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The Caribbean’s Bird-Catching Trees

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By —— Bio and Archives November 1, 2017

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Pisonia TreesIt sounds like a traveller’s tale. Or perhaps the very best of Brit tabloids. But is it true? There are trees that can catch birds. And two new ones have recently been identified in hurricane havoc—and Trump-ravaged—Puerto Rico.

The ripe fruits of Pisonia trees are sticky enough to doom small birds that venture near them. Several species are known from the Indo-Pacific area and to them are now added Pisonia horneae and Pisonia roqueae. Botanically they are from the four-o’clock family, (Nyctaginaceae) and only found in Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, the biodiverse rich Caribbean may yet reveal more such startling discoveries.

Frances W. Horne (1873-1967), lends her name to Pisonia horneae. An American botanical artist, she spent 45 years painting 750 watercolours of plants from Puerto Rico. Unfortunately. only a small number have been published. Pisonia roqueae has been named in honour of another neglected woman botanist. Dr. Ana Roque de Duprey (1853-1933), was a Puerto Rican educator, writer and suffragist. Like Horne’s works, her ethnobotanical manuscript, prepared over 30 years, has yet to published.

The trees acquired their generic name from the Dutch physician and naturalist Willem Pison (1611-1678), an expedition doctor to then-Dutch Brazil in the years 1637-44 and now recognized as one of the founders of tropical medicine. Despite this, various Pisonia species are better associated with Hawaii, Polynesia, New Zealand, Australasia, and west across the Indian Ocean to the Seychelles.

A study of Pisonia umbellifera on the latter archipelago revealed a strange and as-yet unexplained occurrence. Most of the birds entrapped there were small seabirds. Meanwhile New Zealand’s Pisonia brunoniana most definitely can doom many a bird. And, according to Kiwi legend, also the cats that attempt to snack on the unfortunate victims. Ah well, nobody’s purr-fect.

Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.