El Yunque

By Nicole Tarnowsky

Sep 21 2021

Set foot in El Yunque, the beautiful tropical rain forest in eastern Puerto Rico, and you'll hear the familiar chirp of the coqui frog, and maybe the song of the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot, Amazona vittata. Rising to 3494 feet above sea level you will find waterfalls and tree ferns, and you might even come across plants that are found only in this mountain range, Sierra de Luquillo. El Yunque National Forest (Bosque  Nacional El Yunque) is home to thousands of plants native to Puerto Rico, including 150 fern species and 240 tree species, 23 of which exist no where else in the world.

The original inhabitants of this land were the Taíno. The highest peaks were called Yuke, or "white lands", referring to the thick clouds encircling the mountain tops. The current name of El Yunque, meaning anvil, is possibly a spanish derivation of Yuke. You can see ancient petroglyphs left by early indigenous groups, carved in rocks along waterways throughout El Yunque.

There are several distinct habitats in El Yunque, changing as you go up in altitude. At around 1970 feet you will find the forest is dominated by Sierra Palms, Prestoea montana. Moving up to 2500 feet you will find the Palo Colorado (Cyrilla racemiflora) forest. These trees can be up to 1000 years old and are nesting sites for the endangered iguaca (Puerto Rican parrot). Ascending to the highest elevations you will find a Dwarf Forest. This is a harsh environment for trees to survive in, being extremely rainy and windy. Trees such Tabebuia rigida and Calyptranthes krugii do not grow very tall, but have wide trunks, giving them their dwarf appearance.

The Luquillo mountains have had a history of mining and timber exploitation throughout the centuries in both the Spanish and American eras, however it has also been recognized as an important resource to preserve. In 1876 Spanish King Alphonso XII proclaimed 10,000 hectares (24,000 acres) of the Luquillo Mountains a reserve, and timber removal was regulated. After the Spanish American War this land was ceded to the United States and in 1907 was re-named the Luquillo National Forest. It has been actively managed by the Forest Service ever since, balancing forest management and conservation with timber extraction, mining, road and water resource development. In 1935 it was renamed the Caribbean National Forest, and in 2007 the name was changed again to El Yunque National Forest, to better reflect the culture and history of Puerto Rico.

El Yunque has long been studied by biologists and conservationists. Elizabeth and Nathaniel Britton spent many field trips documenting the flora of the region, publishing Scientific Survey of Porto Rico in 1925 which included many new species and endemics, known to only exist there. The Mt. Britton trail and tower within the park is named after the Brittons. Since that time many researchers have had the opportunity to go field collecting there.

Enjoy this selection of specimens collected in El Yunque National Forest.


United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service - El Yunque National Forest. https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/elyunque/home accessed 17 Sept 2021.

Plants of the Island of Puerto Rico https://www.regionalconservation.org/ircs/database/plants/PRPlantListByL.asp?Letter=A&chkf=false accessed 17 Sept 2021.