Local plants have ingenious mechanisms that allow them to weather the dry, desert climate, scant rainfall and the ever-present trade winds. These include marvelous adaptations to their roots, leaves and stems.
No group of plants is as well suited to the climate as the cacti, which are specially designed to reduce the amount of moisture lost to evaporation. Their nasty thorns are, in fact, modified leaves. The trunks are porous, oversized stems which, after a heavy rain, can absorb so much water that the whole plant may topple right over. The waterlogged cactus immediately generates new sprouts from its downed trunk, so giving birth to the next generation. Special "rain roots" sprout within hours of a downpour to catch every precious drop.
Close to a dozen wild species of cactus make their home on Curaçao; you will notice several throughout the countryside. There are four basic types, ranging from the tall, stately pillar cactus (the most common are the candelabra shaped kadushi and the straight datu) that can tower upwards of 10 meters into the air, to the long winding ones that snake over the ground; from the nopal or so-called "leaf" cacti with their broad, flat branches (tuna and infrou) to the squat ball cactus that resembles a very thorny melon. (The Papiamentu name is milón di seru, literally, "melon of the hills".)
Locals have long put the members of this robust family to a variety of ingenious uses. The tender flesh of the kadushi has been used for soups, medicine and even shampoo, while the fruit of both the prickly pear (infrou) and the datu makes a tasty jam. Planted close together in neat, precise rows, the tall datu often serve as natural barbed fences to keep out bands of roving goats. Their soft interior wood once was used to fashion rustic beds; today local children still prize it for lightweight kite frames. Small insects that inhabit certain nopal cactus produce a brilliant scarlet dye, cochineal, that was once exported. The sap of nopal cacti is also used as a compress to relieve aches and pains.
The cactus does its part to change the very desert climate in which it thrives, chipping away at stones with its roots, attracting insects and small animals with its fruit and flowers (which appear in the dry season when most other plants are dormant).
Curaçao is home to several other succulents. Look for prickly bromeliads (teku) growing close to the ground; their bright red centers attract birds to the tiny flowers. Their tight circle of grooved leaves is so efficient at collecting and directing water down to the roots it can channel even dewdrops.
One species of the large century plant (agave), was originally imported to manufacture rope in the 1800s. After many years (but not once a century, as its name mistakenly implies) it sends up a tall shoot several meters high, adorned with clusters of bright yellow flowers, then dies. Aloe (sentebibu) grows in dense clumps; the slimy sap is an excellent salve for cuts and sunburn and is a prized ingredient in many cosmetics.
Several local species of orchids (orkidia) grow in the protected areas of Christoffel Park. Look for the heart shaped flowers of the white orchid and the brilliant blooms of the purple orchid soon after heavy rains.
Local trees also have clever ways of adapting to the desert climate. Some, such as the tamarind, acacia (wabi), mesquite (indju) and divi divi have a collection of small leaves, rather than broad flat ones, that greatly reduce the evaporation of precious water.
The mangroves (mangel) that grow in dense clumps along seaside inlets eventually trap enough sand in their long snake-like roots to create more land. These swamps are the natural habitat and breeding grounds for a wide variety of birds and fish.
The characteristically sharp tilt of the windblown divi divi, Curaçao's national tree, has become one of the island's most recognized symbols. In the last century, divi divi pods were in great demand in tanneries in England and Holland; for awhile they were the island's most important export.
After spring rains the hills of the western end of the island light up in a blaze of brilliant yellow with the blooms of the indigenous kibrahacha, (literally, "hatchet-breaker") a close relative of the pink trumpet tree. It is the national flower.
Not all local plants are harmless. Most visitors need only be concerned about the manchineel (manzaliña), found at many beaches. The small round fruit, yellow or green, is poisonous; sap from the tree and juice from the fruit can irritate broken skin and mucus membranes. A very few people who are allergic to the plant will have a severe reaction even to rainwater running off its leaves; many more seem to be completely immune. If you develop a mild reaction, flush the area with plenty of cool water. Flowering oleander bushes are frequently used as residential and commercial landscaping; if you have young children note that their sap is poisonous.
If you tromp through the countryside, long pants will protect your legs from both cactus and the rare devil's nettle (bringamosa; literally "fighting lady"), a small, thick-stemmed plant with clumps of hairy leaves and small white flowers, which is found in places where the vegetation is undisturbed. The stinging hairs secrete a poison that can cause itching and swelling, and even fever among the allergic. Fortunately, nature provides an antidote. Nearby you will almost always find the tattoo bush or physic nut (flaira), with its similarly shaped dark, shiny leaves and small red flowers; rub its juices on the irritated area for almost instant relief.
Throughout the countryside you will notice the shiny dark green leaves and bright purple flowers of the rubber vine (palu di lechi), which was imported earlier this century to cultivate for its rubber. Large scale manufacturing was unsuccessful, but, because it has no natural enemies on Curaçao, the plant quickly took over. By curling its thick, whiplike tendrils over other plants it eventually kills them off. Almost impossible to get rid of once it gets rooted, the plant has become a major nuisance.