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The Garden of Polymitas

The Garden of Polymitas

Considered by many experts as the most beautiful land snail in the planet, its exclusive quality lies in its unique polychrome shells. The very name of these snails describes this special and distinctive feature: the word polymita is formed from two Greek roots—“poly” which means many and “mitos” which means thread or stripes.

The beautiful perfect lines come in many colours, except blue. Legend has it that a beautiful Indian girl was loved by an Indian cacique or chief and in order to win her love and not having pearls or diamonds to give her, he set out one day to capture the yellow of the sun, the green of the meadows, the brown of the mountains, the pink of flowers, the white of the foam at the crest of the waves…but night caught him unawares and he was not able to capture the blue of the sky, being satisfied with securing the black of night. This is why there are no shades of blue in polymitas.

Some scholars suggest that this snail used to dwell all along the island, but physical changes in the earth plus the unscrupulous collection for commercial purposes have annihilated important colonies in the last two centuries, and now they live mainly in the easternmost part of Cuba. However, some subspecies still survive in areas of Holguín, Las Tunas, Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo provinces.

Polymita species exhibit shades of red, purple, lilac, pink, yellow, orange, brown, green, white, black, gold, ochre and terra-cotta, among others. One of the most beautiful images of our natural landscape is a tree with hundreds of polymitas resting on its trunk. During prolonged drought, these land snail form colonies where they aestivate very close to one another.

Although most polymita shells have brilliantly coloured stripes, some are almost monochromatic with faint lines of the same colour. Their perfect spirals are reminiscent of nature’s most mysterious phenomena—the rainbow, sea waves, tornadoes, clouds…

They live on trees and bushes in mangrove areas, scrublands and forests having successfully adapted to agricultural ecosystems like coffee plantations. They prefer humid environments which ensure the fungi the feed on, although some have developed in drier habitats surviving high temperatures. Polymitas have a life span of 15 to 19 months.

This beautiful land snail has a variety of predators, but none is more threatening than man. Their flawless beauty regrettably has made them a prime target for indiscriminate collectors, who, by plucking the snails from the trees, decimate their population, which potentially may result in their extinction.

Some shamans have referred to polymitas as a legacy written on the colours of their shells, which safeguard ancient secrets of the men of this island. Some religious men have come to the island to see these exquisite molluscs as a soul-searching experience.

Regino, who is a descendant of Tainos, now known as Arawak, one of the first aboriginal people in Cuba, is an elderly man from Baracoa. Entrusted with a task that has been passed down from one generation to another, he has dedicated his entire life to the care and preservation of these snails. In his backyard, a cave shows Taino drawings, and beyond, the Garden of Polymitas opens up to an explosion of colour. Large colonies live there in an area of scrubland that ends in terraces which lead down to the coast. The sensitivity of this man contributes enormously to the protection of such a fragile part of the natural heritage of Cuba and the planet.
Octuber 2010

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