americas and which were introduced. If it is native to the Americas, it will likely be new to Europeans. If it is from Africa or China, it may not yet be common in South America even if it is abundant there today.

For example, frangipani (Plumeria spp., dogbane family Apocynaceae) called the Indian temple tree, is native to Central America and the Caribbean. My characters probably had not seen it in Spain.

plumeria, frangipani
frangipani (Plumeria)
Mangoes (Mangifera indica, sumac family Anacardiaceae), very common in the American tropics today, are from Asia.

mango Mangifera indica
mango tree (Mangifera indica) seen on Sint Eustacius in the Caribbean
The idea of my novel is to share the wonders of  tropical plants and animals as seen by someone from who lives in Temperate Zone (Europe, North America). I added the historical angle because I love the similarities and differences between the natural history and history of North and South America. Of course I am channeling my experience. But I was there 350 years later than when the story takes place.

It is an ongoing challenge. Beaches...my photos all feature coconut palms (Cocos nucifera, palm family Arecaceae). But those are native to the western Pacific Ocean and probably were not widespread on Atlantic coasts as early as 1630.
coconut palm, Panama
coconut palm (Cocos nucifera)
West Indian almond, also called the tropical almond, Terminalia catappa (leadwood tree family, Combretaceae) was one of the first coastal plants I learned to recognize, growing along the beaches in Costa Rica and Jamaica. But in fact, it is from the Indian Ocean: West Indian almond is a misleading common name, Indian almond is more accurate.
Terminalia catappa, tropical almond
tropical almond, Terminalia catappa
Every time I begin a description of what seemed to me a common plant, I have to check whether it is native to the Americas or introduced.

Bananas (Musa spp. banana family, Musaceae), seen everywhere in tropical America today, are native to Southeast Asia.

banana (Musa spp.)
Starfruit (Averrhoa carambola, wood sorrel family, Oxalidaceaecame from Southeast Asia

star fruit Carambola
Star fruit growing in Costa Rica
The soursops (Annona spp. cherimoya famly, Annonaceae), are not widely known outside the tropics, but they are native to the Americas and have been in cultivation since before Columbus arrived.
soursop (Annona)

Noni (Morinda citrifolia, coffee family, Rubicaceae), another conspicuous tropical fruit in the American tropics today, is from Eurasia.
noni, Morinda citrifolia
But of course many American tropical trees are found around the world today, for example Papaya (Carica papaya, papaya family, Caricaceae) - yes, native to the Americas
papaya (Carica papaya)
papaya (Carica papaya)

Cassava (Manihot esculenta, poinsettia family, Euphorbiaceae), known to North Americans mainly as the source of tapioca, is native to tropical America, but it is grown all around the world today.
casava, manihot
casava (Manihot esculenta, poinsettia family, Euphorbiaceae) root and leaf
Humans have moved plants around as long as we have records. What is probably new is worrying about "our native" plants.

For most of us, the plants of our childhoods are "normal" and often beloved. Likewise, we visit the tropics and fall in love with huge red flowers, enticing fragrances or large and dramatic leaves.

But the plants we are surrounded with are often gathered from around the world.

African tulip tree in Hawaii
African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata, catalpa family, Bignoniaceae)
in Hawaii
Do I want to throw out all those aliens? Probably not. But it has been eye-opening to see how much we have homogenized the world. So many of the plants remembered with fondness from Costa Rica are native to Bali and those remembered from Bali are native to Costa Rica. 

Comments and corrections welcome.

From this blog:
More on banana: link
More on coconuts: link
More on papaya: link
More on plumeria (frangipani): link

Van Wyck, Ben-Erik. 2005. Food Plants of the World. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
Wikipedia and Missouri Plant Finder - checking spellings and scientific names.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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