A giant, elegant ceiba tree is one of the most popular tourist attractions on Vieques, a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico. The island was formerly a sugar plantation, worked first by slaves for the Spanish crown, and later by agregados or sharecroppers. Once it came under U.S. rule, it was used as a bombing range by the U.S. Navy. The island was decommissioned by the Navy in 2003 after a lengthy battle with locals known as "the struggle."
La Ceiba, as she's called now, has presided over this human activity over a 300- to 400-year life span.
But after the double-whammy of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, locals were worried. Sitting in a 51-acre coastal park, the tree is protected, but nothing could keep it from bearing the brunt of such intense winds. Like the turtles, seabirds and even endangered manatees that also live in the park, there wasn't much people could do to keep them safe as the winds tore through, destroying homes and buildings, and permanently altering the landscape of the mostly rural island.
The Vieques ceiba trees' roots can hold water, which the local wild horses sometimes use as a trough. (Photo: Jay Sturner from USA/Wikimedia Commons)
I noticed the ceiba tree on the list of "must-see" attractions when I visited the island in 2016, and after navigating through herds of the island's famous wild horses, found it easily — it's huge. It feels more like a building than a tree, its giant roots rising from the earth in walls that reminded me of elephant skin — grey and wrinkly and ancient.
The area around the tree is a special meeting place for local residents and a frequent picnic spot, but the day I was there I had the tree to myself. I walked around it in an admiring circle, trying to imagine all the tree had seen in its years.
Well, I wasn't entirely alone. There were horses grazing quietly nearby, as I sat beneath the tree for a meditation — I remember I could hear the wind in La Ceiba's leaves above my head and the waves crashing gently on the shore as I breathed in and out.
When I heard from a friend about the post-hurricane devastation there, I thought of the beautiful places I had stayed, and all the island had already been through — people and ecosystems alike. I cried, because Vieques had already become a special place to me, a warm and comforting spot on the earth I knew I would return to. But it would be different now.
The future is looking brighter
And I thought about the ceiba tree. I'll admit I was afraid to learn that it had been destroyed in the storms. It didn't look good post-storm — the pictures show a totally denuded tree, that looked naked and unlike itself without its fluffy crown of greenery.
But the most recent news about the tree is good. It has just bloomed, which doesn't happen every year, proving she is not only a tough tree, as she remains proudly standing, but resilient and full of energy, too.
"That this tree is blooming now tells me is it was able to bud leaves after Maria and still get enough energy, and probably had some stored from before," Fabián Michelangeli, a curator at the New York Botanical Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany, told the Huffington Post. "But that means it's healthy enough to go for more blooming."
Those blooms don't just benefit the tree: they provide sustenance for many creatures. "The flowers burst open at dusk, drawing swarms of bees, spiders, and hummingbirds to what Ardelle Ferrer Negretti, the founder of a local community project to protect the ceiba, calls 'the nectar feast.' When the sunlight fades into blackness, bats join the banquet," writes Alexander Kaufman.
Locals seem to be taking the ceiba tree's bloom as a sign of resilience: "It was a symbol of we're back in business," Ferrer Negretti told NPR. "Her blooms are so significant because it represents that we are blooming, and we will keep creating more life."
Ceiba trees are the national tree of Puerto Rico. There's one that's almost 500 years old on that much-larger island. In Mayan culture, ceiba trees are a kind of center, and Puerto Rico's indigenous people, the Taíno, think of the ceiba as the daughter of a goddess.
Whether supernatural or natural, the tree still stands, endures, and blooms — and so will the local people who pass by her, or take shade under her branches.