Book IX, Chapter XXI
Of two notable things about the wood and the trees of this Island of Hispaniola and other islands and the Mainland.
Translated by Kendal Simmons ‘23
As I continue to write these histories, the subject of wild trees will by necessity expand; so before I go any further, I want to discuss two notable things that will not affect the order in which I narrate this book. And the things I have to say are general and relevant to these islands and to the Mainland. The first thing is that very few trees in these parts lose their leaves. In Asia, Africa, our Europe, and in the remainder of the world outside of the Indies, there are few trees that maintain their foliage continually; however, the trees here are never without their leaves, with the exception of very few.
Pliny says that olive trees, laurels, palms, myrtles, cypresses, pines, ivies, and rhododendrons never lose their leaves, and mentions thirteen wild trees that do not lose their leaves either; these include firs, larches, cluster pines, junipers, cedars, terebinth trees, box trees, sschio, holly trees, cork oaks, naxo, tamarisks, strawberry trees (this tree, known as corberçolo, I believe to be the basket willow tree), and others. In total, there are twenty-one trees, and between the rushes or esterpos that do not lose their leaves are cane and rovo. This rovo is of the Carex genus or of another such species. In total, there are twenty-three types of trees. Pliny also says that in the taurine territory, where the city of Sibari was, there was a holm oak tree that never lost its leaves, nor shed them before the middle of the summer. So, Pliny specifies twenty-four types of evergreen trees. Nevertheless, the very same author says that the aforementioned trees lose their leaves only at high altitudes. Contrary to Pliny’s claims, I’ll say that I don’t think there are six types of trees that lose their leaves or cease to have them continuously in these Indies; to my knowledge only four lose their leaves in these parts. The first is the hog plum from Nicaragua and the yellow mombin, and I said four because in my opinion those two are from the same genus, and if they were not it would be five types of trees that lose their leaves. And the other are the fig trees from Castilla, and even these do not definitely lose all their leaves, because green or dry, the new leaves grow alongside some leaves remaining from the previous year that fall when the new ones come in. Another tree is the purging cassia tree, and the last is some types of ceiba.
Still, Pliny himself says that the strength of the place or spot is such that around Memphis and Elephantine in Egypt and in Thebaid not one tree or vine loses its leaves. So Pliny says the same thing about these particular provinces, that there are no trees that lose their leaves, if I’ve understood it correctly; because even of those that I mentioned that lose their leaves here, both were brought by us from Spain, just as the fig trees and the purging cassia.
Let us move on to the other peculiarity that I have yet to mention about the wood from these parts and about their fragility. Seeing how good the buildings are in this city of Santo Domingo and especially given how recently this land has been populated and how recently the houses have been built, it is a very notable and exceedingly unfortunate thing that the wood of the doors, the beams of the attics or moldings, and everything that is made of wood in this Island of Hispaniola is so damaged and eaten by shipworms, woodworms and termites. They are so aged and infected that there is more damage done to the wood in one month here than what would normally take two years in Spain. I truly believe that the defects that appear in the oldest buildings of these parts, most of it I must say, like I mentioned elsewhere, is a result of not having cut the wood at the right time or during the right season, or working it while it was still ripe and not dry, or also of not having had experience with these types of wood. As it turns out, experience comes from disappointment and it is this that teaches men over time, and of time there has been still very little. We should first marvel at how so many things are so advanced and close to being understood thoroughly in this city, according to what has been built, and being such a modern population. For this very reason it is believed that all of these difficulties and other similar problems with the wood and buildings will see a lot of improvements currently and in the future, for such problems serve as warnings so that learned people of good understanding can resolve them in the future. And clearly the wood, labor and what is currently constructed are much better than in the past when most of the trees’ names were unknown. And now, every day the building work increases and dignifies and magnifies the buildings, given that all of the materials are very costly and the greatest cost of all is the woodworm. Besides that, the dwellings have greatly improved, even though the termites not only corrupt the wood, but also the walls of stone and dirt (which I believe to be, in this city of Santo Domingo, of the best in the common world); sadly, the termites pervade and infect everything. Now, those that cut the wood pay attention to the moon and have a better understanding of the types of trees, and so each one applies that knowledge wisely to what pertains to him.
 Pliny, Book XVI, Chapter 19
Image: Hog- Plum, William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings, National Museum of Singapore.