Vallarta Flora 101
Published Nov 1, 2005 - (Updated Dec 19, 2012)
It could so easily be said that the Garden of Eden exists right here on Banderas Bay, where thick, tropical deciduous rainforest – most commonly referred to as “jungle” – perfumes the air and enlivens the soul. When it comes to fabulously vivid exotic flora, it just doesn’t get any better than this! And it’s a major draw for many, myself included, the embrace of the lushly blanketed Sierra Madre making me feel safe and snug here since day one.
Yet I’m forever wondering exactly what tree, plant, flower, or vine and so on has caught my eye, sometimes getting especially frustrated when I think that maybe I do know, and then getting confused by their Spanish, Indian or colloquial names.
However, once you’ve spotted brilliant bougainvillea spilling from a clay planter on a white balcony you never forget it – regardless of what it’s called.
Told recently that botanists recognize seven distinct vegetation zones in this region, I decided to start educating myself by focusing first on some of the local trees and flowers most often seen and/or asked about. And here are pictures of some of them, which may well be worth a thousand words.
These brilliant jolts of red, violet, orange, yellow or white bougainvillea are at home here in any situation – as a hedge, in a pot, climbing a trellis, or hanging over a wall – the leaves small and elliptical, the flowers clustered.
Growing as singles or doubles and up to five inches wide, hibiscus blooms are white, buff, yellow, lavender, pink, red and orange, staying fresh all day and wilting every evening. A natural food product, its leaves have medicinal properties and the flowers are high in vitamin C and popular in Mexican cooking, “agua de jamaica” made from dried hibiscus flowers.
Spiky flowers growing on bushes of up to six feet tall, a few stalks of these 12-inch-long ginger blooms in an intense range of reds make a long-lasting floral arrangement.
Large and eye-catching for its frothy red blooms, fringy leaves and seedpods of up to two feet long, starting off green and turning black before falling off, the tabachin tree has an interesting life cycle to follow, should you get the chance.
Called “huanacaxtle” by indigenous peoples, this magestic tree grows up to 90 feet and has multiple uses, including termite-proof, premium-quality wood for furniture and doors.
Before tourism took off here in a big way, residents fished and grew avocados and mangos, the town basically one big orchard. Introduced here by the Spanish in the 17th century, this juicy fruit is still an important Mexican export, with lots of mango orchards to be seen just outside of town.
Certain to catch your attention during the two months each spring it makes its fiery yellow display, the primavera tree provides shade and beauty to its environment. Growing to 100 feet, with a three-foot-wide circumference, its wood makes good quality furniture.
Gringo (Tourist) Tree
Backlit by sunlight, its coppery-colored, peeling bark appears red – the similarity to many of the folks on our beaches quite striking! This splendid tree, growing to 60 feet, continually sloughs its bark to dislodge unwanted guests because its wood is soft and brittle and unable to support a lot of weight. Also known as the “naked Indian” and the “papelillo” tree, it’s a member of the torchwood family, related species the source of frankincense and myrrh.
Twenty-one species of this canopy-forming fig tree are found in Mexico and six are endemic to the country. Spot one and chances are there are birds of all descriptions on its branches and folks taking shelter under its wide spans. Hard to believe that in cooler climes a ficus is merely a nice potted plant.
A type of ficus, ficus elastica, this spectacular, wide-spreading tree produces a milky white, latex-like sap when tapped, about one-quarter of the world’s rubber coming from this natural source and the rest synthesized from petroleum. Native to the tropical Americas, it’s dramatically beautiful, up to 100 feet tall, with both buttress and aerial roots, gorgeous specimens to be seen on and around the Isla Rio Cuale.
These predator plants live parasitically on host trees in the fight for sunlight, engulfing them for up to a century until they die. Also known as “malpalo” or “higuera,” several species are native to this region of Mexico, often becoming trees of awesome size with flaring buttressed trunks. Keep your eyes open in homes and restaurants for columns of stranger figs wrapped around the trunk of a host tree as an architectural feature, their contorted growth pattern resulting in a strange sculptural beauty.