The Blue Mountain range is Jamaica’s oldest geographical feature, formed in the Cretaceous period (between 144 and 65 million years ago). Though the peaks are named for their cerulean tint when seen from afar, some of the rock actually is coloured blue by crossite minerals.
Mountain trees and plants
Categorized as montane (high-altitude woodland), the forests are mostly native cedar, soapwood, sweetwood and dogwood evergreens, with a few blue mahoe, mahogany and teak trees, but the eucalyptus and Caribbean pines introduced in the 1950s are also having an impact. The primeval-looking cyathea (tree fern), with its diamond-patterned trunk and top-heavy fronds is particularly distinctive; the tallest are more than 150 years old. Below the dense canopy are shrubs, of which the red tubular flowers of the cigar bush are the most identifiable. Every tree trunk or exposed rock is festooned with brightly coloured epiphytes, including inexhaustible swathes of dirty lime-coloured old man’s beard. Wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and rose apples provide a free feast, and you’ll doubtless encounter prickly climbing bamboo, the only variety native to Jamaica; each one blossoms simultaneously with tiny white flowers once every 33 years – due in 2017 and 2050. Alongside are over five hundred species of flowering plant, including 65 varieties of orchid. Begonias, blue iris, agapanthus, lobelias, busy lizzies and fuschias proliferate, while wild ginger lilies lend a delicate perfume.
Animals and birds
Other than mongooses, coneys and the wild pigs that roam the northern slopes, there are few mammals. You may hear the scuffles of feral cats, mice and rats in the undergrowth, and a few Jamaican yellow boas inhabit the lower slopes. The presence of bats is poorly documented; you’re most likely to see them around the limestone slopes of the John Crow Mountains to the east. By contrast, bird life flourishes; the forests ring out with the evocative whistle of the rufous-throated solitaire, and mockingbirds, crested quail doves (known as mountain witches), white-eyed thrushes, blackbirds and Jamaican todys add to the cacophony, backed by the squeaking mating calls of tree frogs.
The mountains are the sole habitat of one of the rarest and largest butterflies in the world, the six-inch giant swallowtail, but its distinctively patterned dark brown and gold wings rarely flutter into view – again, the warmer John Crow range yields the most sightings. Insects, on the other hand, are multitudinous – in summer it’s common to see thousands of fireflies (known as peenie-wallies) clustering on a single bush and lighting it up like a Christmas tree.