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The “Montserrat pribby” (part one)

Nick Johnson
22 October 2010
Blog team: 
As a new study shows that world plants are as threatened as mammals, Nick Johnson talks about a plant close to his heart that he is caring for in the Tropical Nursery. Here he describes his expedition, recalling where he saw it in the wild.

The volcano in the Soufriere Hills, Montserrat (Photograph: P. Griggs)

One in five of the world’s plant species is threatened with extinction.

One of the many critically endangered plants that we look after here at the Tropical Nursery is the pribby (Rondeletia buxifolia). Pribby is restricted to one specific area in the north of this beautiful Caribbean Island: the Centre Hills. This plant species grows in dry forest and scrubland, and low altitude moist forest. Pribby generally prefers marginal habitats, particularly along forest edges and in forest glades.

Rondeletia buxifolia in flower (Photograph: P. Griggs)

In the mid-nineties Montserrat and its people experienced a devastating natural disaster. The dormant volcano in the Soufriere Hills erupted, burying the capital, Plymouth. Many of the inhabitants were evacuated to the UK (Montserrat is a UK Overseas Territory), and the remaining population moved north, out of the exclusion zone and away from the volcano. As many people moved into the area around the Centre Hills, pressures on the habitat of the pribby sparked a major drive to conserve it.

I first saw pribby when on a bursary trip helping Stewart Henchie (former Head of Hardy Display at Kew) and the  Montserrat National Trust set up a new nursery and botanic garden. The previous one was buried under six metres of ash following the volcanic eruption. After several weeks shifting earth and sweating under the tropical sun, the head gardener Mappie took me out into the forest. On the way up Katie Hill, I got my first glimpse of this critically endangered plant, surrounded by Heliconia, Begonia and palms in verdant tropical forest.

Montserrat Hills (Photograph: P. Griggs)

Little did I know that five years later this plant would be in my care back at the Tropical Nursery at Kew. I monitored it closely, learning every aspect of its growth. In 2008, I was lucky enough to see the pribby flower; this was the first time these flowers had been seen outside Montserrat. Many of the plants continue to bloom producing cream, yellow and orange flowers.

It is especially poignant to write about this plant today as we have recently congratulated Stewart on his retirement after 40 years of service to Kew.

- Nick -



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27 February 2011
I work with a chap from Montserrat and now I shall have something to mention to him in the morning.
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