Book VIII, Chapter I
On the trees that have been brought to this Island of Hispaniola from Europe and our Spain, which contains eleven paragraphs or parts.
Translated by Andrea Tellez ’21
I. Orange trees have been brought to this Island of Hispaniola from Castile; and there are so many here now, innumerable numbers of very good sweet and bitter orange trees (in this city of Santo Domingo as in all the other parts of the island where there are Christian settlements, on their estates and gardens and wherever they want to plant them), and it is the same in the other islands and on the Mainland wherever there are Spanish settlements.
II. There are a lot of lemon and lime trees, and a lot of citrons, all of them in very large quantities and all very good; such that Andalucia has no advantage in comparison to these trees and orchards, as I have said in both paragraphs.
III. There are a lot of fig trees that bear very good figs throughout the year, in larger or smaller quantities, but they are especially abundant in this city, in nearby estates, and in other parts of the island when in season; and these trees grow very well, and the figs are of the type they call godenes in Castile and burjazote in Aragon and Catalonia. They are the type whose seed is red or reddish, although there are some of the white-seed variety, but not as many. These fig trees lose their leaves here and are without them for part of the year, which few trees here do, and in the month of February they begin to sprout and grow leaves, and they return to being covered by them in the spring or month of March and from then on. But these fig trees grow old quickly here, and after six or seven years you must plant others, because after this they are worth little and bear little and bad fruit.
IV. There are many sweet and sour pomegranate trees, which bear very good pomegranates, both in this city’s orchards as in the estates, and in the other towns and settlements of this island.
V. There are quince trees, also brought from Castile, but they don’t grow well, nor in the quantity or abundance of the other aforementioned fruits; and they are small and not very good, because they are sour and gnarled. It is believed that with time they will be better.
VI. There are palm trees that have been planted in this city and in many estates and parts of this island from the seeds of dates that were brought here, and they grow beautifully, and they bear dates; but they don’t know how to cure them here, and therefore, although some eat them, they are not good, not even at their best, and this is believed to be so from not knowing how to cure them and not because of the palm trees. Themselves.
VII. There are a lot of beautiful canafistula trees, known in Latin as caxia, both in this city and in the estates and many parts of the island. These are beautiful large trees. They were not brought from Spain nor were they already here on this island; but sowing the canafistula seeds, they grew so well that there are rich plantations of them here, and there were many more that were destroyed and dried out due to the ants, as will be said further on in Chapter I of Book X. It is believed that these trees grew so well here because there are wild canafistula trees here on this and other islands and on the Mainland, and this tree is common in these Indies; except that the canafistula that these wild trees bear is very thick and almost fruitless. But these that have grown through the efforts of Christians bear very good canafistula, as it is already known in Spain and other parts of the world, given how much the ships have taken back and take every day from this and other islands: its leaf is long and of the color and greenness of the walnut trees in Castile, and as long, but narrower and thinner. And I will tell here of a peculiarity I have noticed in this, and it is that all the trees and plants that I have seen, of whatever kind they may be, all their leaves end in one that is at the end or tip of the branch, and the canafistula into two, in the way that I have drawn it for you here; because I think it is important to look at it, since it is extreme in this and it does not look like the other trees (except that the Mastich tree in Spain ends its branches into two leaves, like the canafistula). This trees’ flower is yellow and looks like that of the genisteae or retama trees: when bearing fruit, they look very filled by the canafistula’s seed pods, and they produce them in such abundance that, like it is said in Book III, the quintal is worth 4 ducats or less in this city. The first of these trees in this island was in the monastery of San Francisco in the city of Concepción de la Vega; and following that example many others were planted, and as they increased in number, plantations and farms were established that represent a good, profitable, and rich business, and the ships returning to Spain always carry many pods full of canafistula. This tree is one of those that loses its leaves here; and there are many wild canafistulas on the Mainland, and they are almost double the thickness of what I have eaten, and it is a good laxative, and the seed is like the usual kind, and the shell of the pipes is three times its thickness. It is almost like a carob bean in the size and roundness: its spine and seed pockets are as thick as branch shoots, with some streaks on top, like shoots, and it is very good. I remember that in the year 1527, a league and a half to two leagues from Panama, on the southern coast toward the west, where there is a river called Mahizales, some of these trees were found and I saw the canafistula they bore and ate it, and it was good, and as I have described.
VIII. Many grapevines like those from Castile have been planted here in this city and they bear good grapes, and it is believed that they would grow in abundance if they were nurtured, understanding well the work that must be done; because as the land is moist, after the grapevine has borne its fruit it is trimmed but quickly sprouts again, and being overharvested, the vine ages quickly.These were brought from Castile, but beyond the ones in the city, there are many grapevines of the same kind in the estates and settlements of these islands, brought, as I have said, from Spain. I will say, moreover, that in this island, like in others, and in many other lands or parts of the Mainland there are many wild grapevines, and I have eaten from many of them; and they are found very readily, and I think that is how all the grapevines in the world were in the beginning, from where they were taken, cultivated, and improved.
IX. There are in this city some large, beautiful olive trees, that were likewise brought from Spain; but they are what I call sterile and don’t bear fruit, only leaves, and they can also be found in other lands and parts of this island; but fruitless, as I have said. And it is worth noting that all the fruits with pits brought here from Spain and other parts to this island, even if they marvelously take root, don’t bear fruit, only leaves. By the way, I have brought peach, nectarine, and apricot pits from Toledo, and friar plums and sour cherries and sweet cherries, and pine nuts, and I have sowed all of these pits in various parts and estates: none of them have taken root. Pliny says that India’s olive trees are sterile and only produce the same fruit as wild olive trees; the olive trees from this island are more sterile than the ones from India Pliny speaks of; because if those, like he says, bear the fruit of wild olives, the ones here only bear leaves.
X. There is a fruit that here they call plátano (or bananas); but they are not real plátanos, they are not even trees, nor were they found in these Indies but were brought here; but they have retained this unsuitable name of plátano. They are planted once and no more, because one engenders many, and they increase in quick succession; because, once the older tree has produced three or four or six or more offspring around it, it bears a bunch of fruit, and once this is cut off, the plant that made and produced it dries up.And so it is not in the way or takes too long to dry up, just as soon as they cut the fruit they cut the trunk of this plant, since it is no longer productive nor will it bear more, and it loses its capability, and all that is left is the children and successors born around it. I said before that these are not plátanos, because the shape of that tree, according to those who have written about it, is very different and of a different manner. The ones here have very large broad leaves and are tall, like trees, and some of their trunks grow as thick as a man’s waist, and others like a man’s thigh, more or less, according to the fertility of the earth or soil in which they are planted. And it has very long leaves, some measuring twelve handspans in length, and three to four handspans wide, more or less, that grow from low in the trunk. The wind very easily rips these leaves in many parts, leaving the shaft of the leaves whole.This plant is very much like one single shoot, with a bunch of fruit growing at the top, through the center of the leaves, on a thick stem, as thick as the wrist of an arm, at which end is the fruit, a bunch of twenty or thirty or fifty, and some of a hundred fruits, more or less, that here they call plátanos or bananas. And each of these fruits is about a handspan in length, more or less, depending on the fertility of the plant and the quality of the soil, and as thick as a wrist, or less, because the thickness of the fruit is in proportion to the size or length of it, because in some parts where they grow some are very small. This fruit’s peel is not very thick, but it bends and is easy to tear or peel off, and the fruit inside looks like a cow’s bone marrow. The banana bunch is cut just as a fruit begins to turn yellow, and then the bunch is hung in the house, and there all of the fruits in the bunch will ripen. This is a very good fruit, and when these bananas are ripened by sunlight, cutting into the peel lengthwise without completely breaking the skin of peel, and making several cuts into it sideways, cutting it into two halves at least, the flavor when they are ripened is very similar to dried figs, and even better: cooked in the oven, over a grill or something similar, they are a very good and flavorful fruit,and it has a taste of its own, like a sweet preserve, and its taste is healthy and smooth. Likewise, cooking them in a pot with meat, they are delicious; but the banana should be neither too hard nor too ripe when added to the meat, and it should only be added peeled and when the meat is almost done cooking, because the banana is cooked in one or two boils or in little time. They are a very soft fruit eaten raw after they have ripened, and it is not necessary to eat them with bread or anything else, and it is of excellent flavor and healthy and easy to digest. I have never heard of it doing harm to anyone. They last some days when taken on shipboard, and for this they should be picked somewhat green; and while they last without rotting or being damaged (which is twelve or fifteen days), they taste better in the sea than on the land (as desired things do where they are less likely to be found).The trunk or shoot that this plant produces and on which the cluster of fruit I have described grows takes one year to make the fruit, and in that time it has procreated and produced four or five or six or seven offspring or shoots more or less (heirs to the same properties and purpose); because as I have said, after that bunch of fruit is cut, they also cut the banana plant that made it, because it no longer bears fruit and takes up land without giving profit, and the offspring I have mentioned grow and do as the parent plant did; and there are many and they reproduce in such a way that there is never a lack of them and they continue to increase in number. They are very moist and whenever they are pulled from the root there is so much water pooled that it looks like all the dampness and water from the pores of the earth has been drawn to its stump and roots. The ants in these parts are very fond of these plants and ten to collect around them, therefore a lot of them in this city were pulled up because they could not survive the ants. This fruit grows year-round; but as I have said, it is not because it is natural to these parts, where they don’t even know its proper name; but I will say more. The truth is that they cannot be called plátanos (which they are not); but in addition to this, as I have heard from others about the lineage of this plant, it was brought from the island of Gran Canaria in the year 1516 by the reverend father Friar Tomás de Berlanga, of the Order of Preachers (the Dominican Brothers), to this city of Santo Domingo; and from here they have expanded to other settlements on this island and to all the other islands settled by Christians, and they have been taken to the Mainland, and wherever they have been planted, they have grown very well; and in the estates belonging to the residents of this island there are countless banana trees because they are very profitable and all are consumer, and it is a good investment for their owners because it does not cost anything to plant them. They brought the first ones, as I have said, from Gran Canaria, and I saw them in that same city in the monastery of San Francisco in the year 1520 and likewise in the other Fortunate or Canary Islands. And I have also heard it say that they can be found in the city of Almería in the kingdom of Granada, and it is said that from there this plant passed to the Indies, having reached Almería from the Levant or Alexandria and from eastern India. I have heard from Genovese, Italian, and Greek merchants who have been in those parts, and they have told me that this fruit is found in India as I have said, and likewise it is very common in Egypt, especially in city of Alexandria, where they call this fruit musas. Peter Martyr also says in his Decades that this fruit is called musas and that he saw it in Alexandria, and he says that they are not plátanos, and no one else can really say otherwise. Ludovico de Vartenia, a Bolognese, writes in his Itinerarythat they have this fruit in Calicut, where he says it is called malapolanda; but he says that these plants are not much taller than a man, and in everything else he describes them as I have done: and he also says that the fruit is of three kinds: the first is ciancapalon, the second and better one is called gadelapalon and he says of the third type that it is not really one. I will also say that this fruit is not all of the same goodness, because there are some that are better and more flavorful than others; but this may be because of the soil and the disposition of the land, as is the case with other fruits in Spain and other places. And if the earth is sterile and thin, or too hard and packed, the fruit can be of poor quality; and each type of fruit prefers the best suitable soil, and this is the kind of knowledge the farmers must be experts in, an understanding of the features and quality of the soil in which they want to sow or plant their corn or groves or whatever. And since, as I said before, these are not true plantains, although that is what they are called here; and this I am certain of, since Pliny says that the plantain trees were brought to Italy and they came by the Ionian Sea to the island of Diomedes and from there to Sicily and from Sicily to Italy and he also says that they were in Spain at the time Rome conquered it. He says more: that in Lycia there is a plantain planted over a fountain in the form of a house of cabin, a sort of eighty-one feet grotto or cave, covering it with many branches that looked like trees and shaded the space, etc.: and he says that Muziano, who was consul three times (and newly a legate of that province), wrote that he had eaten under that plantain tree with ten or eight others, and that there was enough long and broad space under it for each of them to be safe from wind or rain etc. He says more: that in Gortyn, in the city of Candia, there is a plantain tree alongside a fountain that never loses its leaves, and that the fabulous Grezia says that Jupiter slept under this banana tree with Europa, and he concludes that the best praise offered to this tree is that in the summer it protects from the sun, etc. From all of these properties and parts of the plantain tree that Pliny describes, it can be deduced that these trees called plantains over here are not so, and that there is no fruit or utility known for the ones he describes, only good shade; and the ones we have here bear the fruit that has been described, and one of them alone cannot provide shade (or any good shade), only if many are planted together very close to each other, because they don’t have branches, except only leaves and most of them are ripped. Ours cannot protect anyone from sun or water: it seems rather as if it rained harder under them, because the leaves themselves create more leaks since few of them are intact but are rather torn and ripped. And well, that plantain tree from Candia didn’t lose its leaves, while the ones here are not like that, having more dry leaves than green ones, since the oldest leaves begin to dry, wither and fall, while the taller ones grow, and in the course of a year the entire plant ends its cycle and its life, as I have said, and what is left is its offspring and successors, just like the one from which they sprouted. So that those I have described here, so abundant and useful in these parts, should not be considered plantains, nor trees, as they are just plants: and these were brought here through the diligence and means of the reverend father Friar Tomás de Berlanga, who was deservedly named Bishop of Castilla de Oro on the Mainland by His Imperial Majesty, being in truth a very religious person and a great example, and very worthy of such a dignified rank; and because his doctrine in the service of God, Our Lord, has been very beneficial in these parts, he was thus selected, his lack of interest in asking or procuring the bishopric being notable.
XI. The canes from which sugar is made (of which there are great estates and mills in this island of Hispaniola and other parts of these Indies), were brought from the Canary Islands, as was explained at length in Book IV. Even though they are not trees, I wanted to mention them and their usefulness briefly to conclude this chapter, given their importance now and in the past to this island. And this said, let us go on to talk about the native trees of these parts.
 Cassia fistula or golden shower tree.
 Lám. 3.a, fig. 1.a
 Pliny, Book XII, Chapter 6.
 Botanically a berry, bananas are produced by several kinds of large herbaceous plants in the genus Musa.
 Lám. 3.a fig. 2.a.
 P. Martyr, Decades VII, Chapter 9.
 Pliny, Book XII, Chapter 1.
Image retrieved from John Carter Library at Brown University.