26 Mar 2013

Drifting seeds…

By: Jorge Ventocilla

In the late 1980’s, we were members of the “Beach Bum Ecological Association”, under the leadership of Guillermo (Billy) Cohen. Great name for an association, don’t you think? We even had our own typewritten bulletin: “El Céfiro Vagoroso” (The Bum Zephyr). Our motto was: “Happiness is not an obligation either”, according to the words of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. Our interest was to promote the appreciation for this tiny strip of land, blessed by Mother Earth or Pachamama, where water and land come together.

Billy was BB (beach bum) 001 and Eréndira, his daughter, was BB 002; I was BB 003. When Rogelio Sinán, Panamanian writer, wanted to become a member, he asked to be BB 007. We agreed to his request… we couldn’t say no to a poet. We planned some outings and one day we went to Barro Colorado Island. We still have some nice photos of this visit and we can see Master Sinán at the old Visitors Center, where he signed a copy of his book “La isla mágica” (The Magic Island) with a dedicatory note to Barro Colorado.

I remember these stories now that I am writing about seeds and fruits traveling to distant coasts. All this is, in the end, due to the fact that now we have a great book that helps us in identifying these seeds (“World Guide to Tropical Drift Seeds and Fruits”, by Charles R. Gunn, et al.). Now this is our favorite subject and the first thing we do when we go to the beach is remove all the debris brought by the waves and look for drift seeds.

These seeds have captured the imagination of men since ancient times. Sailors saw them as a sign of land beyond the horizon; others thought they were a gift from the gods and thought they will be useful in times of need or bad luck (I have seen street vendors in Calidonia that still use this sales pitch). They have also been used as ornaments or in jewelry.

There are not many seeds that can travel long distances: experts conclude that less than 1% of tropical vegetable species producing seeds or fruits have floating properties that allow them to stay afloat for periods longer than one month. It is easy for seeds that are found close to the shore, but it is not as easy for seeds coming from deep in the woods.

Botanist Rolando Pérez, who helped identify the seeds shown here, told me that he was given a Calatola costarricensis seed collected at Calzada de Amador. This tree only grows in very humid forests on the Caribbean watershed. In Panama this would be beyond the Chagres. Rolando still wonders “how did this seed get to the Pacific?”, “have this seed floated from the Chagres to the Panama Canal and traveled through the locks into the Pacific? With time and patience, this is theoretically possible”.

It is said that the greatest pleasure of a collector comes from discovering tropical seeds in beaches at temperate climates, hundreds or thousands of miles from the original sources. There are two major original sources for “sea-beans”. The first one is the Indonesian Islands and the other one is the West Indies in the Caribbean. Some beaches in temperate climates are known to get large amounts of tropical seeds; some others just get them occasionally and there are some other areas that never get them. It depends greatly on the sea streams. To the rhythm of the Gulf streams, some seeds and fruits go from the Caribbean to Iceland, France and Ireland.

As far as I am concerned, there is just one book about the occurrence of these seeds and fruits in Panama, “The Botany of San Jose Island”, by I. M. Johnston, published in 1949. It has a whole section and some illustrations devoted to fruits and seeds found in San Jose Island. Johnston worked on the inventory that was done when this island was a testing area for the “Chemical Corps” of the US Army, during World War II. Fortunately, this army presence is no longer to be found in the island.

Panama City, due to its closeness to the sea, also welcomes these traveler seeds. I was at Punta Culebra Nature Center in Amador Causeway, an education center managed by the Smithsonian Institute and focused on marine science, and at “Crab Beach” (“Playa de los Cangrejos”) and I could pick some of these seeds. I wanted to share these findings with you through these photos (as follows):

1) Cativo seed (Prioria copaifera), wood-producing tree that grows in floodplains and riverbanks. There are cativo trees in the forests near the city and in areas close to river mouths and estuaries in Darien. They are also found in a small area south of Coiba. 2) Palm tree (Bactris genus) seed, related to Bactris gasipaes or Pixbae. 3) Calophyllum inophyllum, a very common tree in Panama, with fragrant white flowers; related to the “Maria” trees that produce quality wood. 4) Jobo (Spondias mombin) seed, a very well-known fruit. 5) Pterocarpus officinalis, of the Legume family, grows over 82 feet tall in floodplains. 6) Espavé (Anacardium excelsum), one of the more common trees in the Canal area and the Pacific coast of the country. 7) Two seeds known as “ojo de venado” or deer-eye beans from the Mucuna (Mucuna sp) vine. You may buy these in Calidonia; where they are sold as lucky charms. There are three species in America, fawcetti, sloanei and urens, and other three species in the Canton Islands. It is known that some of these seeds safely arrive to the north of Europe via the Gulf Stream. 8) White mangrove seeds, and 9) Red mangrove seeds. 

English translation by: Sara I. Melo D.