10 November 2023

The Hispaniola Island: a treasure chest of tree diversity in the Caribbean

Discover Kew’s work in collaboration with local partners to safeguard a sustainable future for this Caribbean island's threatened forests

An aerial review of the Dominican Republic coastline shows sand, forest and a single boat atop blue waves

If when you think of the Caribbean islands you picture white sandy beaches and crystal blue sea, you are certainly not wrong. 

But is this idyllic idea of unspoiled nature always true? 

The Caribbean islands constitute one of the world’s main biodiversity hotspots, featuring outstanding plant diversity and high endemism - meaning many species that live there are found nowhere else in the world. The island of Hispaniola is no exception.

Unfortunately, the species-rich ecosystems of these “lost paradises” are under pressure by human activities, causing native forests to shrink relentlessly. 

A map image shows the central location of the island of Hispaniola within the Caribbean isles.
Satellite view of the Hispaniola Island (Dominican Republic and Haiti) in the Caribbean (© 2023 Tom Tom, Earthstar Geographics SIO). At the top-right a general map highlighting Hispaniola in green and showing its location (© 2023 Mapchart.net).

Why is Hispaniola so special?

The island of Hispaniola is the second largest Caribbean Island after Cuba, and it holds around half of the plant species of the whole Caribbean (~6,000 sp.), 34% of which are endemic and correspond to 25.6% of the total endemic Caribbean plant species. 

Despite this astounding wealth of natural resources, the native forests of Hispaniola are under threat. Nowadays, the island is divided into the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Haiti has already lost 97% of its forests, and the Dominican Republic 60%, mostly due to logging for charcoal, agriculture, population growth and urban expansion.

A tall tiny lemon tree amongst the forest of the Dominican Republic
Melicoccus jimenezii (Alain) Acev.-Rodr., a useful critically endangered tree endemic to Hispaniola. It is commonly known as “Limoncillo” (“Tiny lemon”) © Pablo Gómez Barreiro, RBG Kew
Tiny yellow fruits grow from the leafy arms of a tree
Melicoccus jimenezii's sweet fruits are eaten raw or as part of jam or jellies. Their flavour and appearance are what gives the species its "tiny lemon" name. © Francisco Jiménez, JBN

The conservation of Hispaniola’s forests

Forest habitats provide different ecosystem services that are essential to human life, such as climate regulation, carbon storage, as well as access to food, medicine, clean air, and potable water. Considering the high deforestation rate and the population growth of Hispaniola, protecting native forest ecosystems has become increasingly urgent.

Since 2007, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG, Kew) has been collaborating with the Jardín Botánico Nacional (JBN) Rafaél Moscoso in the Dominican Republic for the preservation and the sustainable use of the flora of Hispaniola. Together we have achieved plant conservation activities such as seed collection, training, and capacity building, which led to the construction of a seed bank in 2017.

Researchers stand outside a newly opened seed bank
The seed bank built in 2017 in Santo Domingo, with both members of RBG Kew and JBN © JBN
Researchers observe lab researchers working on seed processing
Inside the seed bank, the JBN partners showing seed processing activities to the Kew Team during the visit to the facility © JBN

For the last eight years, the collaboration has focused on the conservation of native useful trees with the project “Saving threatened forests of Hispaniola in the Dominican Republic | Kew”, funded by the Garfield Weston Foundation as part of the Global Tree Seed Bank Programme, with the aim of conserving forest species through seed banking, research, and propagation to support reforestation activities. 

The project has led to the seed conservation of more than 200 ‘useful tree species’ (species with different human uses), stored at JBN’s seed bank and the Millennium Seed Bank of Kew. Research activities on seed germination and desiccation tolerance have been conducted on more than 120 tree species.

Over 70 tree species have been propagated in country, with more than 20,000 seedlings donated to various institutions, including schools, to support reforestation in degraded forests and green urban areas of the cities of Santo Domingo and Santiago. 

A book cover of arboles autoctonos de la republica dominica and a extract page showing info about a native plant
Book cover (left) and extract from a technical sheet (right) presenting Pereskia quisqueyana, a critically endangered endemic tree and the national flower of the Dominican Republic.

In August the Kew Team composed by Dr Tiziana Ulian, Michael Way, and Dr Maraeva Gianella visited the partners in the Dominican Republic to launch the book “Árboles autóctonos de la República Dominicana: Conservación de semillas y propagación para una reforestación sustentable” and celebrate the renewal of the Access and Benefit Sharing Agreement between Kew and JBN. 

The event was well attended and included the participation of the British Embassy in Santo Domingo, who confirmed their support for the collaboration, showing their commitment to the protection of local forests.

The book is the product of the last collaborative project and consists of 35 technical sheets of tree species native to Hispaniola, with comprehensive information including tree description, conservation status, uses, seed collection & propagation, and trade. The main aim of the book is to share information with practitioners working in the agriculture and forestry sector to restore degraded forest habitats on the island. 

Seven conservationists pose for a photo at a book launch event in the Dominican Republic
The book launch takes place between project partners in the Dominican Republic © JBN

Steps forward 

The trip also paved the way for the next phase of the collaboration. The Kew Team visited the Ebano Verde Scientific Natural Reserve, where there is a tree nursery specialised in the propagation of threatened Magnolia tree species, and the nursery in the National Park Valle Nuevo, where threatened native and endemic trees are propagated. 

This visit to the Dominican Republic meant strengthening the connection between partners, witnessing progress on the conservation activities in country, and setting new common objectives for the future of the collaboration and the conservation of Hispaniola’s forests.

Researchers stand among the green grasses and trees of a national park in the Dominican republic
Visit of the Kew Team & collaborators of JBN at the Valle Nuevo National Park. © JBN

A new phase of collaboration is starting in January 2024 in the Dominican Republic under the title of “Seed-based solutions for restoration of threatened Magnolia forests in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean”. 

It will be focused on the conservation of the threatened Magnolia forests through seed conservation and propagation, and will include research on seed desiccation tolerance of key species. The seeds of most magnolias are considered recalcitrant, meaning they cannot be stored under standard seed banking conditions because they do not survive desiccation. 

Building knowledge on how to care for these species outside of their natural range, as well as improving their propagation in local nurseries will both be key to support reforestation in the Dominican Republic, and to safeguard essential local natural resources.

Magnolia pallascens flowers are large with white, oval, curled petals surrounding a large reproductive area.
Magnolia pallescens Urb. & Ekman, an Endangered magnolia species endemic to the Dominican Republic. ©Scott Zona/Creative Commons.


Cano-Ortiz, A., Musarella, C. M., Fuentes, J. C. P., Gomes, C. J. P., & Cano, E. (2016). Distribution patterns of endemic flora to define hotspots on HispaniolaSystematics and Biodiversity14(3), 261-275.

Castillo-Lorenzo, E., Peguero, B., Jiménez, F., Encarnación, W., Gómez Barreiro, P., Clase, T., ... & Ulian, T. (2022). Árboles autóctonos de la República dominicana: conservación de semillas y propagación para una reforestación sustentable. Link: https://bvearmb.do/handle/123456789/3152

Mattana, E., Manger, K. R., Way, M. J., Ulian, T., Garcia, R., Encarnacion, W., ... & Jimenez, F. (2017). A new seed bank for Hispaniola to support the conservation and sustainable use of the Caribbean native floraOryx51(3), 394-395.

Mattana, E., Peguero, B., Di Sacco, A., Agramonte, W., Encarnación Castillo, W. R., Jiménez, F., ... & Ulian, T. (2020). Assessing seed desiccation responses of native trees in the CaribbeanNew Forests51, 705-721.

Further information

Link to the project Saving threatened forests of Hispaniola in the Dominican Republic.

Link to the website of the Jardin Botánico Nacional (JBN) Rafael Moscoso. 

Main contacts: 

Dr Tiziana Ulian (Principal Investigator, PI) -  t.ulian@kew.org

Michael Way (Co-PI) - m.way@kew.org

An aerial review of the Dominican Republic coastline shows sand, forest and a single boat atop blue waves

Kew's conservation partnership on Hispaniola

Supporting reforestation through seed conservation

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