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On the trail of threatened plants in the British Virgin Islands

Martin Hamilton, Sara Barrios
23 October 2013
Blog team: 
During their recent visit to the British Virgin Islands (BVI) in the Caribbean, Martin, Sara and Marcella from Kew’s UK Overseas Territories team were searching for some of the islands’ threatened plants in an effort to understand the dangers they face.

Working with the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands, the UKOTs team visited several islands over the course of three weeks to record the locations of some of the rare plants that are under threat in their native habitats.

Photo of a man collecting fruits from Mammillaria nivosa

Collecting fruits from a spiny Mammillaria nivosa on Tortola (Photo: Sara Barrios)

As well as collecting preserved specimens and DNA samples for formal identification back at Kew, the team harvested seeds and/or cuttings to be propagated either at the JR O’Neal Botanic Garden on Tortola (the largest island in BVI) or in Kew’s plant nurseries. Martin, Sara and Marcella recorded the highlights (and some of the hazards they faced) during their expedition.

Day 6 – Tortola

For the first time, we located several trees of Eugenia sessiliflora, a very rare plant from the same family as clove trees and eucalyptus (Myrtaceae), which occurs only in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Some of the trees were in flower and fruit so we were able to collect seeds as well as shoot cuttings for growing on at the gardens.

Photo of staff with cuttings of Eugenia sessiliflora and Rondeletia pilosa after propagation 

The propagating team with Eugenia sessiliflora  and Rondeletia pilosa (Photo: Sara Barrios)

Day 7 – Fallen Jerusalem

Today we visited the small island of Fallen Jerusalem, a BVI National Park. A previously unknown population of poke-me-boy (Acacia anegadensis) was found here a couple of years ago by our colleague, Colin. We managed to survey part of the island, where we found the remaining trees of A. anegadensis and recorded these locations with a GPS (global positioning system) device. DNA samples were taken for further research. 

Photo of staff preparing plant specimens for drying

Preparing plant specimens for pressing and drying on Fallen Jerusalem (Photo: Sara Barrios)

Day 8 – Virgin Gorda

An exciting discovery today!  We collected a plant very similar to wirewist (Metastelma anegadense) in flower and fruit growing on Virgin Gorda. When we get the specimen back to the Herbarium at Kew, we will be able to confirm its identity.  Wirewist was previously described as endemic to the flat limestone island of Anegada. Virgin Gorda has volcanic terrain, very different from Anegada’s flat dry landscape. Although it has now been found on two islands, wirewist is still unique to the British Virgin Islands.

Photo of Metastelma anegadense in flower and fruit

Metastelma anegadense in flower and fruit (Photo: Sara Barrios)

Day 11 – Tortola

Although we’re all passionate about plants, there are some which we’re less enthusiastic about – today we encountered a very dense patch of a liana known locally as ‘catch and keep’. This is Acacia retusa with seriously sharp, backward-pointing thorns, which do just what the name implies. Once you’ve been caught by the thorns, they really keep hold of you!

Day 12 - Anegada

Today’s sad news was finding some of BVI's most endangered species just bulldozed down on Anegada. We found a large poke-me-boy (Acacia anegadensis) tree by the side of the road and mad dog shrubs (Malpighia woodburyana) had been cleared. These species, which are already considered threatened with extinction, due to their very restricted distribution, are being cleared to make way for wider, paved roads.

Day 13 – Beef Island

Despite the hoards of mosquitoes which harassed us during our fieldwork on Beef Island, we were all thrilled to come across more trees of Eugenia sessiliflora, a new record for this island. More herbarium specimens were collected together with extra cuttings to take to Kew and JR O’Neal Botanic Garden’s plant nurseries.

Day 18 – JR O’Neal Botanic Garden

Following our fieldwork we’re based in the JR O’Neal Botanic Garden, helping out with the propagation of some of the BVI’s native plants to get them ready for a new display. The Governor of the Islands, Boyd McCleary, paid the Garden a visit to find out more about the work Kew has been doing in collaboration with the National Parks Trust.

Governor's visit to J R O'Neal Botanic Garden 

Day 20

Having completed all the paperwork relating to the Convention on Biological Diversity, plant export and plant health regulations, we shipped our specimens to Kew today. In total: 27 DNA samples, 264 herbarium specimens, 22 spirit samples, seeds from 9 species and cuttings from 5 native species. These will all be of enormous value in helping us to understand the vegetation of BVI and in trying to develop reliable methods of cultivating plants that have never before been grown outside the islands. It will also help to inform the conservation status of the species we encountered and will guide future conservation action.

- Martin, Sara and Marcella -


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