Speaking about the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, Spencer Fordin (Cayman Compass) says, “Go for the blue iguanas. Stay for the exotic trees.”
The Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park has developed a reputation as the best place for residents and tourists to see Cayman’s endangered population of blue iguanas. But while the iguanas are sometimes hard to see, a wide variety of interesting trees are standing in plain sight.
Stuart Mailer, the environmental programs manager of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, has a number of personal favorites in the botanic park that tell the story of Cayman’s history. Some of the trees have been imported from around the world, but others have played a key role in Cayman’s development.
One of Mr. Mailer’s favorites, a rainbow gum, stands directly in front of the botanic park’s visitor center. The rainbow gum is a tall and fragrant species of eucalyptus that originated in the Philippines and from other countries in that region, and it lends a bit of exotic beauty to the park. “It’s exceedingly fast-growing, but what’s most striking about this tree is that the bark peels away, revealing different colors,” Mr. Mailer said. “The underlying fresh bark is green, so when a strip peels off, you get a green effect. Over time, that changes color to blue to purple and eventually to brick red.”
Mr. Mailer said he is not certain when the rainbow gum was planted in the botanic park, but he said it has visibly changed in diameter over the last few years. The tree is growing quickly, and its high limbs produce flowers that are fed on by parrots and pollinated by bees and other insects.
The botanic park has several trees imported from other locales, but it also has a section dubbed the Nature Trail that is dotted with trees that grew wild on Cayman. One such tree, an interesting species of red bean, caused the botanic park organizers to divert a planned walkway around it. [. . .]
Much of the region was filled with large trees when people began to colonize and settle Grand Cayman, but the shipbuilding industry claimed many of those trees as material. Quickly, the big hardwood trees began to disappear in a spasm of logging, shipbuilding and local development.
“Many of the early settlers were woodsmen who were basically granted tracts of land for harvesting mahogany and other tropical hardwoods,” Mr. Mailer said. “There was enough mahogany to last for centuries, and people took that to mean it would last forever. They’d clear-cut an island and move on to another one. And there was always another island. Until they cut them all.”
Here in Cayman, he said, they cut the mahogany that was easily accessible and left the specimens off the Mastic Trail intact. Mahogany is known for its enduring strength, and some trees that were felled by Hurricane Ivan had to be chopped away and removed so people could access the Nature Trail.
Another local hardwood species, the ironwood tree, played a huge role in the early Cayman homes. Ironwood was used for the footings of Cayman cottages, and in some cases, these foundations have lasted for more than 100 years without withering away, despite sitting on quite moist ground. [. . .]
[Photo above by Alvaro Serey: This cotton silk tree was felled by a hurricane and continued growing in a new direction.]