One of the things that really surprised me when I first came to Panama over eight years ago was all of the plant nurseries I saw zip by as we traveled down the Pan-American Highway, observed on an entrance road, or passed in a town's central market. Signs marked "vivero", plant nursery, were seemingly all over the place.
The selection in each of the nurseries seemed to vary, but there were constants. Palm trees, various types of Dracaena (common houseplants in the US that are sometimes called corn plants, of which just one species is native to Latin America), and bougainvilleas (a thorny bush with brilliantly colored flowers in red, pink, purple, and white, each color on a separate plant). Other, often larger, nurseries would have a wider variety of flowers, including zinnas, cosmos, and some plants of which I still have not learned their name in Spanish or English.
The thing that always came to my mind was, who is buying the plants? And even if a few people are buying some, how are so many nurseries supported? I am certain many tourists would love to take home with them some of the beautiful tropical plants, but they would never clear customs in the airport.
While traveling on the bus to the next larger community to buy supplies or check my email I began to notice people, both women and men, with a plastic bag, a plant or two sticking out the top. Many of the plants were in small, black plastic bags while others were in buckets, empty plastic ice cream containers, and even old Doritos bags. I even remember thinking to myself, now there is a form of recycling you don't think about everyday!
After making this observation, I began to pay attention to the yards of the community. Sure enough, what I initially thought were just native or tropical plants growing as they would in the yard had actually be planted or placed (still in their original "pot") in their location. One local person even pointed out to me that for a dollar or two they could make their yard look nicer; something that was a matter of pride for the members of the impoverished community and almost made for competition among the neighborhood families!
Yet another cultural shock mystery solved!