Indigenous tree species include mahogany, cedar, pine, rosewood, ebony, lignum vitae, cottonwood, logwood, majagua, and the deciduous, silvery yagruma, which shimmers as if frosted and bursts forth with huge lily-like blooms. Many species are in short supply following centuries of logging to supply the furniture makers of Europe and to clear the land for King Sugar. The mountain ranges still have ecosystems typical of original Antillean vegetation.
Archetypal species include the swollen baobab, which looks as if it has its roots in the air (for which it is sometimes called the “upside-down tree”), and the silver-trunked kapok, or silk-cotton, better known in Cuba as the revered ceiba (Ceiba pentandra), with broad trunk and wide-spreading boughs. It is considered sacred by adherents of santería. Other species are exotics, imports from far-off lands, such as eucalyptus from Australia.
The bully of trees is the jagüey, a species of strangler fig. It sprouts from the tops of trees from seeds dropped by birds or bats. It then sends roots to the ground, where they dig into the soil and provide a boost of sustenance. Slowly—it may take a full century—the roots grow and envelop the host tree, choking it until it dies and rots away, leaving the hollow, freestanding fig tree.
There are fruit trees, too, such as the alligator pear tree; the big, dark green aguacates; and the zapote, whose pulpy red fruit is the queen of Cuban fruits. One of Sierra del Rosario’s endemic species, Psidium guayabita, produces a berry from which sweet licor de guayabita and dry guayabita seca brandy are made. Sea grape trims the island’s shores, as does the coastal manchineel, whose poisonous sap and tiny apple-like fruits should be avoided.
Palms and large-leafed undergrowth such as the “everlasting plant,” whose large leaves form habitats for other plants, give way to ferns, bracken, pine trees, feathery-leafed palo de cotorra (parrot tree), and parasitic conde de pino (count of the pine) vine.
Above 2,000 meters, the vegetation changes abruptly to cloud forest. Some wind-battered elfin woods on exposed ridges are dwarfed, whereas more protected areas have majestically tall trees festooned with bromeliads, lichens, mosses, yellow-flowering palo de cruz vines, and all manner of lianas and creepers.
Many trees host epiphytes, arboreal nesters (“epiphyte” comes from the Greek, “upon plants”) that attach themselves to tree trunks or branches. The epiphytic environment is a kind of nutrient desert. Thus bromeliads—brilliantly flowering, spiky leafed “air plants” up to 120 centimeters across—have developed tanks or cisterns that hold great quantities of rainwater and decaying detritus in the whorled bases of their stiff, tightly overlapping leaves. The plants gain nourishment from dissolved nutrients in the cisterns. Known as “tank epiphytes,” they provide trysting places and homes for tiny aquatic animals high above the ground.
Visually, the predominant species are the palms, of which Cuba has more than 30 types, including the rare cork palm, found in the western part of Cuba. Those palms with the swollen lower trunks are not mutations but barrigonas, or belly palms, so named because of their remarkable ability to store water. The coconut palm is severely outnumbered, although it holds its own in northeast Cuba around Baracoa .
The king of palms is the ubiquitous silver-sheathed Roystonea regia, the royal palm, which grows singly or in great elegant clumps. Its smooth gray trunk, which can tower 25 meters, resembles a great marble column with a curious bulge near the top. Its fronds (pencas) make good thatch, and the thick green base—the yagua—of the penca, being waterproof, also makes an excellent roof or siding material. The trunk itself makes good timber. Bees favor palm honey. The seeds are used for pig feed. And birds love its black fruit and carry the seeds (palmiche) all over the country. As part of the national emblem, it is protected by law, despite its ability to thrive almost anywhere.
Cuba’s shorelines are home to five species of mangrove. Mangroves are halophytes, plants that thrive in salty conditions. Although they do not require salt (in fact they grow better in fresh water), they thrive where no other tree can. These pioneer land builders thrive at the interface of land and sea, forming a stabilizing tangle that fights tidal erosion and reclaims land from the water. The irrepressible, reddish-barked, shrubby mangroves rise from the dark water on interlocking stilt roots. Small brackish streams and labyrinthine creeks wind among them like snakes.
Their sustained health is vital to the health of other marine ecosystems. Cuba’s rivers carry silt out of the mountains onto the coastal alluvial plains, where it is trapped by mangroves. The nutrient-rich mud fosters algae and other small organisms that form the base of the marine food chain.
A look down into the water reveals luxuriant life: oysters and sponges attached to the roots, small stingrays flapping slowly over the bottom, and tiny fish in schools of tens of thousands. Baby sharks and other juvenile fish spend much of their early lives among mangrove roots, which keep out large predators. High tide brings larger diners—big mangrove snappers and young barracudas hang motionless in the water. Mangrove swamps are esteemed as nurseries of marine life and havens for water birds—cormorants, frigate birds, pelicans, herons, and egrets—which feed and nest here by the thousands, producing guano that makes the mangroves grow faster.
Mangroves build up the soil until they strand themselves high and dry. In the end they die on the land they have created.