In terms of native biodiversity, Jamaica is surpassed in the Caribbean only by Cuba, a country many times its size. What's more, Jamaica has an extremely high rate of endemism, both in plant and animal life. Perhaps most noticeable are the endemic birds, some of the most striking of which are hard to miss. The national bird is the red-billed streamertail hummingbird (also called the doctor bird), ubiquitous across the island. Other endemic birds, like the Jamaican tody, are more rare--requiring excursions into remote areas to see.
While agriculture has diminished in importance as bauxite and tourism have taken over as Jamaica's chief earners, the country still depends heavily on subsistence farming outside the largest cities and towns, where even still many houses have mango and ackee trees in the yard. Coffee remains an important export crop, the Blue Mountains varieties fetching some of the highest (if not the highest) prices per pound in the world. In recent years, a growing number of entrepreneurs have begun developing cottage industries based on key agricultural crops. The market for Jamaica's niche products is strong both domestically and abroad. It helps that prices within the country are buoyed by heavy reliance on imported foodstuffs, which, while posing a challenge for consumers, means producers can get a fair price for their goods at home. Some of the most notable of these cottage industries based on natural products of Jamaica are Walkerswood, Starfish Oils, Pickapeppa, and Belcour Preserves. Look out for these in crafts shops and specialty supermarkets across the island. Many of these enterprises offer tours of their production facilities.
Jamaica's flora consists of a diverse mix of tropical and subtropical vegetation. Along the dry South Coast, the landscape resembles a desert, while mangrove wetlands near Black River provide a sharp contrast within relatively close proximity. In the highlands of Manchester, temperate crops like potato, known as Irish, and carrots thrive.
Fruits and Plants
Ugli fruit is a hybrid between grapefruit (Citrus paradisi) and tangerine (Citrus reticulata) developed at Trout Hall, St. Catherine. It has a brainy-textured thick skin that is easily removed to reveal the juicy, orange-like fruit inside. A few large citrus estates, most notably Good Hope in Trelawny, make this an important export.
Ackee (Blighia sapida) is a small to mid-size tree native to West Africa, its introduction to Jamaica having been recorded in 1778 when some plants were purchased from a slave ship captain. It is said to have been present earlier, however, owing to a slave who wouldn't relinquish his grasp of the fruit across the Middle Passage. Ackee is Jamaica's national fruit.
Anatto (Bixa orellana) is an important dye and food coloring, and was at one point an important Jamaican export, likely lending its name to Annotto Bay in St. Mary, which was a center of production and export.
Jimbalin is the Jamaican name for what is known as passion fruit in the United States. Passion fruit (P. edulis flavicarpa) has one of the world's most beautiful flowers and a delicious fruit not commonly seen fresh in northern countries.
Antidote cacoon (Fevillea cordiflora), known as sabo, segra-seed, and nhandiroba, is a perennial climbing vine whose fruit has been used for its medicinal and purgative qualities.
Agave (Agave sabolifera) is a succulent, its broad leaves edged with prickles, notable for its tremendous 5- to 10-meter flower shoot February\April. Bulbils fall from the shoots to develop into independent plants.
Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) was brought from South America by pre-Columbian populations and used medicinally. Later it was grown on plantations and used as a starch substitute and thickener.
Apple in Jamaica is a generic term that could refer to any number of fruits, starting with the delicious Otaheite apple. Other apples include star apple, custard apple (sweet sop, sour sop), mammee apple (Mammea americana), crab apple (also known as coolie plum), golden apple (Passiflora laurifolia), velvet apple (Diospyros discolor) --also known as the Philippine persimmon, and rose apple (Syzyguim jambos), used as a windbreak and for erosion control. The imported American or English apple, the common apple of the United States, has been slowly and unfortunately taking over from the more exotic varieties on fruit stands in recent years due to its exotic appeal.
Avocado (Persea americana) is known commonly in Jamaica as "pear." Avocado is a native of Mexico, from where it was taken by the Spaniards throughout the Americas and much of the world. The Spanish name, aguacate, is a substitute for the Aztec name, ahucatl. Avocados are in season in Jamaica from August to December with a few varieties ripening into February. Alligator, Simmonds, Lulu, Collinson, and Winslowson are some of the varieties grown on the island.
Banana (Musa acuminata x balbisiana) is the world's largest herb (non-woody plant); it became an important Jamaican export in the post-Emancipation period of 1876\1927. Jamaica was the world's foremost producer of the fruit during the period, with Gros Michel and later Cavendish varieties. The banana trade gave rise to Caribbean tourism when increasingly wealthy shippers began to offer passage on their empty boats returning to Jamaica from New England, where much of the produce was destined. In this way Portland, an important banana-growing region, became the Caribbean's first tourism destination with the Titchfield Hotel, built by a banana baron, exemplifying the relationship between the fruit and the tourism economy that would come to replace it in importance. Several varieties of banana are still grown in Jamaica, including plantain, an important starch; boiled bananas are a necessary accompaniment in the typical Jamaican Sunday breakfast of ackee and saltfish, callaloo, and dumpling.
Barringtonia (Barrintonia asiatica) is a large evergreen with its center of origin in Asia. Its large coconut-like fruit will float for up to two years and root on the shore where it lands. Known locally as the duppy coconut, the tree has been naturalized in Portland and 220-year-old trees grow at Bath Gardens in St. Thomas.
Wild basil (Ocimum micranthum) is a wild bush used in folk medicine and in cooking, popularly called barsley or baazli.
Bauhinia (Bauhinia spp.), known locally as "poor man's orchid," is a favorite of the streamertail hummingbird, or doctor bird, which visits the orchid-like flowers. It grows as a shrub or mid-sized tree with pinkish flowers.
Madam Fate (Hippobroma longiflora) is a poisonous perennial herb with a five-petaled, star-shaped flower used in Obeah and folk medicine. Found along pastures or on riverbanks, it's commonly called star flower or horse poison.
Trees and Flowers
Kingston buttercup (Tribulus cistoides) is a low, spreading plant with bright yellow flowers. It's known commonly as "Kill Backra" because it was thought to have caused yellow fever, which killed many European settlers. It's also called "police macca" because of its thorns, and turkey blossom.
Blue mahoe (Hibiscus elatus) is a quality hardwood of the Malvaceae family. It grows native in the Blue Mountains and is the national tree.
Ironwood (Lignum vitae) is an extremely dense tropical hardwood that produces Jamaica's national flower.
Mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) was and still is highly valued for its timber and has accordingly been unsustainably harvested since the Spanish colonial period, resulting in dwindling numbers today. Mahogany can still be seen growing, albeit sparsely, along the banks of the Black River, which was originally called the Mahogany River by the Spanish, or Rio Caobana.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a cousin of the hibiscus whose flowers are boiled to make a drink popular around Christmas time.
The coney or Jamaican hutia (Geocapromys brownii) is Jamaica's only surviving indigenous land-dwelling mammal, the only other being bats. Conies are nocturnal and thus seldom seen. The animal is basically a large rodent with cousins inhabiting other Caribbean islands like Hispaniola. Its meat was prized by the Taino centuries ago, while it is still a delicacy for the mongoose today, which is blamed for pushing it towards extinction. Another threat is loss of habitat, owing to encroaching urbanization of its principal habitats in the Hellshire Hills and Worthy Park of St. Catherine. It is also found in the John Crow Mountains in Portland and St. Thomas.
Mongooses are today a common animal seen scurrying across the road. Widely regarded as pests, it is said that all mongooses in the Western Hemisphere are descendants of four males and five females introduced to Jamaica from India in 1872 to control the rat population on the sugar estate of one William Bancroft Espeut. They soon went on to outgrow their function, eventually being held responsible for killing off five endemic vertebrates and bringing Jamaica's iguanas to the verge of extinction.
In Jamaica, the term bat typically refers to moths. Jamaica has 23 species of bat, known locally as rat bats, bats being used for moths. Many species of the Bombacaceae family are bat-pollinated, including the baobab, cottonwood, cannonball, and night cactus trees. Bats also go for other pulpy fruits like sweet sop, banana, naseberry, and mango. Noctilio leporinus, a fish-eating bat, can be seen swooping low over harbors and inlets at twilight.
Of the 280 species of birds that have been recorded in Jamaica, 30 species and 19 subspecies are endemic (found nowhere else). Of these 30, two are considered extinct. There are 116 species that use Jamaica as a breeding ground, while around 80 species spend the northern winter months on the island. The Jamaican tody, the ubiquitous "doctor bird" (Jamaica's national bird, properly called the red-billed streamertail), and the Jamaican mango hummingbird are especially colorful species to look out for.
Jamaica has 26 species of lizards, including the island's largest, the iguana, now protected in the Helshire Hills and in slow recovery after near extinction due to slaughter by farmers and mongooses. The Anolis genus includes seven of the most common species, often seen in hotel rooms and on verandas, their showy throat fan extending to attract females. The largest Anolis is the garmani, which prefers large trees to human dwellings. All Jamaica's lizards are harmless.
Six of Jamaica's seven snake species are endemic, and all of them are harmless. Mostly found in remote areas like Cockpit Country, snakes have fallen victim to the fear of country folk, who generally kill them on sight, and to the introduced mongoose, famous for its ability to win a fight with the cobras of its native India. The island's largest snake is the yellow snake, with yellow and black patterns across its back. The snake is a boa constrictor, known locally as nanka, which can grow up to 3.5 meters in length. The nanka is seldom seen, as it is only active at night when it emerges from hiding to feed on bats and rats. Other less impressive snakes include three species of grass snake of the Arrhyton genus and the two-headed or worm snake (Typhlops jamaicensis), which burrows below ground with its tail end virtually indistinguishable from its head. The black snake is considered an extinct victim of the mongoose.
Crocodiles are Jamaica's biggest reptiles, and are often referred to on the island as alligators. The American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is found across the island in swampy mangrove areas like Font Hill Wildlife Sanctuary and the Lower Black River Morass. This is the same species of croc found in Florida and other coastal wetlands of the Caribbean. Crocodiles have a long tapering snout, whereas alligators have a short, flat head.
Jamaica has no large native mammals on land. The largest mammals are instead marine-based, namely dolphins and manatees, the latter being known locally as sea cows. Manatees are endangered and now protected under wildlife laws after having seen their population dwindle due to hunting.
Of the six sea turtle species known worldwide, four were once common, and now less so, in Jamaican waters: the green turtle (Chelonia midas), the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), and the loggerhead (Caretta caretta). Turtle meat formed an important part of the diet of the Tainos and was later adopted as a delicacy by the colonial settlers. In keeping with Taino practice, they kept green turtles in large coastal pens known as turtle crawles, to be killed and eaten at will.