The Christmas season in northern climates brings with it sparkling decorations, twinkling lights, festive trees, crackling fires and sometimes even snow. Of course, Christmas in the Cayman Islands has quite a different feel to it than what you might see in the movies,
These days, Christmas trees of pine, fir and spruce are sold on Grand Cayman, but before the island imported these species, there was a different kind of tree used for the holiday: the Sisal tree. The Sisal tree comes from the Sisal Agave — Agave sisilana. It only slightly resembles the shape of a tree, but with the same desirable qualities: durability, strength to hold ornaments and very low maintenance.
Like all Agave, the Sisal is monocarpic, meaning it flowers only once before it dies. The flowers form bulbils which are used to propagate new plants, and the stalk that is left behind is very durable for a period of time before it eventually succumbs to rot and deterioration. The photo above, taken on the roundabout near the Cayman Islands Yacht Club in November, shows the Sisal flowering.
Years ago, people in the Cayman Islands would cut the stalk and use it as a Christmas tree adorned with hand-crafted decorations made from various plants and other collectible items. The trees were kept inside or outside and displayed for the duration of the holidays, then in true sustainable fashion, given back to the earth from which they came.
Agave sisilana is originally native to Southern Mexico but is now widely cultivated and naturalised across many regions of the world. It can handle colder temperatures, but is usually seen growing in the wild or used in the landscape due to its tolerance for salt, poor soils and extremely low maintenance. Sisal Agave is more commonly known for the use of its durable fibers found in the leaves, which are used to make twine or rope. It is fairly sturdy and salt resistant, but not as much as thatch rope from our endemic Coccothrinax or Thatch Palm.