As a remote archipelago, all of the Galapagos’ species of plant life arrived in the islands at some time or another. Birds transported the majority of seeds, while some were carried by the strong prevailing winds, and the remainder were washed in on the flotsam and jetsam of the oceans. The plants that survived and propagated all shared the same hardy features, however, and as pioneering species, they had to adapt in order to thrive in the salty, volcanic environment. |
Exploring the Galapagos Flora
For those with an interest in botany, exploring the Galapagos is an endlessly fascinating experience. The flora of the islands is extremely complex: at least 30% of it is endemic and there are more than 200 introduced species. Generally, however, plants can be roughly described by the vegetation zones in which they survive.
The Coastal (Littoral) Zone
The coastal or littoral zone extends from the edge of the ocean and comprises plants that are highly resistant to the salty conditions. The majority of species that survive in the coastal zone arrived via the ocean currents, so very few are endemic. How far the zones extend inland depends on the size of the individual island in the archipelago.
Mangroves are one of the most prolific species in the coastal zone, growing at the edge of the water and also around saltwater lagoons. There are four separate species of mangroves that grow here: Avicennia germinans (black), Conocarpus erectus (button), Rhizophora mangle (red) and Laguncularia racemosa (white). The Button Mangrove (which is not a true mangrove) is often called a Buttonwood, and is only found in higher elevations.
As well as providing much-needed shade and refuges for the larger wildlife (turtles, iguanas and sea lions), they provide nesting sites for huge numbers of avian species. They also offer a buffer from the ocean, helping to preserve the shoreline from erosion and protecting young marine life with their exposed roots.
Saltbush and Carpetweed
Saltbush is found in abundance along the shorelines, and this spreading shrub provides the perfect nesting sites for larger birds, such as frigates and pelicans. It forms low, dense thickets, and is usually interspersed with carpetweed – a ground vegetation. There are two common species of carpetweed: Sesuvium edmonstonei, which produces a delicate white flower, and Sesuvium portulacastrum, which has pink flowers. The star-shaped flowers of the carpetweed are quite distinctive and easy to identify, although the leaves of the plant can be anything from green to purple to orange, depending on the rainfall.
Beach Morning Glory
Ipomoea pes-caprae, or Beach Morning Glory, is a creeping vine that's vital in keeping the sand dunes stable. As it’s able to endure the salty conditions, it spreads far and wide across the upper parts of the sandy coastal areas. It also grows amongst the saltbush thickets, and is known for producing attractive and large pinky-purple flowers.
Unique Flora in a Unique Environment
Nowhere else on the planet is there such a diversity and intermingling of plant species as on this unique archipelago. The remoteness and harsh conditions of the islands have meant that the plants have had to adapt to their environment in order to survive – in fact, many are still in the evolutionary stages. For amateur botanists, exploring the Galapagos Islands can prove to be a true once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in exploring the Galapagos Islands. Marissa chooses the expert-led itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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