Quintana Roo’s forests are home to mangroves, bamboo, and swamp cypresses. Ferns, vines, and flowers creep from tree to tree and create a dense growth. The southern part of the Yucatán Peninsula, with its classic tropical rainforest, hosts tall mahoganies, campeche zapote, and kapok—all covered with wild jungle vines. On topmost limbs, orchids and air ferns reach for the sun.
Many animals found nowhere else in Mexico inhabit the Yucatán Peninsula’s expansive flatlands and thick jungles. Spotting them can be difficult, though with patience and a skilled guide, not impossible.
A wide variety of palm trees and their relatives grow on the Yucatán Peninsula—tall, short, fruited, and even oil-producing varieties. Though similar, palms have distinct characteristics:
• Queen palms are often used for landscaping and bear a sweet fruit.
• Thatch palms are called chit by Maya, who use the fronds extensively for roof thatch.
• Coconut palms—the ones often seen on the beach—produce oil, food, drink, and shelter and are valued by locals as a nutritious food source and cash crop.
• Royal palms are tall with smooth trunks.
• Henequen is a cousin to the palm tree; from its fiber come twine, rope, matting, and other products. Because of its abundance, new uses for it are constantly sought.
Quintana Roo grows sweet and sour oranges, limes, and grapefruit. Avocado is abundant, and the papaya tree is practically a weed. The mamey tree grows full and tall (15–20 meters/49–65 feet), providing not only welcome shade but also an avocado-shaped fruit, brown on the outside with a vivid, salmon-pink flesh that tastes like a sweet yam.
The guaya is another unusual fruit tree and a member of the lychee nut family. This rangy evergreen thrives on sea air and is commonly seen along the coast. Its small, green leathery pods grow in clumps like grapes and contain a sweet yellowish jellylike flesh—tasty! The calabash tree provides gourds used for containers by Maya.
The ceiba (also called kapok) is a sacred tree for the Maya. Considered the link between the underworld, the material world, and the heavens, this huge tree is revered and left undisturbed—even if it sprouts in the middle of a fertile cornfield.
When visiting in the summer, you can’t miss the beautiful framboyanes (royal poinciana). When in bloom, its wide-spreading branches become covered in clusters of brilliant orange-red flowers. These trees often line sidewalks and plazas, and when clustered together present a dazzling show.
While wandering through jungle regions, you’ll see numerous plants that have vexed amateur botanists the world over. Here in their natural environment, these plants thrive in a way unknown to windowsills at home: Crotons exhibit wild colors, pothos grow 30-centimeter (11.8-inch) leaves, the philodendron splits every leaf in gargantuan glory, and common morning glory creeps and climbs for miles over bushes and trees.
You’ll also be introduced to many delicate strangers in this tropical world: the exotic white and red ginger; plumeria (sometimes called frangipani), with its wonderful fragrance and myriad colors; and hibiscus and bougainvillea, which bloom in an array of bright hues. In fact, keeping jungle growth away from the roads, utility poles, and wires is a constant job for local authorities because the warm, humid air and ample rainfall encourage a green wonderland.
Orchids can be found on the highest limbs of the tallest trees, especially in the state of Quintana Roo. Of the 71 species reported in the Yucatán Peninsula, 80 percent are epiphytic, attached to host trees and deriving moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. Orchids grow in myriad sizes and shapes: tiny buttons spanning the length of a half-meter-long (two-foot) branch, large-petaled blossoms with ruffled edges, or intense tiger-striped miniatures.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition