The wildlife of the Galapagos Islands is world-renowned, with nature lovers travelling from all over the world to encounter its unique and iconic species. But with three very distinct vegetation zones, the plants of the Galapagos are every bit as diverse and fascinating. More than 30% of the total species are endemic to the region, which is more than anywhere else on the planet.
The Vegetation Zones
The three distinct vegetation zones of the archipelago are the coastal, the humid and the arid zones. The coastal plants are extremely hardy and resistant to salty conditions, while the humid zones (found in the highlands of the larger islands) support an array of mosses and epiphytes. The arid (otherwise known as dry) zones are the largest, comprising vast swathes of the islands’ lowland habitat.
The Plants of the Arid Zone
The plants of the Galapagos that thrive in the dry lowland areas of the volcanic archipelago are well-adapted to the lack of water. They consist of many species of shrubs that are leafless for the majority of the year, along with cacti and other succulents.
There are numerous species of cacti that grow across virtually all of the islands. Some of the most abundant are the Candelabra Cacti, which produce vibrant red and green flowers, as well as the Lava Cacti, which grow in clumpy yellow formations that are up to two feet in height. The latter cactus also produces beautiful white flowers that die within a couple of hours. The most common of all is the Prickly Pear Cactus, which is a favourite food source of Giant Tortoises and Land Iguanas and can reach up to five feet in height.
The Cut Leaf Daisy
The local Cut Leaf Daisy, endemic to Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island, is one of the rarest of all of the plants of the Galapagos. This pretty yellow flower gets its name from its unusual petals, which look like theyâ€™ve been cut into shape.
This sharp and spiky plant is also known as the “puncture vine” â€“ and for obvious reasons. During past droughts, it’s been a lifesaving food source for ground finches, which are the only birds that are able to crack open the extremely hard seedpod.
These large shrubs have distinctive flat yellow leaves, and grow in abundance around the arid lowlands of the archipelago. They’ve adapted well to survival in the face of a lack of water, and their leaves are highly resistant to the loss of moisture.
Manzanillo grows in the lava fields, and is also known as the “poison apple tree” â€“ itâ€™s the archipelago’s only toxic endemic species. The sap that this large fruit tree produces causes contact dermatitis and, although eating the fruit can be potentially deadly to humans, they are a much-loved delicacy of Giant Tortoises.
The endemic Mollugo, of which there are five species and four sub-species, is one of the most prolific of all of the plants of the Galapagos. It grows in weed-like proportions in the lava fields, and is distributed widely around the islands.
The Diverse Plant Species of the Arid Zone
The above is just a cross-section of the estimated 600 plant species of the archipelago, many of which thrive in the arid zones. In reality, the islands are relatively young in terms of their geological age, meaning that many species are still in their evolutionary stages. Because of this, they can be difficult to classify, but separating them into their distinct zones provides an insight into the astounding diversity of the plants of the Galapagos Islands.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the unique wildlife and plants of 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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