Features, Green Pages

The Elusive Heather

Searching for the TCI’s National Flower.
Story & Photos By Sophie Williams
As a botany student in the UK, I regularly see the beautiful purple heathers covering the hillsides and dominating the landscape. When I was offered the opportunity to study the Turks & Caicos heather, I was excited and eager to see an endemic species of heather, occurring nowhere else in the world. I have now learnt that this heather, the national flower of the Turks & Caicos Islands, is a rather elusive and mysterious plant.
One of the aims of my research in the Turks & Caicos is to map the distribution of the heather and three other endemic plants. This requires finding the plants and taking GPS co-ordinates on a handheld computer. From this information I will then be able to draw maps that explain where the plants are found. This will allow the conservation status of the plants to be assessed and we will be able to see just how rare they are. The hardest part of this research is initially finding the plants. With only eight weeks to locate as many as possible, this was going to be quite a challenge — especially for a heather that is only known from a few locations!
Description
Botanically speaking, the heather is called Limonium bahamense. There are many species of heather in the Caribbean that are related to L. bahamense but this species is endemic to the Turks & Caicos and it may be restricted to just a few of the islands. Past botany expeditions undertaken by the Turks & Caicos National Trust and the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew had elucidated that the heather likes to grow around the edges of salinas. A few photographs taken from these trips show that it is a small herbaceous plant, up to 30 centimetres tall. It has tiny purple flowers, surrounded by a white sheath clustered together around the end of red stem. The mature plant lacks true leaves but has a green stem that it uses for photosynthesis. It is likely that this adaptation is to reduce the surface area of the plant and so reduce water loss. Interestingly, when the plant is a juvenile, it forms a small rosette of spoon-shaped leaves that are subsequently lost as the plant develops.
Plant hunting
After weeks of searching throughout Middle and North Caicos, a team of National Trust staff, Kew scientists and students (me included) set off towards Big Pond on Middle Caicos in hunt of the elusive heather. The rain had been heavy for the previous few days making the trek more interesting as the trail was flooded. Within the first minutes of what was going to be a long day’s hike we all had wet feet from wading through the flooded swampy lands. At some points during the day we were up to our stomachs in water — all so we could get a glimpse of the heather!
It was well worth the difficult walk as on arrival to the Big Pond salina a colony of heathers was spotted. This was my first sighting of the beautiful plant and I was not disappointed. Around 20 heathers were flowering, grouped together in a patch of salina only a few metres square. It seems that this clustering of plants in a small area is a habit of the heather and it is not known why, when there is suitable habitat all around, they do not colonise bigger areas. This mystery is one of the aims of my research; to ascertain what are the key environmental factors that control the distribution of the species.
Expedition to the Turks Islands and Cays
A week-long expedition, travelling to Big Ambergris Cay, Little Ambergris Cay, South Caicos, Grand Turk and Salt Cay, was planned for our team. My aim for this trip was to find more heather populations. Our first stop, Big Ambergris Cay, resulted in the discovery of a small meadow bursting with heather. This area was previously part of a large salina that has been modified by development, leaving just a small area suitable for the heather.
The visit to Salt Cay was by far the highlight of the trip for me as we found the heather growing in exuberant abundance. The old salina walls, left un-worked for so many years, has provided the ideal habitat for the heather to colonise. It is clear from my travels around the different islands that the single meadow at Big Ambergris Cay and the whole island of Salt Cay are the two most important sites for the heather. These areas are the world’s stronghold for this species and so need urgent protection.
Conservation
An initiative lead by the organisation Plantlife International aims to identify areas across the world that are important for plant diversity. Areas that hold a significant number of endangered or endemic species are identified and then recognised globally as “Important Plant Areas.” The Turks & Caicos could join the global community in this initiative and specify the few locations of heather as Important Plant Areas. The protection of these sites would ensure the long-term persistence of this species. The isolated populations of heather are extremely vulnerable to changes in their habitat. Destruction of just one population would have a significant impact on the survival of the entire species.
Conclusion
My short trip to the Turks & Caicos has been a fantastic adventure and I feel very privileged to have visited so many of the diverse islands. The challenge of locating the heather across the Islands has shown me that this plant is a very rare species. The sites on Big Ambergris Cay and Salt Cay would certainly qualify as globally Important Plant Areas. It is up to the people of the Turks & Caicos to decide whether they feel the national flower is a worthwhile candidate for conservation action.
The author is researching the endemic plants of the Turks & Caicos as part of her MSc in Conservation Science. She would like to thank the Turks & Caicos National Trust, Royal Botanic Garden, Kew and Imperial College London for making this trip possible.

Searching for the TCI’s National Flower.

Story & Photos By Sophie Williams

This species of the Heather plant is found only in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

This species of the Heather plant is found only in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

As a botany student in the UK, I regularly see the beautiful purple heathers covering the hillsides and dominating the landscape. When I was offered the opportunity to study the Turks & Caicos heather, I was excited and eager to see an endemic species of heather, occurring nowhere else in the world. I have now learnt that this heather, the national flower of the Turks & Caicos Islands, is a rather elusive and mysterious plant.

One of the aims of my research in the Turks & Caicos is to map the distribution of the heather and three other endemic plants. This requires finding the plants and taking GPS co-ordinates on a handheld computer. From this information I will then be able to draw maps that explain where the plants are found. This will allow the conservation status of the plants to be assessed and we will be able to see just how rare they are. The hardest part of this research is initially finding the plants. With only eight weeks to locate as many as possible, this was going to be quite a challenge — especially for a heather that is only known from a few locations!

Description

Botanically speaking, the heather is called Limonium bahamense. There are many species of heather in the Caribbean that are related to L. bahamense but this species is endemic to the Turks & Caicos and it may be restricted to just a few of the islands. Past botany expeditions undertaken by the Turks & Caicos National Trust and the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew had elucidated that the heather likes to grow around the edges of salinas. A few photographs taken from these trips show that it is a small herbaceous plant, up to 30 centimetres tall. It has tiny purple flowers, surrounded by a white sheath clustered together around the end of red stem. The mature plant lacks true leaves but has a green stem that it uses for photosynthesis. It is likely that this adaptation is to reduce the surface area of the plant and so reduce water loss. Interestingly, when the plant is a juvenile, it forms a small rosette of spoon-shaped leaves that are subsequently lost as the plant develops.

Plant hunting

After weeks of searching throughout Middle and North Caicos, a team of National Trust staff, Kew scientists and students (me included) set off towards Big Pond on Middle Caicos in hunt of the elusive heather. The rain had been heavy for the previous few days making the trek more interesting as the trail was flooded. Within the first minutes of what was going to be a long day’s hike we all had wet feet from wading through the flooded swampy lands. At some points during the day we were up to our stomachs in water — all so we could get a glimpse of the heather!

It was well worth the difficult walk as on arrival to the Big Pond salina a colony of heathers was spotted. This was my first sighting of the beautiful plant and I was not disappointed. Around 20 heathers were flowering, grouped together in a patch of salina only a few metres square. It seems that this clustering of plants in a small area is a habit of the heather and it is not known why, when there is suitable habitat all around, they do not colonise bigger areas. This mystery is one of the aims of my research; to ascertain what are the key environmental factors that control the distribution of the species.

Expedition to the Turks Islands and Cays

A week-long expedition, travelling to Big Ambergris Cay, Little Ambergris Cay, South Caicos, Grand Turk and Salt Cay, was planned for our team. My aim for this trip was to find more heather populations. Our first stop, Big Ambergris Cay, resulted in the discovery of a small meadow bursting with heather. This area was previously part of a large salina that has been modified by development, leaving just a small area suitable for the heather.

The visit to Salt Cay was by far the highlight of the trip for me as we found the heather growing in exuberant abundance. The old salina walls, left un-worked for so many years, has provided the ideal habitat for the heather to colonise. It is clear from my travels around the different islands that the single meadow at Big Ambergris Cay and the whole island of Salt Cay are the two most important sites for the heather. These areas are the world’s stronghold for this species and so need urgent protection.

Conservation

An initiative lead by the organisation Plantlife International aims to identify areas across the world that are important for plant diversity. Areas that hold a significant number of endangered or endemic species are identified and then recognised globally as “Important Plant Areas.” The Turks & Caicos could join the global community in this initiative and specify the few locations of heather as Important Plant Areas. The protection of these sites would ensure the long-term persistence of this species. The isolated populations of heather are extremely vulnerable to changes in their habitat. Destruction of just one population would have a significant impact on the survival of the entire species.

Conclusion

My short trip to the Turks & Caicos has been a fantastic adventure and I feel very privileged to have visited so many of the diverse islands. The challenge of locating the heather across the Islands has shown me that this plant is a very rare species. The sites on Big Ambergris Cay and Salt Cay would certainly qualify as globally Important Plant Areas. It is up to the people of the Turks & Caicos to decide whether they feel the national flower is a worthwhile candidate for conservation action.

The author is researching the endemic plants of the Turks & Caicos as part of her MSc in Conservation Science. She would like to thank the Turks & Caicos National Trust, Royal Botanic Garden, Kew and Imperial College London for making this trip possible.



2 Comments

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Szabo Peter
Jan 15, 2013 13:36

I’m Just looking for a way to contact the author of this article, beeing interested in one of her other studied plants. Please let me know if it is possible to get her email address or if there’s any other way to contact her.

Alan McPherson
Mar 4, 2017 10:22

Dear Times of the Islands:

Currently I am compiling a reference book entitled National Flowers of the Nations that will be published via Create Space/Amazon Division early 2018.

The work includes a National Flower image, the National Flag image and a brief write-up about the flower.

I am writing to obtain an image of Island Heather (Limon(ium bahamense) the National Flower of the Turks and Caicos Island. Full credit attribution will be given to the photographer and/or supporting institution for one-time usage in the fore said publication.

Thank you! I look forward to your response at your earliest convenience. Alan McPherson, USA

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