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Understanding Nature: Knowing Ourselves

October 22, 2000
By Selwin R Cudjoe

Although it is not well known, many plants we believe to be indigenous have come from other parts of the world. Like our people, they are marked with the stamp: Foreign import.

The breadfruit, a stable food of many of our forebears, was imported from Polynesia when the slave masters needed a cheaper food supply for the slaves. Sugar cane, a symbol of suffering and shame for so many Caribbean people, came from Brazil and was introduced into Trinidad in 1760. The cacao trees that graced our countryside, usually beneath a canopy of the stately immortelle, were first planted in the island in 1690. In fact, our cocoa became famous when, in 1716, Black Beard, the English pirate, stole a ship laden with cocoa from the Port of Spain harbour. Even mango, an everyday delight, was brought to us from Bombay, a gift from our Indian forebears.

Like most of our people who came from other lands, the global transfer of plants throughout the British Empire from the 17th through the 19th centuries was a part of the colonialist enterprise.

The movement of plants from one part of the Empire to another was carried on with as much intensity as the movement of enslaved people and indentures from one island to another; from one continent to another.

Thus, in 1813, when sir Ralph Abercormby arrived in Trinidad as the governor, one of his first acts was to introduce English in to our courts. In 1818, he established a Royal Botanical Garden to which he appointed John Lockhart to be the superintendent. Lockhart, a protégé of Sir Joseph Banks, head of Kew Gardens in London, was part of a fateful expedition that went up the Congo in 1816 to collect plants for Banks. Even though most of the crew, including botanist Christen Smith, died in that expedition, Lockhart brought back most of Smith's plant specimen to Banks and the Empire.

When Woodford established the Botanical Gardens, he was more concerned with its role within the British scheme of things than he was with expanding the biological diversity of the island. Lockhart's mission was to find as many new species as possible and send them back to Kew

Correspondingly, Banks, and later Sire Joseph Hooker sent to Trinidad and other Caribbean islands the plants botanists collected in other parts of the Empire. The wanted to see how well they would thrive in our climate. When Woodford laid out Brunswick Square, renamed later as Woodrford Square, it contained many trees from different parts of the world.

In fact, the gigantic samaan tree in Woodford Square from which, legend has it, slaves were hung, came from India.

Given so many botanical imports into our island, the publication of Native Trees of Trinidad and Tobago by Victor Quesnel and T. Francis Farrell is a welcome corrective to the many books about our native trees.

Aided by the magnificent photographs for Paul Comeau, the authors offer us a work that is accessible to the average reader. Such a project would not have been possible without the help of a financial grandfather - and BP Amoco filled this beach - nor would it have seen the light of day without the dedication and knowledge of two devoted Trinidadians and a Trini-Canadian.

In their introduction, Quesnel and Farrell alert us to the colonialist orientation of the Garden. The bemoan the fact that Lockhart and the Garden's nineteenth century superintendents (such as William Purdie and Herman Crueger) planted few native trees in the Garden are in our parks.

Native Trees highlights fifty of the best known threes of the island and describe twenty-six in lesser details. Although there are 384 types of trees in the island, they acknowledge the existence of 35 percent of them.

Some of these trees (crappo, purpleheart, mora and the cocorite palm) cannot be found outside of their natural habitat. Arranged outside of their natural habitat. Arranged alphabetically by their scientific and common names, it is easy for amateurs to recognize some of these trees. We are also given important ecological such as the type of forest in which these plants are found.

Consistent with our geological formation, our trees have more in common with South America than it has with the other West Indian islands.

Readers will pick out their favorite trees. My favorites are the bois canot which belongs to the breadfruit family; the magnificent silk cotton tree under which many diabolical deals were made; the wild immortelle to which the humming birds pay many visits; and the sand box tree, a large deciduous tree, that graced the banks of the Tacarigua River when I was a boy.

However, pride of place goes to the yellow poui, the best-known forest tree in the island, and the Chaconier, our national flower. The beautiful flowers of the poui run riot around April and May, alerting us that the dry season has ended and the rains are about to begin in earnest.

The Chaconier (incorrectly called the Chaconia) begins its flowery reign in June and July, just when the rains begin to fall. Such a synergy has to be providential. Significantly, thee authors go to great pains to say that the Chaconier was not named to was not named to commemorate Don Maria Chacon, the last Spanish governor of the island. "The name is derived from chaconne, the dance, for which the dancers decorated themselves with little flags, and should be spelt Chaconier." Lexicographers and patriots alike should take note.

Native trees makes for delightful and informative reading. The authors which to educate us about our native flora, a necessary prerequisite for any environmental work citizens may wish to undertake. It is also an important cognitive exercise. We cannot say we know our country or even ourselves if we do not know the flora that abounds in our natural / national habitat. As we witness the destruction of our natural environment, the work of Quesnel and Farrell need to re reiterated: "After Trinidad and Tobago gained independence in 1962, respect for our environment diminished."

Our forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate. To a large extent, people have lost touch with nature. By helping people to know the native trees of their country, we will put then back in touch with nature and encourage then to solve our environmental problems.

This is a noble goal. Irretrievable ecological destruction is inevitable if we do not listen to the advice of these authors.

Native Trees of Trinidad and Tobago (2000)
by Victor C Quesnel and T Francis Farrell,
with photographs by Paul L Comeau.

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