I thought I knew what a tree was until the very first day here at Las Cruces Biological Station. Growing up in Michigan gave me a general idea of what a tree looks like. There is a trunk covered with bark, branches extending from the trunk, and leaves growing from the branches. Sure, you occasionally find some mosses or other small things growing from a tree trunk, but for the most part, the tree is relatively bare. It is just a tree. Coming here, I quickly realized that not all trees are like this. Sometimes a tree can be more than “just a tree”.
So on our first day, the first activity we had was a tour of the Wilson Botanical Garden. However, it took us quite a while to get going because our very first stop, a tree situated no more than 30 feet from where we began, lasted at least 20 minutes. That may seem like a long time to look at one single tree, but the thing is, we were looking at so much more than one single tree. We were told the tree had bark, but you would never be able to tell with the vast array of mosses, lichens, epiphytes (small plants that grow attached to the tree), vines, roots, and bugs living on it. The tree itself was a small, tropical environment.
This holds true for many, many trees at Las Cruces. When looking up close, the trunks of trees look nothing like trees (or at least like my Midwestern definition of trees). They’re hairy, spiny, and mossy. They’re wrapped in vines, or in some cases, other trees, like the strangler fig tree. This one starts off as an epiphyte and then sends roots downward and branches upward. When the roots make contact with the ground it is called a hemiepiphyte and the fig grows around its host, strangling it in the process.
I learned quickly that nothing here in the tropics is quite what I thought it was. Things as simple and basic as trees are so much more than that here. I am excited to see what else I will find to be more than “just a tree” in the coming months!