A September 2005 trip
to El Yunque by Jose Kevo
Quote: The convincing experience? Forego tourist excursions, rent a car, and explore to your heart's content! Wantonness, in the wilderness, of El Yunque's rainforest.
Early risers usually encounter the island still sleeping in Puerto Rico, a chance to linger with inappropriate stares when no one's the wiser. Perhaps that's why salsa, resounding from the car stereo, faded into nothingness once entering the foothills. Making presence known would've compromised intimacy of the stolen moment.
The road wasn't bashful, commanding full attention scrambling upward through the Luquillo Mountains. Cavorting shadows saturated with a stimulating zephyr illustrated the fringed peaks and valleys, all quite the overture for simply reaching the entry passage, where purpose really begins to flourish.
The Caribbean National Forest is sequestered enchantress of the U.S. forest system; the only tropical rain forest of the stars and stripes, with encounters that are anything but domestic. Spaniards revered this sacred domain of the vanquished indigenous people, eventually designating El Yunque a forest reserve in 1876. Today, the park encompasses 43 square miles sprawling across elevations which nurture four different ecosystems. Global research centers maintain scholarly watch over the smallest of details outlined for visitors in the Portal Tropical Forest Center, but nothing satisfies compared to the enlightenment of explorations.
A series of hiking trails interlace el bosque, the forest, which harbors rapturous selva-jungle peculiarities. Regardless of physical abilities or time constraints, daring to rendezvous with the simple Caimitillo Trail, which entertains the tourist circuit, is an occurrence never to be forgotten. Perusing trails less traveled fosters abandonment to a secluded terrarium veiled in delicate mists.
Whether pushing forward or standing in awe, an illustrious canvas transforms with the sun penetrating clouds and forest canopy while gentle breezes whisper to the hypnotic sway. Fertility exudes a lifeline that compels wanderlust that surpasses self-assigned limitations. Weariness is further invigorated by the rain forest philharmonic of rustling branches accompanying opera-like chirpings of the coquí, the native frog that eludes extinction within these realms.
Without waver, the forest is America's Garden of Eden, though license plates simply declare Isla del Encanto, the Island of Enchantment that gallantly establishes itself within this domain. Just as La Mina Falls hastens to the depths, the Mt. Britton Trail defies perseverance for surmounting its lookout tower. Sweeping views were secondary knowing the paramount still awaited across the valley, where El Yunque Trail shrouds roots of heritage with telltale virtues that made for one of the most superb hiking adventures found anywhere in the world.
The Sweat FactorMiles of beach wait nearby and are the place to head after leaving the forest. Dressing like you're heading for the beach, in light cottons and bathing suits, helps to absorb sweat and potential downpours while still staying cool in the forest. Puerto Rico basks year-round in the upper 80's. If planning to do any amount of hiking, wear comfortable sneakers at the very least. Most trails are well maintained, but beach flops, sandals, and top-siders, which felt comfortable at the time, caught up in the long run with no arch support.
Maximizing Time and EffortRenting a car to explore at your own leisure is well worth the effort, but most won't have the luxury of piddling for 3 days. The Side Trails and Park Services Experience entry outlines a hiking course that covers the park's highlights in one day and also details limited dining options and other services available.
Scenic Highway 191The turnoff is somewhat confusing, with numerous others heading right numbered 900's. Look for the INT 191 sign indicating the intersection. Immediately following is a brown sign pointing forest to the right. If you miss this, the intersection is 1 block ahead. Turn right, weave through town, and follow signs.
Distance MeasurementsRoad markers are in kilometers, but printed details use mileage. Portal Tropical Center is 2.7 miles from Highway 3. Numerous lookout points and places to pull over line the 9km stretch before it terminates. Smaller roads split off Highway 191; drive them at your own risk.
Hiking TrailsUser-friendly trail maps are free at the Visitor Center or Palo Colorado Information Center. Ample parking is along Highway 191, where trails begin. Always lock valuables in the trunk. Trail signs detail length, elevation, estimated time, and difficulty levels. Entries provide actualities varying with ability and condition.
Attraction | "Tourist Excursions vs. Independent Exploring"
My first El Yunque experience came through one of these excursions back in '94. From current observations, scheduled events don't appear to have changed except that now Portal Visitor Center has been added as the first stop. Excursionists are hauled in 25-passenger vans. Tinted windows severely limit incredible views when making the scenic drive up Highway 191.
The second stop comes at La Coca Falls, an 85-foot cascade that's usually a trickle down the sheer ridge unless heavy rains have fallen. There's a small pool at the bottom; rocks are extremely slippery for getting to the base. The falls is also a hot spot, with locals posing for snapshots; natural beauties are often lost in the crowds. Beyond here, Yokahu Tower is another stop with surrounding gardens the better highlight. A winding central staircase ascends the 69-foot look-tower built in the '60s; vistas are only as good as skies permit, though it's said that St. Thomas can be seen on clear, sunny days.
The extent of hiking, and time within the forest, is spent along the Caimitillo Trail, a level, well-maintained path that barely slices the vegetation, and takes about 30 minutes, even when rushed through en masse. Guides frequently stop to point out significant details, but trails are narrow, making clustering around within hearing range difficult. Incessant chatter from the group spoils natural tranquilities, but jungle-like qualities still make quite an impression.
Honestly speaking, coming here to be herded around like cattle is better than nothing, but don't be surprised to end up feeling extremely cheated. Similar memories overshadowed initial experiences until recently returning, and taking proper means for doing things at my own leisure. Even if it's only for a day, check into car rental options, since no public transportation services the forest.
IGOUGO's comparative pricing car rental link turned up the best deal through Thrifty at a daily base rate of $20.19 on economy models. Actual cost was $29.11 per day with taxes, license-plate fee, and mandatory $5.95 liability insurance not covered by credit card policies. Better than the savings, compared to organized excursion rates, was the chance to freely explore this National Park as intended over 3 consecutive days, physically pooping out long before opportunities did.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 12, 2005
El Yunque National Forest
Road 191, Off Highway 3 To Luquillo Beach
Palmer, Puerto Rico 00721
For those familiar with garden tropicals, the tour begins around the landscaped parking lots with labeled exotic plants and flowers. The elevated walkway entering the center passes through a section of eye-level forest, which is also a worthy introductory course with details. But once inside without a group guide, there are no signs or directions for what's available. At least all displays (and employees) are bilingual with information in Spanish and English.
Especially if arriving at opening time, make a beeline for back of the lower level, pass along covered walkway shrouded with mini-waterfalls, and enter the theater before it fills. A film on constant replay is worth sitting through, with additional information not presented elsewhere. The highlight segments feature ongoing efforts for saving the green Puerto Rican Parrot from extinction through a large breeding-in-captivity station within the forest not open to the public. Clips are appropriately subtitled when need be.
Upper-level areas above the theatre house three open-air halls with educational qualities enhanced through interactive displays and videos. To the left features basic descriptions of this particular forest and tips on what to look for proving valubale to both children and adults. The back hall addresses products and other benefits of the rain forest's biodiversity from a local and global perspective, with some pretty startling facts of destruction rates and potential adverse outcomes. The hall to the right places emphasis on indigenous cultures and how they communed within the forest as a means of survival and preservation.
Architectural enthusiasts will marvel at the center's design, which is largely open air, allowing glimpses of the surrounding forest. Peaked girders run the central length with Cathedral-style depiction, and pristine chapel views best coming from the upper-levels, where bromeliad-clad support columns trail vistas off towards the lower level and beyond to the Atlantic coast. The Forest Center is completely handicap accessible and includes a small terrace-café, restrooms, and an expansive, overpriced gift shop. Free hiking maps are at the entry counter.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 12, 2005
El Portal Tropical Forest Center
El Yunque, Puerto Rico
Attraction | "Big Tree Trail"
Information placards are scattered along the trail's first half, detailing significance of various tree species thriving in the Tabonuco Forest below 2,000 feet. Farther off-trail, some of these protected, towering hardwoods date a 1,000 years old, outliving relatives that used to luxuriate the island before Spaniards arrived and began culling lowlands. Many of Old San Juan's original structures still stand strong 500 years later thanks to durable beams and planks, but it was construction of Spanish warships that prompted an export ban, perhaps sparing further deforestation.
For peace of mind, identify the Yagrumo Tree, which is found all over the forest and dominates this area. Excelling with dual-purpose thanks to rapid growth over a short-lived lifespan of 40 years, Yagrumos provide critical canopy cover, and their odd-shaped leaves carpet the forest floor trapping seeds and pods for germination. However, it's a long fall from top to bottom, and leaves come crashing through the dense vegetation with a startling Jurrasic Park-type rumble!
Lower elevations receive less than 100 inches of annual rainfall but can be inundated with ground runoff from higher levels. Sunken trails weave along hair-pin curves descending the mountain where looking down can be as fascinating as trapsing with head tilted upward and mouth agape. Exposed from top soil continually washing away, intricate root systems have entangled with vines forming artistic natural sculptures clandestine in the sea of green.
Nearing the halfway point, stillness is enlivened with sounds of water cascading down the mountain, signaling anticipation for seeing the grand finale. Thundering turned out to be only a small stream meandering down a rock course, I turned back feeling extremely cheated. Thankfully, the final, earlier missed trail marker pinpointed that this wasn't the marvel and intended course was resumed.
La Mina Falls is the ultimate destination for using this trail, and the roar is audible long before sight. The falls is the park's most substantial, regardless of rainfall, and small pool at the base is the only spot for dipping. Cool waters were nice for soaking feet, and a person could totally submerge himself in the shallowness with a little effort, but large underwater rocks make for tipsy wading. What the area excels in for beauty, it lacks in size and quickly fills up on weekends.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 12, 2005
Attraction | "Mt. Britton Trail"
Highway 191 terminates at 13km, where a small access road veers to the right, and a trail head for Mt. Britton is just beyond. Parking is along the narrow passageway, and an elderly park employee was always standing guard, whether to provide security within the remoteness or encouragement to the weary. He assured that the mile hike to the tower could be done within 45 minutes, though information estimates a 90-minute trek. Physical stamina and endurance dictate the real time factor.
At 941 feet, Mt. Britton is one of the lesser peaks within the Luquillo mountain chain. Path brevity is less than half the distance for reaching El Yunque, only because it doesn't take extended scenic routes terracing up the mountain.
This trail begins an immediate steep climb using a series of short step stairs dispersed amid narrow paved sections with barely room to pass around others. The forest, clinging to the side of the mountain, was some of the most dense and darkened ground cover around, the shade factor more a highlight than actual scenery.
Trail through the forest ends at a small service road that continues the vigorous climb before a brief jaunt resumes up a steep embankment. The Mount Britton Lookout Tower is swallowed by its lofty surroundings. Not until entering the stone structure, and trudging the final steps up an interior staircase, does such physical chastisement make any sense.
Arriving out of breath is further exacerbated by the breathtaking scope that encompasses the tower, including glimpses of Caribbean along the island's southern coast. Outward vistas were rather hazy, even on a clear day, but the most intriguing views lie below, overlooking the forest canopy. Binoculars would've been nice, but a telephoto lense was great for turning the above picture into a close-up work of art like pictured at bottom of the Gardener Free Form.
Baño de Oro TrailOne of the most enjoyable hikes passes along a pair of spring-fed stone pools built during the Depression as public swimming holes. Baño Grande is across from Palo Colorado Information Center at the trailhead, while Baño de Oro trailhead is less than a quarter mile up Highway 191. Swimming has since been banned, and both pools were currently drained and looking rather shabby.
The Baño de Oro Trail was a vibrant and colorful trek. The 30-minute easy hike makes a large loop setting out along El Yunque Trail before the last fork slices back towards the Highway. This lower section is where the Palo Colorado forest merges into the Sierra Palm forest, and the variety of plantlife is astounding, with flowering tropicals and species of palms in their blooming season. The trail was paved in some parts or hard-packed, which likely turns muddy with rains. The canopy wasn't as dense, affording more sunshine and random clearings gave some of the best upward views from lower elevations.
Los Picachos TrailOn clear days from Highway 191 and lower elevations, most confuse the distant jutting rock peaks as El Yunque. Impressive as they are, they're still not the highlight. Los Picachos, the peaks/summits, loom over the forest sprawl like watch dogs. Their only access is from a brief side trail that splits off from the El Yunque Trail in the Cloud Forest. The sign lists this as a 10-minute walk, if even that, but the brief, level path appeared to be the least used and most treacherous. Fallen branches and other debris at least carpeted over the mud.
Passing along the first peak, a sheer rock wall was rather hard to gauge within the dense vegetation. Just around the base was a small route marker saying the trail ended, and I thought, "You've got to be kidding." Well, perhaps the official trail. Off to the side, grasses look a little trampled, but conceal a passage leading to a steep staircase and large lookout platform from the outer summit. The area was overgrown and forgotten, wading through waist-high weeds to the perimeter. The rock wall was tall enough to obstruct looking straight down, and outward overviews were secondary compared to higher elevations. For the brave and/or foolish, it would be possible to stand on the wall, but with winds whipping and nothing to hold onto, even my sense of adventure cringed at depths to the bottom.
El Yunque Rock TrailFrom the lookout area below, El Yunque's summit, a large rock protrusion, is visible on the mountain's western side. From atop the peak, a trail sign indicates the path to El Yunque Rock is right there, but I gave up before finding it. Supposedly, it veers off the service road, which plunges down back of the mountain, and after walking for a good 5 minutes, I began calculating the steep climb back. From the rock, vistas would be somewhat closer for gazing across the coastal plateau towards San Juan. But unless you're up for the adventure, the lookout area from El Yunque will more than suffice.
Mt. Britton SpurAfter the grueling, uphill trek to Mt. Britton's lookout tower, expecting more of the same along the Spur Trail was further shunned thanks to trail maps outlining this jaunt as rather extensive. Thankfully it's not, and this uneventful 10-minute walk across level ground was merely a convenient connection between the park's summits. The spur splits off from the El Yunque trail connecting to the short path to Mt. Britton's lookout tower. Walking along the service road, connecting back to Britton's main trail, was rather nostalgic swallowed in jungle.
The Best of...; a Combo Gad-AboutThere were no regrets spending the better part of 3 days, mornings through early afternoons, hiking around the forest. With a little knowledge, it's possible to maximize time, especially if you're independently exploring and have only one day to spend in the park. The following recommendation links the highlights of El Yunque and is well worth the effort. It's a guestimated 6-mile trek that could be done in 4 to 7 hours, depending on fitness and taking time to enjoy yourself.
Hiking for the real AdventurousWith all that's available through the park's main trail system, it wasn't until later information revealed these inspiring treks were for the amatuers! El Yunque's hard-core hiking is rather concealed in the southwestern section, beyond where Highway 191 terminates to public usage at the km 13 marker. Tradewinds Trail is one-quarter of a mile ahead, unmarked, and cuts off to the right through unmaintained terrain. The 3.9-mile trek is the park's longest and most strenuous trail and is an estimated 4-hour journey to El Toro, the rainforest's highest peak at 3,522 feet. From there, the El Toro Trail is another 2.2 miles to Highway 186.
This arduous duo is part of the National Recreation Trail System and is recommended only for the experienced who come prepared with a full set of backwoods hiking gear and supplies, including that for off-trail camping. The almost 8-mile round-trip to El Toro alone from Highway 191 is supposedly too much for one day. Camping permits must be obtained from the Catalina Work Center, which is just beyond the Portal Visitor Center at the park's entrance.
Guest Centers & DiningThe Palo Colorado Information Center is hub of forest activity surrounded by parking lots that lead off to six different trailheads. There's a small office with information and free hiking maps should you bypass the $3 entrance fee to Portal Visitor Center. Restrooms are available here and at the Sierra Palm Food Concession also located along Highway 191. Potable water makes for a convenient place to refill containers for drinking along the trails.
Picnicking is the popular form of eats within the park, including camouflaged shelters off trailheads along the main highway. The one pictured above is just inside the Big Tree Trail entry, a perfect spot for natural seclusion. On weekends, locals hosting family reunions enliven the major picnic areas surrounding Palo Colorado, Sierra Palm, and Caimitillo Trail, where facilities include expansive, open-air shelters, and scattered grills.
If a picnic tops your list, stop and purchase foods/beverages before heading to the park. There's some roadside "tourist traps" along lower Highway 191 hawking snacks, rain ponchos, and other last-minute junk, but limited selections are overpriced, just as they are at the Sierra Palm Food Concession or small snack bar inside Portal Visitor Center.
Satisfied only two cars were in the Palo Colorado parking lot at 7:50am the following morning, an intimate hush permeated the dank tropical air. Trail-map outlined desired journey: two-and-a-half hours to the 3,496-foot pinnacle of El Yunque; a 2,500-foot altitude gain from Mt. Britton's tower, employing a 2.4-mile challenging trail more than twice as long. The first step launches onto four different routes beginning at Baño Grande. Sweat was trickling long before the Baño de Oro Trail fork, where only one purpose remained beyond the familiar, virgin territory on the pilgrimage to El Yunque.
Fresh perspectives were quickly roused when a svelte American came barrelling around a blind corner. The narrow trail caused him to down-shift when preparing to pass, but not without friendly banter. El Yunque was how this expat began mornings three days a week, and curiosity got the best of me, charged with that pesky voice of reasoning about what you're really getting yourself into. The old man eyed me, saying I could probably reach the top in about an hour; less than half the listed time. Of course, he didn't know to factor middle-aged soreness on this third day of hiking, or about the extinguished Marlboro butt shoved in my pocket.
With esteem of like speaking to Moses on his way down from the holy mount, asking about the Promised Lands was second nature. Higher elevations were fogged over with clouds brewing in morning humidity--just my luck. When parting in opposite directions, abandonment to whatever waited in the wilderness suspiciously enticed. Height of the most active hurricane season on record had lured me into weather watching more than usual. Two days of clear skies had been a bonus since forecasts had predicted 70% chance of heavy thundershowers during my entire stay in Puerto Rico.
Shelters are scattered along trails for resting, and as places to duck into when rains become too heavy. But where there's thunder, there's lightning; rather defying the "never stand under a tree" rule. Pity the fool that worries too much, or the overachiever who's driven by the hike while lacking a balanced focus that deprives not being able to see the forest for the trees.
Musings of the MistsBent over catching a breath, a light-headedness took charge when standing and slowly rotating to ogle the random scenery. A sheepish grin melted when remembering the preset--VCR back home, and here I was traipsing through a SURVIVOR Guatemala-type jungle fostering the mystic verdancies of LOST. Continuances such as this generate thankfulness for not being tied to watches, but the kid-like marvels of "how much farther?" were mounting and finally received perspective when passing an obscure trail marker that simply read 1.2 miles, the halfway point.
Easing into the Cloud Forest region above 2,500 feet didn't need any fanfares. Valleys are left behind as the trail eases into a gentle meander up the mountain. Foliage, perilously clinging to slopes, annually receives more than 200 inches of rain supplemented by El Yunque's elixir of chilled mountain air inebriated on tropical humidity, a nourishment to the forest and the hiker better than any second wind. Conditions are ripe for photosynthesis, where delicate lichens and mosses gift wrap every rock, branch, and lower-level surface, while air plants and colorful bromeliads blaze overhead attached to trunks.
As elevations increase, density of vegetation begins to shrink into what's known as the Dwarf Forest. A spiritual silence, not even violated by the coquí at these heights, is broken only by foot steps along the trail, accompanied by resonance of heavy breathing. As the forest canopy begins to disperse, presence of shadows multiply, further possessed by pearls of moisture glistening in the sun. Indiscriminate clearings gave way to brief glimpses of the coast, and something more caused a trembling. Darkness was preparing to devour the peaks, and a sense of helpless rapture stepped up the undertaking.
The sun quickly resigned to impenetrable mists caressing the massive ferns, which now hemmed the trail. The eerie shift in ambience was welcomed, if for no other reason than knowing the summit must be near. Patchwork blues began relighting the open-air path when coming to a small side trail, cutting off to the right towards a prominence that overlooked the entire eastern portion of the island. Trying not to swoon, the urge to park was immediately challenged, knowing this still wasn't the summit and hoping views would only get better.
The remaining stretch was perhaps a 5-minute trek onward to El Yunque's pinnacle, and not making the extra effort would've left the adventure incomplete. Dense clouds had swept in, rather symbolic for the defilement of sacred territory. Yukiyú is what Tainos called the spirit of this mountain that protected their island of Borinquen. Spaniards corrupted the name to Yunque, meaning anvil, which the peak does resemble in shape. The crest had obviously long been cleared giving way to mega-satellite dishes and communication towers shunned within the clouds. A small, unkempt fortress was supposed to be the crowning attribute, but even with clear skies, vistas couldn't begin to compare with overlooks from the precipice below.
High-Noon Matinee; the Private Screening Sometimes a person should stop long enough to absorb the opportunity at-hand without succumbing to wanderlust of what potentially waits ahead, even with self-assuring promises to return later. Staring off into overcast oblivion from El Yunque's lower lookout cliff was daunting. Everything was now consumed in a manner that's usually encountered safely from an airplane seat. Exposed and feeling vulnerable, I shriveled onto a rock.
The rugged protrusion was less than 5 square yards and felt even more entrapping with waste and void beyond. Wisps of clouds slithered over the borders with gestures of further engulfment. Pacing about only enclosed the scant stage and prolonged the delay. Delusions of flight lured closer to the edge; a defiant step, for knocking on heaven's door, concealed with a hellacious plunge like the serpent took towards Eden. Caged and fidgety, the battle of wills persisted without resolve.
Fine mists had laundered the sweat, but it was something else that surged a spine-tingling chill that retrieved lucidness. Suspended moments passed before another occurrence verified there'd been no deception. The sun was piercing through quick-moving clouds with a sweeping motion that circled through the valleys like a floodlight from heaven. The tease of preview, for coming attractions, grew with each appearance until darkness was finally whisked away, and the rain forest was clearly unveiled at my feet.
The beacon of El Yunque, a single red bromeliad, had been radiating the entire time with tell-tale signs of why Puerto Rico's called Isla del Encanto; the Enchanted Island. The outlook of the narrow 35-mile-wide island faded off into the Caribbean shimmering like ice to the south, San Juan and the Atlantic's coastal mesa to the northwest, and the endless miles of Luquillo beaches straight ahead. Film could not penetrate haziness for capturing the resplendent waters visible to the eye; be sure to imprint the images in your mind.
Gazing across the forest canopy is quite the opposite with clarity, especially when glancing straight down, or across to Los Picachos. Views seemed close enough to reach out and touch, much like the earlier allure of stepping off into the clouds. Time could've slipped away, but all that looking down served as a constant reminder that the trek back still waited.
Funny how a return segment, by any means, always seems a bit shorter, especially when the effort has exceeded any expectations. Downhill made for an even easier walk where processing reflections was already better than taking in more forest. After countless returns to Puerto Rico, who knew this was what really awaited beyond the tourist excursion taken 11 years ago. Smugness only sweetened the satisfaction after getting robbed of the last similar opportunity.
The car clock read 2:10pm once returning, a little over 6 hours, encountering less than a dozen people on a Saturday. There's reason why one should always save the best for last. Everything else was worthy, dramatic overture, because nothing compared to experiences from the El Yunque Trail. Heading out, salsa music was gaining momentum around each downhill curve when the timeless Frankie Ruiz hit Lluvia registered that these monumental endeavors had foregone only one thing. After 3 days of hiking through the rain forest, the only thing that had been missing was rain.
Lowe's Home Improvement Center has became my new quick fix source with healthier plants available with 1-year guarantees, equal pricing, and of a much more exotic selection. Over the last year, forestation includes citrus trees, three new types of bananas, coffee, Medinilla and Bougainvillea, white and colored Bird of Paradise, and four different kinds of the gorgeous flowering Curcuma Ginger.
None of these need extra care beyond proven know-how, but coming to a rain forest like El Yunque was science lab-gone-recess for a botanical geek like myself, a 43-square mile opportunity of hands-on field study in growth patterns and plant management. People frequently ask how I maintain such verdancy, and they've even abandoned wilted patients ushered to death's door. Two obvious factors for healthy tropicals are necessary light and moisture, whether plants are outside or indoors, and finding the appropriate balance beyond the tag's basic instructions.
One of the worst assumptions made is because it's tropical, the plant needs full sunshine. Rain forest density quickly proves 90% of what grows receives minimal filtered sun through the forest canopy. The majority of basic tropicals are popular because they don't require much sun and can thrive in low-light interiors or office settings under fluorescent lighting. Place them in the full sun outdoors or next to a window where direct sun is magnified through glass and leaves rapidly scorch at best. On the other hand, exotic tropicals droop and shed leaves without a maximum dosage of daily sunshine, especially those of the flowering variety. El Yunque's wide-open trails and roadways were adorned with blossoms kissed by the Caribbean sun, varieties bursting with combs and petals towering in natural environments.
The other critical lifeline is moisture, and understanding that too much water can be more detrimental than not enough! Potted plants don't have the luxury of natural runoff, or root systems that can plunge to unknown depths for self-survival. Even with appropriate drainage holes in containers, too much water can turn dirt into mud, which suffocates roots, causing wilting that can be irreversible.
As soon as consistent spring weather permits, tropical plants should be moved outdoors in appropriate lighting. I prefer to soak them daily in the mornings and spray them of an evening when the humidity-driven moisture can have full affect. Unknown to most, plants do their best growing in the darkness of night. Once taken back inside for the season, watering once a week is more than enough, keeping an eye out for midweek thirst quenching if leaves droop.
Beyond this, regular mistings, and running a humidifier when plants are indoors, enhances healthiness in lieu of rains or spraying with a garden hose, which helps keep insects and harmful bacterias off buds and leaves. My hibiscus will never reach island magnitude, because pruning them, before coming inside, greatly minimizes aphids and mites their buds attract, and that can quickly contaminate other plants. And just as children quickly outgrow school clothes, plants will also outgrow containers. Re-potting them immediately after purchase, and then again about every 2 years, ensures that root systems can expand, which flourishes growth and beauty.
Look But Don't Touch?Using film canisters, our mission of a second purpose was to carefully collect seeds, pods, and spors for the nurturing task of germination, and hopefully a new variety of tropicals back home. This method was proven after finding a stray papaya seed had shot up in a few short weeks at the Bayahibe compound. Disappointed that seeds from an imported Mexican papaya had petered out in sapling stages, the Dominican variety hit pay dirt. After lying dormant in pots for a few months, seeds sprouted in spring and have already grown into 4-foot-high stalks showing signs of bark.
Even though the Caribbean's climate is tropical year-round, September ushers in the season when plants and trees in bloom deposit their offspring to germinate before the next growing season. Opportunities were ripe for the picking without really even needing to look, whether snatching from the branch or combing ground cover at the base of trees. I ended up with 17 different specimens from varieties of palms, ferns, and flowering plants. Nutmeg fruit pods littered sections of the Mt. Britton Trail.
Seeds again escaped discovery when passing through the USDA inspection station at the airport that's supposed to prohibit taking fresh foods and plant life back to the States. Unfortunately, I chickened out, testing luck with one of the coconuts that had sprouted a baby palm. The wilderness coast was blanketed with fallen coconuts and chance to thoroughly examine the growth process to be applied towards the imported Mexican variety potted and waiting. Perhaps there's hope for abducting one next time. Some rather substantially sized sea grape and breadfruit pods went undetected.
Puerto Rico's Jardín BotánicoPlans included tracking down the Jardín Botánico, which doubles as an Experimental Agricultural Station through the University of Puerto Rico. The bamboo-canopied trail leading off the parking lot had a scraggly, unkempt appearance that unfortunately dominated the 75-acre park. Sectors were scattered and overgrown, and I immediately started getting chewed up from bugs after not so much as a bite or scratch in El Yunque. The sunken gardens were centered around pools festering with brown waters emitting a raw-sewage smell, and everything else was soured from that point on.
In all fairness, the day was cloudy and damp, paths were muddy, and the ongoing hiking had physically bested for the amount of walking required here. The garden is more suitable for driving, with still little to get excited about. Should they happen to clean up their act, or curiosity get the best of you, the final deterrent will likely prove finding this secluded place.
Gettin' My Jungle On...Most tropical plants can withstand outdoor temperatures down to 40 degrees. However long before fall temperatures begin flirtations, sultry summers have usually worn out their welcome, and a restlessness necessitates a change of scenery by mid-September. With great anticipation, it takes an entire day for preparing and moving my jungle for the season; this year, 157 containers with larger palms weighing upwards of 100 pounds. Moving the tropicals outside is one thing. Figuring out how to fit them all back indoors quite the other, especially after summer growth. Thankfully, rooms inside are all open. Ongoing rearranging helps maintain the right balance.
Frequently telling myself, "enough, no more plants," seems futile. Blame it on the hormone-driven age of 16 when the obsession took root after having my first beach with palm tree encounter. Returning from Puerto Rico, where giant Heliconias burgeon, hopes were that Lowe's still had a few in stock. Forewarning myself to only purchase one, I'd forgotten it was season for the annual Save the Plants campaign, when stores slash prices once cooler weather sets in. So much for self-discipline when seven plants were acquired for what I'd expected to pay for the one.
A bit much? Perhaps, but well worth the therapeutic hour it takes once a week to maintain the island environment, certainly less than keeping up with children or pets. The soothings, when fondled by palm branches just by walking across the room, are surpassed only from observation deck perspectives while swaying in the hammock. For some, it's a transport to home; for others, the closest thing to a real travel experience they'll ever encounter. And quite contrarily, that's the how's of why Kevo's garden grows.