Since I’ve been here a couple of weeks now, I’ve had a great deal of time to explore the property and understand the inner workings of the plants that live alongside me here. Morgan, the owner of the hostel, has had the property for 12 years. When he arrived there was nothing here; now it looks pretty similar to the neighbouring jungle around it. However, from closer inspection and from lengthy chats with Morgan, I have come to realise the purposefulness with which the plants were chosen.
Although many of the backpackers don’t seem to notice, we are surrounded by an abundance of food and useful plants. I’d like to give you a wordy walk through of what we have here.
What’s in the Forest?
Firstly, we have an amazing amount of food. Morgan has planted lots of coconut trees. The meat is used for food and for making milk and oil, the water for drinking, and the trees themselves provide much needed shade for the hostel. The property itself is considerably cooled by the canopy layer that the coconuts provide. Under this very high canopy are large fruit trees, such as mangoes, bananas, plantains, breadfruit, and jackfruit, which again provide shade and food. The bananas also serve as food for the chickens and turkeys, who not only eat the fruit, but scratch underneath them to find bugs. Neem trees are also abundant and are used to make insecticide for the garden, as well as providing shade. There are also many smaller citrus trees and papayas. We’ve been considering increasing the use of these fruits by making syrups and juices for the bar, and perhaps making a still to make home-made moonshine for the customers. Equally, papaya stems are hollow and make incredible natural straws, creating a phenomenal replacement for the horrifying damage done by plastic straws in our natural water sources. There are also several trees planted for timber, which has been used to craft the entire hostel, while palms are used for the roofs.
When it comes to the bushy layers, lemongrass and cuban oregano can be spotted, used both for culinary purposes and for their medicinal properties. There is also a smaller bushy tree, often confused for papaya, but it’s actually called chia. Not like chia seeds, but pronounced with a capital ‘I’ – ChIa. This plant has big spiked lobed leaves like papaya, but the leaves can be cooked up and served in the same manner as spinach.
There are quite a few creepers crawling along the ground including a wild tiny melon and squashes. Down on that ground level, you’ll also find an abundance of what appear to be weeds, but are actually edible greens, such as wild peanut and an odd succulent type plant that seems like samphire but less salty.
Punctuating the green sea are beautiful flowers, both edible and ornamental. Of the edible flowers I recognise are hibiscus and canalillies. Morgan told me that they previously used flowers in the salads but it dwindled away over time. My penchant for beauty in food has led me to encourage him to take this back up again, which I’m excited for. It motivates me to learn more edible flowers so I can scavenge them on site or plant them.
For those that have a good eye for rhizomes, there is a blanket of yukka/cassava that lines the pathways, creating shade and providing starchy goodness for the restaurant’s fries. They serve excellently to break up the soil, which although relatively sandy, can become quite compact after a heavy rain.
Winding up the trees you will find dragonfruit, passionfruit, and malabar spinach. I’m in the process of adding loofahs to this and more spinach.
I’m very overwhelmed by the fruitfulness of this place and the potential it provides to take Morgan’s hostel one step closer to self-sustainability. When I asked him about why he plants all these things but doesn’t market the ecological side of the property, he said he does it for his son, so that his son will have everything he ever needs right in front of him: food, building materials, medicine, beauty. He followed this up by saying it was the right thing to do. Sometimes I feel like we get caught up in the complexity of creating a perfect design, forgetting the reason for why we do these things. We do this because it’s the right thing to do to help the future generations. We’re out there in all weathers, brains ticking over, trying to push the imagination to find more ways to increase the yield in a regenerative manner, not to prove that we’re the best permaculturists, but because it’s the right thing to do.
For me, being able to see it in action has really spurred me on. Often we visit permaculture sites which are ‘on the way’ but never getting there, or we meet permaculture teachers who bounce from place to place never dedicating themselves to the implementation, leaving the follow-through to fall through. It’s humbling to stand with a normal guy, who doesn’t brand himself as some kind of ‘save the world’ permaculture expert, and hear him profess he does this because it’s the right thing. Because it is, and when you see it in action, you feel it more than ever before.