The Loyalty Islands forest seems to have been fashioned over the centuries by imps or spirits. Particularly harmonious, the Islands' dense forest is a magical universe where medium-sized trees, sometimes stunted, seem to have been trimmed by sophisticated gardeners. Looming over beds of ferns and dense undergrowth, the dense evergreen forest and evergreen limestone forest are dominated by banian trees (Moraceae), kohu (Intsia bijuga) which does not rot, the plant known locally as "false sandalwood" (Cryptocarya elliptica) or buni (Manilkara dissecta) with its tormented shapes.
Local common names often refer to several species of plants that are unrelated. "False sandalwood" is a good example. The name "false sandalwood" is most often used in the islands to refer to Myoporum crassifolium whose fragrant wood is occasionally used to make true sandalwood false, by using it in a mixture. The other, the Cryptocarya (laurels), exudes a scent reminiscent of coconut, citronella and vanilla.
New Caledonian pines (Araucariaceae), which can reach 60 metres in height, crown the limestone cliffs overlooking the coast. With bunis and screw pines (Pandanaceae), they constitute the ultimate plant rampart against the onslaught of the Pacific Ocean.
The well-drained limestone soil in the islands facilitates the cultivation of fruit trees. No less than 53 varieties of avocado (Persea americana) are cultivated on Maré. Lifou's vanilla is known all over the world. On Ouvéa, copra, the dried flesh of the coconut, is processed into oil, soap and even biofuel.
Several species are endemic, such as the mamadraï, a bush whose clusters of flowers brighten up Lifou gardens. Others are used as traditional remedies. Laurel (Cryptocarya elliptica) leaves destroy worms; wild jasmine leaves purify the blood. The caricature plant (Graptophyllum pictum) is used to treat sore throats, not to mention the many properties of naupaka (Scaevola sericea), a seaside plant. The traditional pharmacopoeia, which is making a big comeback, reflects the Loyalty Islands' precious biodiversity.
Ouvéa’s white gold
Coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) occupy some 3,200 hectares on Ouvéa and 200 families harvest the heart of the coconut. Dried in ovens, it provides copra, from which oil is manufactured and even fuel that can be used in the island’s electric power plant. Since 2001, part of the oil has been processed into cosmetic products and soap by the Savonnerie des Îles (Island Soap Factory). Pleasantly scented and economical, Ouvéa soap lathers up even in seawater.
On Lifou, the puifélö (Murraya crenulata) and the hnyim (Alyxia stellata) are used to make huts smell nice or to adorn oneself with a pleasant scent. It is said that at the time when young girls rarely left their homes, their suitors would make floral crowns and position themselves not far from the hut, in the direction of the wind, so that the scent would encourage the beautiful recluses to come out and join them.
A Maré sweet treat
All New Caledonians know the avocados from Maré, where the well-drained limestone soil facilitates cultivation. This evergreen was introduced to the Loyalty Islands in 1864 by missionaries. The 53 varieties represented rival each other in form, taste and benefits. Very nutritious and energizing, excellent for health, the avocado is a fruit you can eat without stinting.
Lifou vanilla is so highly prized that it is rare to find it anywhere but on the island, unless one goes to the shops of great luxury product brokers such as Hédiart or Fauchon. Introduced into the south of Mu Island in 1860, it is cultivated with enthusiasm by 270 farmers. To obtain nice plump pods with their unmistakable scent, months of work, care and unparalleled expertise are essential.