Throughout our time in Jamaica, we saw numerous flowering bushes and trees. Some, such as crape myrtle, allamanda, hibiscus, oleander, caladiums, day lilies, and azaleas, we recognized easily. Others seemed hauntingly familiar, but we had doubts. At Whitfield Hall we saw enormous bushes that looked suspiciously like begonias. In front of the Russells’ house was another huge bush that looked a lot like impatiens. But they were so big! When I mentioned this to a fellow Rotarian, Becky Jones, who is a retired biology teacher, she said if they looked like begonia and impatiens, they probably were. She had seen a similar phenomenon in Costa Rica. The year-round growing season allows these plants to become much larger than they are here.
On our first outing in Kingston, Gordon Russell pointed out to us, on the grounds of Devon House, a lignum vitae tree (guaiacum officinale), whose violet bloom is the Jamaican national flower. We found that lignum vitae wood, also known as ironwood (“the hardest wood known to man,” “turns like plastic in the lathe”), is also a popular material for native crafts.
On that same expedition, as we drove through the grounds of King’s House (the official residence of the governor-general of Jamaica), Barney inquired about a mimosa-like tree with red blossoms that had piqued his curiosity in Mexico. Gordon told us it was the poinciana (also known as the flame tree), and he stopped briefly to get out and pick for us one of its long, dry pods. When shaken, the pod sounds like a maraca, as the seeds inside rattle (John Cage even included a major part for a poinciana pod in one of his compositions.) From the Web I have also learned that the pod is used by many artists as a canvas or the basis for jewelry. We also saw, in front of the residence, a gigantic banyan tree in whose roots, legend says, duppies (ghosts) take refuge when they’re not living in the cotton trees.
For the most part, however, our curiosity about the flowers and trees we saw was unsatisfied since no one in our party was a naturalist. Sophie Abrikian did identify one flower at Whitfield Hall as an agapantha, but after she left there was no one else to ask. The towering eucalyptus trees were easily identified by their fragrance. But when we asked Fionn about various other trees, his standard reply was, “If it has a fruit, I can tell you what it is. Otherwise not.” At Fern Hill Club, some of the trees (almond, pimento) were labeled, and we asked the desk clerk about one that was not and were told it was a “puss tail.” Gordon Russell later confirmed that he’d heard it called “cat’s tail.” It had long red furry tassels that did rather resemble cat tails, but of course it was entirely different from what we know as cattails. The desk clerk had said he did not know the scientific name of the tree, but I believe it may be the Acalypha hispida, which is known as “red-hot cat’s tail,” “pussy tail,” “monkey’s tail,” or “chenille plant”; although this is everywhere described as a shrub rather than a tree, it could be another case of the Jamaican growing season allowing the plant to grow large.
One other curious tree we saw was a conifer in the Russells’ front yard. They referred to it generically as a “pine,” but it was unlike any pine we’d ever seen since the “needles” were actually elongated cones, about a foot long and a quarter of an inch in diameter, with overlapping scale-like bracts (we brought a sample home).
One thing we didn’t see (or if we did, we didn’t recognize it) was the blue mahoe, Jamaica’s national tree.
In comparison to the flora, the variety of fauna we saw was extremely limited. Dogs were plentiful, especially in the rural areas, and we were surprised to note that, although all were identified as mongrels, they all seemed to be built along the same lines. At some point someone must have introduced racing stock into the island, as all the dogs we saw were very lean and handsome and seemed built for speed. We did not see but definitely heard the dogs who lived in the Russells’ neighborhood. All of them, presumably including Skippy, the Russells’ corgi, greeted the dawn with an antiphonal chorus that woke us every morning about 5 or 5:30. This was okay; we went to bed relatively early every night and were ready to get up anyway!
As for cats, aside from JimJoe (aka Kitty), the Russells’ cat, I saw (or noticed) few. Because Jamaicans don’t drink milk the way we do (though it was available for adding to coffee or tea), Matthew speculated that the island was too small for cattle, but we did indeed see many cows on our way to Portland. Whether they were raised for dairy or beef purposes, I don’t know, but I suspect the former, as Jamaicans eat a lot of cheese.
What we did see a lot of was goats. They were especially plentiful in the mountains (even if we had some difficulty finding one on the plate). At Whitfield Hall, goats and chickens and a number of dogs were roaming freely. It was also at Whitfield Hall that we saw the doctor bird, the swallowtail hummingbird that is Jamaica’s national bird (and the source of Air Jamaica’s logo).
The only really wild animal sighted was a mongoose, which the hikers spotted along the trail. The mongoose was introduced into Jamaica to control snakes, and as a result the island is pretty much snake-free. It was also remarkably free of flying insects. Although many windows were not screened, this was not a problem most of the time. Presumably the sea breeze keeps them away from the coastal areas.