“Aruba’s Natural Compass”

     Given the gift of travel at a very young age, I was fortunate that my parents took me everywhere growing up. Now, almost at the end of my forties, my wife and I share our love of travel with our daughter. This past summer, our family vacation took us to the Caribbean, specifically Aruba. Everyone I have ever spoken to, who has visited Aruba, has said to me that I will love the people, the food and the Caribbean water. However, they left out the plants.

     Perhaps the most famous tree in Aruba is the Divi-Divi or Watapana tree, Caesalpinia coriaria, former name Libidibia coriaria. A tree always pointing in a southwesterly direction because the trade winds blow across the island from the northeast. Comfortable in Aruba’s dry climate, the Divi-Divi tree, forms fantastic shapes of divine windswept, bonsai shapes. In fact, the local adage, “follow the bend of the Divi-Divi trees and they’ll lead you to town,” I found to be true. Watapana tree, has inconspicuous, but fragrant blossoms and thick, curled pods rich in tannin. A leguminous tree (member of the pea family), these pods, at one time, were exported to Germany and Holland for tanning leather. Additionally, goats, prevalent on Aruba and known for their marauding, avoid the tough bark of the Divi-Divi and its concentration of tannic acid. Divi-Divi’s leaves are bipinnate and deciduous and are pinnately compound. The foliage appears feathery in texture and small, pale yellow flowers are fragrant and yield nectar for honeybees. Large Mondis (forests of cacti), Bougainvillea and wild orchids also find the soil of Aruba pleasant. Contorted and battered by trade winds, Divi-Divi seldom, if ever, reach their expected height of 30 feet. The national tree of Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire (the Dutch ABC islands) have their “fair share” and thus it’s an endemic tree. Images of Divi-Divi appear everywhere, most notable for this writer, on every Pilsner bottle of the flagship brand, Balashi beer.

     Nearly 20 percent of the island is a dedicated to Arikok, Aruba’s National park. Taking a UTV tour had us appreciating dramatic coastlines, natural bridges and the Natural Pool “Conchi” (Papiamento for ‘bowl’). A secluded swimming hole protected by a wall of volcanic rock that the Caribbean Sea relentlessly washes up against, often showering those in the pool. Candelabra cactus, Coral Cactus, Prickly pear cactus and Kwihi tree are all well represented throughout the park. And while Aloe plants are not as prevalent as they once were, in the early part of the 20th century, our tour to the Aruba Aloe Museum, Factory & Store had me appreciating this plant in a whole new light. Aloe Vera was first used to describe the plant by Carl von Linne (Linneaus) in 1720, a factoid I leaned touring the factory.

     One experience that had me trusting a complete stranger, who didn’t speak a word of English, involved a plant/tree called Seagrape, Coccoloba uvifera. On Baby Beach, just past the decaying artwork of denuded trees, standing strong against the Caribbean’s shoreline, was a small stand of larger Seagrape. A silhouette that reminded me of the “Scorched Tree Skeletons inside the Namib-Naukluft Park in Namibia (Deadvlei). A woman was harvesting the small deep purple fruits and was snacking on them. Her gracious offer found me enjoying the small fleshy fruit with a large pit, likening it to Smucker’s grape jelly. Seagrape leaves have always held my attention as their large, circular, broad, leathery, evergreen leaves with distinct red veins screams “tropical.” My experience proved that smaller, well-kept hedge forms had almost no fruit compared to larger specimens. Full sun, sandy soils and virtually no care are simple requirements for this durable beauty.

     Finally, on Eagle Beach are Aruba’s two most photographed trees. Pleased to see so many people go out of their way to have their photograph taken with a tree, even though most had their identity wrong. Many people I encountered, mainly tourists, erroneously thought that these trees were the famed Divi-Divi trees. However, they are in fact Fofoti trees (Mangrove), also called Buttonwood, Conocarpus erectus. Fofoti tree foliage is evergreen, not deciduous, and grow year round near salt water. Fofoti’s existence is threatened, especially in the Caribbean, because of coastal development.

     Our vacation to Aruba filled our senses completely. The people are approachable and most of the population speaks English, Dutch, Spanish and Papiamento (the local Creole language). As a “foodie,” the cuisine is amazing and tantalizing. Fresh fish, the likes of Grouper, Wahoo, Mahi-Mahi, Barracuda and Unicorn fish were tender, in some instances spicy, but always fresh! Particularly the ones we caught deep sea fishing and had prepared at our hotel later that evening. But for me, as is the case with most of our travel experiences, the plants seem to speak to me most. The entire combination had me wholeheartedly believing the country’s credo, “One happy island.”