Now, even if you do not master Moliere's tongue you should be able to glean a clue: it is indeed a botanical path which is found in the "Ravine Blanche" (translated "white gully") upland Reunion. So we have to drive a little on the road going across the island until we reach the "Plaine des Caffres" then we take a much smaller road towards "le coin tranquille" (yes, the "quiet spot," definitely a place you want to get to!) and after no more than ten minutes we can park by the side of the road. We are at 1400m (4200 feet) high, which means the weather is just perfect for walking but is prone to rapid changes and occasional rains can come anytime. The path itself makes a 1270m (3810 feet) long loop and is not a challenging one, you can either put on your brand new flashy hiking boots or keep your flip-flop shoes on like I do, they are just fine if the ground is not too muddy. We will not need to carry supplies except for a little water bottle; the whole hike can be done under an hour. But you know me and my maniac interest for plants so it will take much longer as we are to kneel down for ferns and maybe climb a couple trees to check for orchids, be prepared!
This path has been cleared by a local association which has done a terrific job. A quite nasty invading vine (Rubus alceifolius from Indonesia) had spread over many trees and shrubs over the years, chocking many to death, so hand and machete cleaning was the answer. Many plants now have an identification sign with a small picture, Latin plus vernacular name, botanical family name, endemic/indigenous/exotic status and a short explanation about the species. Just as we start walking we are welcomed by the inescapable little birdie which roams those mountain forests, the very friendly and most curious "tec-tec" (Saxicola tectes) which my usual hikers-readers are now familiar with. It will follow us for some time hoping from low branches to the ground until it flies away to some more interesting event.
The first botanical sign awaits us not far from the path entry, Aphloia theiformis is a small tree indigenous to the area and a common sight on Reunion, its bark sheds like on guava trees (Psidium guayava and P. cattleyanum) hence the name "change-écorce" (change bark) and the leaves are used as tea to cure fevers. The next one is more spectacular, this small shrub endemic to Reunion is called "bois de corail" (coral wood) because of the inflorescences which look somewhat like white coral. This member of the Rubiaceae family (like coffee) is Chassalia coraloides (one can easily understand now the species name…) does not grow over 5m (15 feet) and is still quite common throughout the island. Now, this one is the only endemic bamboo to Reunion, this quite interesting member of the Poaceae family (just like corn, rice and grass) mostly originates in Asia and America, with a few species in Africa and Oceania, so our ‘calumet’ as it is locally called has very probably African ancestors. Nastus borbonicus (from one of the former names of Reunion Island, "île Bourbon") grows to 5 or 6m (15 to 18 feet) high and can make some rather thick clumps, it was much used to produce woven materials for housing (roofs and walls) as it is light, easy to work and to harvest but burns very easily and has thus become quite rarely seen as building stuff…anyway, it always gives a very elegant touch anywhere you can see it in the wild.
Ferns are really at home in the tropics and Reunion has its share with some 250 different species which we are not to extensively study today of course! But as they are just unavoidable, growing as trees, ground-cover, epiphytics and lithophyts they are really hard to pass by! The Cyathea genera (tree ferns) offers three species plus two sub-species within Cyathea borbonica. The one which towers above our heads is Cyathea glauca, called "fanjan femelle" on Reunion; "fanjan" is the local name for tree ferns and "femelle" means of course ‘female’. Now I can see sheer botanist’s eyebrows raising, of course ferns are not dioecious so "male" and "female" have no sense for those plants. The explanation simply comes from the shape of this particular fern which base is enlarged thus evoking the outlines of a (archetypal of course!) woman. Note that Cyathea excelsa is also called ‘female’ while Cyathea borbonica is ‘fanjan mâle’, vernacular names are usually quite full of imagery if not botanically correct…Well now, after having to bend you neck backwards in order to look at this fanjan, you are to bend forwards for the next one; Ctenitis cyclochlamys (with synonyms Aspidium cyclochlamys, A. dasychlamys, Lastrea cyclochlamys) is also endemic to Reunion just like five other ferns of the same genera, out of a world total of three hundred species found throughout the tropics with the exception of Australia. Not a very showy species, it usually stays unnoticed except of course by the keen nature-lovers such as you and me! It has a short erect rhizome and numerous pairs of pinnaes (25 or more) and the very specialist will comfort his identification by checking the petiole base scales which are peculiar. Let us get back on the trail, there is a little clearing ahead where we are to admire a flowering tree in full bloom. The "mahot blanc" produces masses of white flowers and can be an impressive sight as this endemic tree may reach 15m (45 feet) high, an already challenging size when growing on an island prone to cyclones! (endemic trees on Reunion would never be allowed to grow too high because of those climatic events). Anyway, our tree belongs now to the botanical family Malvaceae (Hibiscus and baobab family) after being a member of the Sterculiaceae (Cacao and cola trees) for a long time, Dombeya pilosa belongs to a genera numbering some 250 species found across the Mascareignes archipelago,
Madagascar and Africa. On Reunion Island we have twelve species, all endemic and all called "mahot" with variations
such as "petit mahot", "mahot tantan", "mahot rose" and so on. The one here is characterized by its hairy cordate leaves (hence the species name pilosa which means hairy in Latin) and though the flowers are showy they do no smell too good and are even labeled as fetid in some books.
We end our tour with a vine; those are rare amongst indigenous and endemic flora in the area so let us check this one. Humbertacalia tomentosa from the Asteraceae family is simply called ‘white vine’ because of the whitish hairs underneath the leaves which make contrast with the shiny green of the upper face. It is found in Madagascar and the Mascareignes, growing as a woody climber up to 5-8m (15-24 feet) long, the flowers are very showy, whitish green but they come in large clusters in May/July (during austral winter). The seeds are achenes and have a feathery pappus for wind dispersion just like dandelion.
And now I guess we should head back quite fast to the cars, I just had a couple rain drops hitting my cap, and it seems like a heavy downpour is ready to break!