Before telling you details about my fruitful (sorry, unavoidable) trip to Puerto Rico, I wanted to give you an update on the book. As my publisher Zona Tropical Press can confirm, I have finished all text and photos—and range maps—and did so several months ago. There has been a bit of a delay with the project, nonetheless, as my publisher has been in negotiations to essentially merge with a larger publishing house in the U.S., and has been busy with discussions and spreadsheets. They promise soon to be dotting i’s and crossing t’s on a contract, at which time my book project will travel at warp drive speeds.
In my last email, I talked about my trip to Southeast Asia, where one of my target plants was the Engkala, which I was only able to find later, very far from its home, in Puerto Rico. This update fills you in on all the details of my wonderful journey to that island.
Although I already had found more than 250 species of tropical fruit trees during my travels to Asia and South America, I still had about 80 species on my list, and was running up against the law of diminishing returns. My aim was to find at least another 15 species in Puerto Rico.
Through friends, I was able to arrange a visit to Felipe Shea, a retired engineer from Seattle, Washington who is a very spry 89 years of age. His farm, Finca Machabuco, is a 40 acre plot filled with hundreds of exotic fruit tree species, or so I had been told. Curious, I booked a flight, rented a car, drove along the coast, then passed inland on narrow winding roads through abandoned coffee and sugarcane plantations, and after several hours reached the beautiful home of Felipe and his wife Elba. Their property (with a gorgeous view of the surrounding area) is nestled in the mountains surrounding the small town of Las Marias, in western Puerto Rico.
Don Felipe, as he is called, took me on a tour of his farm, which consists of a patchwork of old, overgrown coffee fields and a very large collection of rare fruit trees, all located on steep hills. Despite his 89 years, he effortlessly climbed and descended the slippery hillsides, proud to show me his vast collection of plants.
Among the gems in his collection were a fruiting Sibu Olive (Canarium odontophyllum) from Borneo, followed by Eugenia victoriana (Sundrop, Guayabilla) from northwestern South America, and several Garcinia laterifolia (Achachairú, Bacupari) in full fruit, from the Amazon lowlands of western Brasil, southern Peru, and parts of Bolivia. This latter, as Felipe confirmed, has the potential to become commercially important in the future. Although slightly inferior taste to Garcinia mangostana (Mangosteen), it is easier to grow, starts to fruit early, and is a very dependable bearer of fruit.
Nearly every day of my visit a thunderstorm would bring heavy rains at almost exactly 2:00 pm, and effectively end all attempts to take more photos. In the afternoon I would help Don Felipe in his nursery, where he is growing new fruit tree species from Asia and South America.
One day Don Felipe took me to Montoso’s Garden, also owned by an expat from the U.S. In this collection, I found the Wampee tree (Clausena lansium), which is a member of the citrus family; two Baccaurea species from Southeast Asia; and finally a flowering and fruiting Clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum).
The following morning I had an appointment with Sadhu, who owns Govardhan’s Garden in Las Marias. When I walked into this beautiful collection of hundreds of fruit tree species, I was stunned when I saw the large, fruiting Engkala tree (Litsea garciae) right next to the main building. After taking several photos, I inspected the rest of the collection, accompanied by its owner Sadhu. I saw some very interesting fruit trees, including the Jambolan (Syzygium cumini) and the African Breadnut (Treculia africana), both species native to tropical Africa.
For my final day, I had scheduled a visit to the Tropical Agricultural Research Station (TARS) in Mayaguez, on the western coast of Puerto Rico. The station is set in a very beautiful botanical garden that is well worth a visit. The garden harbors a variety of very interesting fruit trees, including several rare Garcinia species as well as many ornamental species. I searched the whole garden for species I hadn’t found anywhere else. After hours of walking in the scorching heat, I again got lucky. In a remote corner I found a fruiting Bael fruit (Aegle marmelos), a tree native to dry regions of Southeast Asia. The pulp of this fruit is enjoyed fresh or mixed with ice and sugar to make a refreshing drink. In parts of Indonesia the fruit is used to make jams and preserves.
After another delicious dinner prepared by Elba—and a final view of sunset over the lowlands of western Puerto Rico—it was time to leave Felipe’s farm and head back to Costa Rica.
Puerto Rico was definitely worth a visit. I was especially rewarded by the people I met. Every single one was very kind and helpful and opened their private collection of fruit trees to my curious eyes. And I found out that in Puerto Rico there is no shortage of tropical fruit tree species from around the world.