Seed conservation in the Caribbean’s ‘Emerald Isle’
A view of the Centre Hills from the northern end of Montserrat (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
For its size (just 39 square miles), Montserrat (dubbed the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean) is home to a diverse flora of around 700 native species, many of which are found only on the islands of the Lesser Antilles, with three restricted to this one island. However, the natural vegetation of Montserrat faces a number of significant threats. Volcanic activity over the last 18 years has destroyed a third of the island’s forests under pyroclastic flows and ash fall and likely destroyed one of Monsterrat’s endemic plants, Xylosma serrata, which has not been seen since the volcanic eruptions.
The Soufriere Hills volcano continues to smoulder (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
To compound this, with the south of the island declared an exclusion zone, the remaining residents (though much reduced in number as more than half have taken refuge overseas) have only the northern third of the island in which to rebuild their lives and economy, creating enormous challenges for sustainable development.
Collecting seed next to a house buried by volcanic ash (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
In June, I made my second visit to the island, to work with forestry staff of the Department of Environment in collecting seed from native plant species. Over the course of two weeks, we visited a variety of habitat types in the hunt for plants of interest which produce fruits. Of greatest significance are the forests of the Centre Hills, an area of dense vegetation protected by law, with dry forest at the lower elevations giving way to wetter forest at higher altitudes, and so-called ‘elfin woodland’ of smaller shrubs and trees topping the summits, which are frequently shrouded in clouds.
The forestry team are an invaluable presence in the field. They know the forest better than anyone else, leading me up the steep, densely forested ridges and deep ghauts (a Caribbean term for river valleys). It was a good opportunity for me to pass on seed collecting techniques, which they will be able to use to continue with the work of gathering seed throughout the year.
Examples of plants we collected from are Pilocarpus racemosus, a member of the citrus family (Rutaceae) found only in a few islands of the Caribbean, which produces lobed fruit that split open to release its black seeds, not unlike the fruit of star anise.
Fruit of Pilocarpus racemosus, a member of the Citrus family (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
We found a number of shrubby plants from the family Melastomataceae, which produce small juicy berries with many tiny seeds which are dispersed by birds that find the fruit tasty. These included Miconia impetiolaris, which is found across the New World tropics, and Tetrazygia discolor, found only in the eastern Caribbean and whose black berries are held in bunches very similar in appearance to elderberries.
Miconia impetiolaris, found in the New World tropics (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
Some much larger seeds which we collected were those of Ormosia monosperma, a large tree in the legume family. Their bright red and black seeds fallen on the forest floor stood out amongst the leaf litter. Wolfgang Stuppy gives a fascinating account of the deceiving nature of such brightly coloured seeds in his blog post.
The seeds of Ormosia monosperma, adapted to get the attention of birds (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
This expedition was immediately followed by the beginning of an exciting new Darwin Initiative-funded project to extend the Millennium Seed Bank Partnerships’ conservation work to all of the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories: Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands and Anguilla. As well as enabling local collaborators to continue seed collecting across the region, the project will establish local seed banks so that the seed can be conserved in-country and at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank for the first time. Watch this space for future developments!