I have to make an admission. Upon arrival on our first Galapagos Island, San Cristobal, I was a bit dismayed. While the oceanfront was indeed spectacular, I felt that the interior I was viewing was rather drab and colorless.
Duh, Cindy. To assume that the area near the airport was indicative of the landscapes of the islands was happily, grossly incorrect and once we got a bit beyond the airport I started to see the great diversity of plants, trees, flowers and shrubs. Let’s begin our look with the ubiquitous cactus.
Much of the Galapagos is arid and the cactus is perfectly constructed to thrive with a paucity of fresh water. Cactus is a succulent plant meaning they are able to store water in their bodies and leaves. The spines evolved as a method to deter attacks from grazing animals. Surprisingly the spines also provide shade to the cactus and the waxy surface of the cactus also helps to reduce water evaporation.
The Galapagos has a number of endemic cacti – the Candelabra, the Prickly Pear and my favorite, the Lava Cactus. There are other versions of these across the world, but the particular species on the Galapagos are found nowhere else on earth.
CANDELABRA CACTUS – Featured at the top of this post and below, the candelabra is a towering cactus of up to 8 feet in height and has little red flowers that bloom in the morning. It also has edible fruit – those globular purple appendages highlighted in the top photo.
PRICKLY PEAR – is the most numerous of the Galapagos’ cacti, with 6 different species and 14 varieties. The tallest, the Opuntia can grow up to 12 feet, while the smallest are scrubs growing close to the ground. The smaller cacti have a few problems – iguanas and tortoises which LOVE to eat not only their blossoms and fruit, but even the fleshy leaves. I saw a good number of tortoises with these tasty tidbits overflowing from their mouths, although I didn’t get a chance to photograph the cacti, themselves. Here are a few pics from the internet:
Here is a comparison to the American prickly pear variety that I did photograph at Walnut Canyon National Monument in Arizona, last summer:
LAVA CACTUS – This is my favorite as I feel it is an apt representation of the Galápagos Islands’ inception and tenacity. It is actually the smallest Galapagos cactus, and true to its name is found only in lava fields. How amazing is it that this plant can flourish in such a barren place – in fact it is one of the first plants to take hold in the lava after a flow has cooled and hardened.
Despite the aridity of much of the Galapagos land, there are still areas where more than cactus can thrive with colorful abandon.
GALAPAGOS COTTON – This endemic shrub has the largest flowers on the Galápagos Islands. While these brightly yellow colored blooms are to appear only after heavy rain – there were plenty visible during my visit – with no rain occurring – thank you nature!
This plant does produce cotton – the seeds split open to an explosion of fluffy insides. However only small birds take advantage of this bounty as they gather the cotton for nesting material.
The Galapagos cotton is also part of the Galapagos Verde 2050 project which hopes to restore habitats on the island that have been depleted. The cotton is being planted on the islands of Floreana and Santa Cruz as part of this project.
HIBISCUS – One of the prettiest flowers on the islands, this plant was once considered an invasive species and at one time, there were plans to eradicate it. Why? Let me provide a bit of background.
The Galápagos are home to 500 native flowering plants and ferns, and 95% of the islands’ biological diversity is still intact. Yet extinction rates are among the highest in the world due in part to invasive plants brought to the islands, in many cases by humans. When a new plant is introduced, it may disrupt the “natural order” that is necessary for the native species’ survival. The hibiscus, particularly the swamp hibiscus was believed to have come from other islands in the Pacific, and seemed to be quickly taking over the area needed by the islands’ ferns, etc.
Fortunately scientists that were studying fossil pollen discovered that the swamp hibiscus had been part of the Galapagos Island landscapes for thousands of years before humans arrived and that is spread was normal for a native plant.
Glad that this was settled as the hibiscus adds so much color to the islands. Here is the swamp hibiscus followed by a few other varieties:
To close let me provide a flower finale similar to the end of a firework’s production – an explosion of colors and shapes:
Ain’t nature grand!