Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Top 6 Plants From The Caribbean, by James Henderson

Botanical gardens in the Caribbean are always a pleasure to visit. Tropical plants – particularly if you do not know them - are endlessly exotic. They are often incredibly brightly-coloured. Their flowers are weird and wonderful - some look more like sculptures than anything natural. Orchids are extraordinary. And who would ever design a flower like the lobster claw or the torch ginger? They might almost bite you.

There is a botanical garden in nearly every island, and in them nearly every plant has a story. I’d always recommend taking a guide when visiting them and when hiking (while elsewhere I am not necessarily convinced about guides). But here they bring the place alive with all the stories. These can be to do with the origins of the plants, where they came from and how they got to the Caribbean (see our recent newsletter article about Captain Bligh and the Plant Hunters), or how they grow. Also, what the plants are used for – many are used for medicinal purposes as well as for decoration and for food.

As you walk the around the garden a guide will crush leaves to reveal the smell (this is particularly good on citrus trees, but also on others such as clove and camphor) or they will point out oddities – you can guess what the red film of the lipstick palm looks as though it might be used for, but what about the sandbox tree – in fact it takes its name from its pods, which were once used for containing blotting sand (to dry ink on the page).

Here are few of my favourite Caribbean oddities, discovered in various botanical gardens over the years -

Quinine, used in the treatment of malaria, comes from the bark of the cinchona tree, which grows best in cloudforest - at high elevations.

The periwinkle, a pretty pink flower on an unassuming green bush, has been used in the treatment of cancer.

Pimento, a spice that grows particularly well in Jamaica, is also called allspice (because it tastes like so many other spices combined – cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg for instance). The spice comes from the berries and the wood is used to flavor jerk food when cooking. Allspice can even be used to cure and dye leather.

What fruit would a cannonball tree give up? You’ve guessed it, a massive, woody ball. Interestingly this huge tree has very delicate flowers, which open at night and fall to the ground with the light of dawn.

Mahogany tree pods explode, releasing a spray of whirligig seeds (a bit like a sycamore).

In Haiti, one type of hibiscus is known as Choublac (literally ‘shoe-black’). In years past in this extremely poor country it was used to provide an inky black juice that could be used as a replacement shoe polish.

For more information see the Definitive Guide to Caribbean Gardens and Flowers.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Coconut milk - How to eat a coconut

We left you all hanging a month ago...as I handed back a coconut to the vendor...with a promise of more to come.

This time, with a mighty chop of his machete, he split the coconut right down the middle, and tore it into two with his hands. And then, with another slightly more delicate cut he sliced off a fan-shaped section of shell. After that he handed all the bits back to me.

This is the fun part of drinking a coconut. You use the small section of shell to scrape off the lining on the inside of the nut. This changes as the coconut ages. It starts off a thin film of jelly on the interior of the shell, but gradually as the liquid in the coconut dries out this hardens into a white flesh, first springy and then eventually into dry coconut – the sort used in confectionery or roasted to make coconut chips.

It was the reason that I had asked for a nut that was not too young. The lining on this nut was a quarter of an inch thick and it was just becoming firm. The fan-shaped slice slid under the layer of flesh perfectly, bringing it up in rinds as slippery and uncontrollable as small white fish. Eventually I managed to stuff them into my mouth.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Lignum Vitae - Wood of Life, Truncheon or Natural Viagra?

Any tree with the name lignum vitae - translated it means ‘the wood of life’ – is surely worth a nod of respect. But this is one to doff your cap to. Lignum vitae takes the word hardwood to a new level. It is a very hard wood indeed, 4500 on the Janka Scale of Hardness no less, according to Wikipedia (the next closest, Brazilian ebony, comes in at 3692 and teak gets a paltry 2330). Unsurprisingly lignum vitae is also known as ironwood.

A native of tropical America, it grows on most of the large Caribbean islands. It has been adopted by the Jamaicans for their national flower – for what turns out to be a monster of a tree, it has a very delicate purple, five-petalled bloom. But here’s an example of how hard it is. Lignum vitae wood has been used as replacement ball bearings, even as an axle. It is quite resinous and so it lubricates itself, meaning that it works well in a marine environment, for pulleys and in working parts.

In the story of how Richard Lupinacci of The Hermitage came to Nevis in the 1960s, he talks of fighting his way through overgrowth to the old plantation house that turned out to be nearly 300 years old. The builder took a hammer and knocked the frame of the building and said - ‘Ah, lignum vitae, lignum vitae…’ Doubtless if it had been any other type of wood it would have been eaten by termites and fallen down long before.

Lignum vitae is also exceptionally heavy. And so it was used around the Caribbean for ballast in ships. Elsewhere it has been used for cricket bails and for British police truncheons. And there is another disarming quality to it too. The wood of lignum vitae is so heavy that it actually sinks in water (doubtless, like ice, it sinks in jack-iron too, see the article below).

For all of this, the name ‘wood of life’ apparently derives from the tree’s medicinal qualities rather than any physical prowess. The resin has been used for many years, in the treatment of arthritis and other ailments. At one stage it was thought to work both a contraceptive and a treatment for syphilis – and you can imagine, the naughtier calypsonians have had some fun with the idea of the strongest wood around. This stuff is so strong you can brew tea from the wood shavings. By gum, that’s probably harder even than Yorkshire Tea…

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Rum Old Ferry Ride

Of all the ferries you will encounter in the Caribbean, the most endearing one must be the twice-weekly link between Union Island to Carriacou in the Grenadines. It is a short hop, just a few miles, between two very small islands and so a small boat is appropriate. It is, or was, anyway, a small sailing boat with an engine – though last time I took it I had to help rig the sail. It’s a pleasant enough crossing - people come thousands of miles to sail in these waters for their holidays.

But it’s the unexpected things that happen that make travel in the Caribbean such fun. After I had helped to rig the jib (the sail at the front, anyway), the helmsman shuffled around the floor of the boat and pulled out a white plastic two-litre bottle. He thrust it at me.

‘Here, man, try a bit of the jack.’

I peered through the open neck of the bottle. Swilling around in the bottom was a viscous-looking liquid, slightly coloured, yellowish, but I couldn’t tell if that was the liquid or the suspension of particles that were bobbing around in it. There was organic matter in there too, small strips of greenery, all lined up like the sea grass on a current. I obviously looked doubtful.

‘It jack-iron man, the strongest rum you can get.’

It is true, jack iron is exceptionally strong rum, over 150 per cent proof. This particular (obviously unnamed) brand apparently didn’t come from Carriacou, where no jack iron was being produced at the time (officially anyway). Instead it came from Trinidad, where a big distillery has a small output. And yes, it was incredibly strong. It seemed to burn and then evaporate immediately, like some acid will ‘o the wisp.

But the most extraordinary thing about jack-iron is not its strength, rather the fact that ice sinks in it. I have seen it happen – it was on another occasion, this, there wasn’t much chance of the helmsman finding a coolbox on the floor too. Not that you’d want to drink a whole glass of jack-iron, but our host filled one up and then dropped two ice cubes into it. Instead of bobbing back to the surface and clinking against one another, they carried on to the bottom of the glass and swam around there for a few seconds before becoming still. Weird.

If anyone knows why ice sinks in jack-iron, please let us know why.
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