Epidendrum montserratense (Montserrat orchid)
In 2006, Kew conservationists rescued several plants of the endangered Montserrat orchid from dead trees on the volcano-ravaged island of Montserrat and installed them in the security of the island's botanic garden.
Epidendrum montserratense in flower
Epidendrum montserratense Nir
This species is rated by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, because it is restricted to a small area on the island of Montserrat, where much of its natural habitat has been destroyed or damaged, either by volcanic eruptions or human activity.
This orchid usually grows on trees (is epiphytic) or, less frequently, on rocks (is lithophytic) so its roots have no contact with the soil.
About this species
First identified as a distinct species in 2000, from a specimen collected in 1907, Epidendrum montserratense represents one of Montserrat's two surviving endemic plant species (those that are found only on the island). The other surviving endemic species is Rondeletia buxifolia (Rubiaceae). A third endemic plant, Xylosma serrata (Salicaceae), has not been found since its only known habitat was destroyed by volcanic lava flows and ash falls in the late 1990s.
Geography and distribution
Epidendrum montserratense occurs only on the volcanic island of Montserrat in the Caribbean, which has a humid tropical climate. Montserrat is one of the UK's Overseas Territories.
This orchid usually grows on trees (is epiphytic) or, less frequently, on rocks (is lithophytic) so its roots have no contact with the soil. It is most commonly found on forest trees in areas which have been disturbed by storms or human activities such as agriculture. Fine specimens have been found on old mango trees and sugar mill ruins on Montserrat.
Perched on the trunk or branches of a host tree, the leathery leaves of Epidendrum montserratense can be hard to spot before the plant comes into flower. Then, the masses of small vivid yellow flowers, each with a distinctive three-lobed lip, make it easy to find. It can also be easily distinguished from other orchids on the island by its branched inflorescences (flower-bearing parts). This species has elongated swollen stems, called pseudobulbs, which store water, so that it can survive through the dry season.
Threats and conservation
One area of western Montserrat where Epidendrum montserratense is commonly found still suffers from ash clouds, venting from the island's active volcano. Not only does the hot ash damage the host trees, but it also blocks rivers, causing flash floods, which destroy river valley vegetation. Another area of suitable habitat, in the Silver Hills in northern Montserrat, has largely escaped volcanic damage but has become even more important for agriculture and building land for the island's remaining human population.
Two collections of seeds from Epidendrum montserratense are now safely stored in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. Living plants, rescued from dead mango trees, have been taken to the Montserrat National Trust's newly developed botanic garden where they are being cultivated for future display.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
Description of seeds: Tiny dust-like seeds
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: 2, (65,000 seeds in total)
Kew's Conservation Biotechnology Unit has successfully germinated the dust-like seeds of Epidendrum montserratense on a nutrient-rich gel under laboratory conditions. They are now being grown on, until they are large enough to withstand transplanting to orchid compost in a nursery glasshouse.
Kew's work in Montserrat
With over 800 native plant species, Montserrat is one of the richest of all the UK Overseas Territories in terms of its plant diversity. Kew's UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) Team has been involved in conservation projects there since 1998. During a Darwin Initiative-funded project 'Enabling the people of Montserrat to conserve the Centre Hills', the team collected specimens and habitat information and assessed the plant biodiversity of an area of the island relatively undamaged by volcanic eruptions. This 'ground-truthing' data provided essential evidence to confirm the landscape types shown on a vegetation map of the island developed from aerial photographs and habitat modelling work.
A subsequent project, 'Strengthening the capacity for Species Action Planning on Montserrat', focused more closely on the island's two surviving endemic plant species Rondeletia buxifolia and Epidendrum montserratense. Species Action Plans (SAP) are designed to document the biology of a threatened species, the threats that it faces and the actions needed to conserve it. As a result of this project, the two species have been designated as Critically Endangered (based on the IUCN Red List criteria) and areas of particular value for conservation of native plant biodiversity have been identified.
Kew's UKOTs Team has also been involved in the development of Montserrat's new national botanic garden, helping to define the garden's role and main activities. The Team has also assisted with the development of a landscape master plan, providing training in horticultural techniques and advice on propagation and cultivation facilities.
Jones, M. (2008). Distribution and Conservation of Montserrat's Endemic Flora (MSc thesis, Imperial College, London).
Young, R. P. (ed)., (2008). A biodiversity assessment of the Centre Hills, Montserrat (Durrell Conservation Monograph No 1, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Jersey, Channel Islands).
Kew Science Editor: Pat Griggs
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell
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