Book IX, Chapter VI
Of the tree called mangrove and its fruit, and of the benefits and utilities that come from it.
Translated by Molly McCarthy ’21
Mangrove is one of the best trees in these parts, and it is as common here as on the Mainland: and as stakes for bohíos and shelving or posts for houses or roofs, and for building frames for doors and windows and other small uses, it is one of the best woods they have there. These trees grow in swamplands and along the coastline and on riverbanks, estuaries, or streams that flow into the ocean or are near it. They are very strange and admirable trees to behold, because in their form they do not resemble any others of which we will speak here. Their leaves are somewhat bigger than those of large pear trees, but thicker and somewhat longer: they grow together in large numbers, and many of the branches become roots. Although many of the branches grow upwards and don’t turn towards the water, and they are tall and separate from each other (as they are in all trees), from these same branches grow others, thicker and leafless, that grow towards the water, tilting from the middle height of the tree and sinking into the water, and upon reaching the ground they root themselves into the earth or sand and from them sprout other branches, and they become as fixed as the main trunk of the tree; so it looks as if the tree had many trunks (as indeed it does), all connected to each other. And in truth it is a great thing to see these trees, their form being so new and unlike other trees, since they have as many trunks as branches. They produce as a fruit pods that are two palms long or larger, about the size of the seedcase of the canafistula tree; and these are tawny colored, and inside there is a substance, a sort of heart (or marrow) that the Indians eat when they can’t find other sustenance (because this is exceedingly bitter), and they say it is a healthy fare. It made me sick, although my constitution has never been delicate nor have I ever refrained from eating what I’ve seen others eat (what appeared safe) either out of necessity (and sometimes without it) in order to taste it and be able to describe the taste as well as the appearance. In any case, it is a beastly dish and only fit for savages.
Lately and from experience they have learned in this city of Santo Domingo that the husk and bark of these mangroves is well-suited to tan cow leather in a short amount of time; because God wanted to spare us the need for myrtle or sumac or any of the other materials with which they cure and tan the hides in Spain. And the experts in this craft say that this tree is much better for the task than everything else they know—because in Spain the hides take from eight to even ten months to cure in the vats, while here they tan perfectly in sixty or seventy days as a result of the natural heat of the land and the properties of the bark of these trees.
Image: Chromolithograph of mangrove trees created by H. Eichhorn and published in 1895.