Green Pages

Little Islands, Little Plants

Some of the TCI’s native plants make it their business to be small and cryptic.

By B. Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist

Tom Hanks and I have something in common. Both of us have found ourselves “cast away” on some very tiny islands during our careers, and both of us have established solid friendships there with nonhuman friends named Wilson.

My friend Wilson is not a volleyball with a hairdo made of sticks. My Wilson is much smaller, and not nearly as athletic. I first met him on the triple-crowned pedestal of rock called East Six Hills Cay, south of South Caicos. There he was, standing in the wind on a bare bit of rock — spindly, tough, and decidedly grey. I didn’t know who he was at the time, so of course I lifted him up, closed him in my notebook, and returned to the research boat.

Close up of Euphorbia wilsonii, one of TCI's tiny plants

Close up of Euphorbia wilsonii, one of TCI's tiny plants

This bright, windy day years ago marked my first introduction to Wilson’s spurge, Euphorbia wilsonii. I know now I had seen it before, but never really noticed it. On an island as punishing to plants as East Six Hills Cay, any plant living there is noticeable. Wilson’s spurge is a small plant, rarely growing much higher than six inches. Its stems are half as thin as mechanical pencil leads, and just as delicate. Its leaves are tiny, thin, and grey. It bears black and yellow flowers so small that one could be excused for overlooking them entirely. And while it thrusts its ripe fruits upward proudly to scatter its seeds, the entire seed-bearing structure is scarcely larger than the head of an eyeglass screw. Its toxic milky sap deters most animals from eating it, but the Turks & Caicos rock iguanas that have been established on East Six Hills Cay by the San Diego Zoo’s Conservation & Research of Endangered Species programme happily feast on it. On East Six Hills Cay, they have little choice in food, and research on the plant contents of their droppings has established that Euphorbia wilsonii has become a significant part of the rock iguana diet there.

Wilson is not alone in the choice of small stature made for him by nature. On islands as small as the Turks & Caicos, many of our plant and animal neighbours are smaller than their relatives elsewhere. Our Turks & Caicos rock iguana is the smallest rock iguana species in the Caribbean. We have the smallest boa constrictor in the world here, and two of the smallest geckos, so tiny that their scientific name in this print, Sphaerodactylus, is about as long as they are. Our adult Caicos pines are often half the size of their Bahamian relatives, and our Buccaneer palms squat on ridge tops as four-foot-tall trees rather than those of other Caribbean islands that exceed 20 feet in height.

Our habitats are tough on plants. Poor soil, constant wind, stifling heat, overabundance of salt, and limited fresh water conspire against all of the natural processes that plants must carry out to survive. The solution that some plants choose to adapt to these punishing conditions is simply to remain extremely tiny. Less mass demands fewer resources. Put one’s energy into reproduction rather than size, and suddenly there is a wealth of energy available where it was not before. A limited demand for resources also means that a plant with such a blasé attitude toward competitive conspicuous consumption can grow where other plants would choke, desiccate, and shrivel into dusty, starved, over-salted mummies. It takes a bit of effort to see these little plants, but they are worth a look as they help explain how life is sustained on small islands at all.

Many of these tiny plants can be found in salt marshes and salinas. Our national flower, the Turks & Caicos heather Limonium bahamense, is a perfect example of one such tiny plant. Admirers may need to get close to appreciate the beauty of the flowers, but a stoop to see them will reward the patient with papery white sepals, lined up in tightly-fitting double rows, each holding a royal blue trumpet contrasted by itty-bitty yellow stamens. The plant itself is attractive, forgoing leaves altogether in favour of photosynthetic rubbery stems in a waxy blue-green sea foam colour, or occasionally mauve. A meadow of it, interspersed with salt marsh grasses, or a cluster of heathers erupting startlingly from salina mud, display a rugged, subtle beauty that represents the Turks & Caicos Islands very well.

In some of the driest salinas, the Turks & Caicos heather has a companion that clings to rocks and creeps along the mud. Similar to its cousin the sea purslane Sesuvium portulacastrum, the dwarf sea purslane Sesuvium microphyllum grows where the larger plant can not. With leaves that look like miniature clusters of ruby-tinged Champagne grapes, bursting with stored water, and pink star-shaped flowers half the size of the larger Sesuvium, this plant enjoys its status as endemic to the Turks & Caicos Islands and Cuba. It is edible, as is sea purslane, perhaps a low-cal diet option compared to the more robust species.

A short jaunt up a dune from the salinas and one can find the grey ghost of a plant that no one could be ashamed of mistaking for dead. Crooked, compact, and covered with silvery hairs, the dune heliotrope does no service to its genus of otherwise well-known flowers. Cream-coloured blossoms barely 2 millimetres across and an altogether crunchy appearance reveal the plant as Heliotropium nanum. Looking dead helps the plants survive grazing by rock iguanas, and indeed they thrive on Big Ambergris Cay where the iguanas all but ignore them in favour of fresher foliage.

The octopus plant hides from herbivores.

The octopus plant hides from herbivores.

Among the dune heliotropes and often on rocky areas near salinas, one can find the tiny plant that hides itself by not looking like a plant. Commonly called octopus plant or mossy rock plant, Lithophila muscioides spreads its brown tentacles out, tightly pressed to the ground. These tentacles are its leaves, long, succulent, and round; often piled in a way that may remind an observer of a splat of mouldy spaghetti. The plant sends out longer runners with catkin-like flowers, minuscule pussy-willows in ivory-white. The plant’s generic name Lithophila refers to it being a rock-lover. There is nothing green about this plant, and in fact there is little to identify it as a plant at all. Grazers ignore it. Not far from the southern salinas in Grand Turk, there are open meadows full of this plant, but you have to get onto your hands and knees to find it. From even a standing position, this plant’s habitat looks like an empty rocky moonscape devoid of plant life.

Another tiny rock-loving plant is unique to TCI but is also just as inconspicuous — until it flowers. The Caroline’s pink Stenandrium carolinae squats in cracks of limestone bedrock on the tops and steep sides of ridges. The leaves — tough, hairy, red-brown — form a barely-noticeable rosette that blends into the soil colour. The plant’s flowers, which appear any time of year after rains, resemble small pink violets and are quite beautiful. When not in bloom, however, it adopts the same mode of protection as the dune heliotrope, by looking dead.

While the dune heliotrope makes itself undesirable to herbivores by looking dead, and the octopus plant disguises itself as not-a-plant, the burning match plant makes itself undetectable to herbivores by looking like it’s simply not there. Wiry, hair-thin stems in dull bronze and a few linear, needle-like bronze leaves keep Pectis linifolia out of the spotlight. This plant — if you can find it amongst the grasses where it hides — bears flowers that belie its true identity as a daisy. The flower is modified to be as inconspicuous as the rest of the plant — it has no ray florets (the “petals” of a daisy) and the central disk is limited to only a few elongated blossoms barely tipped in black and yellow. This colourful tip is reminiscent of a smouldering match head, hence the common name of the plant. Its seeds are two-pronged stickers, able to travel on animal skin or clothing, but wherever their travels take them they strive to remain cryptic and invisible.

One of my favourite diminutive plants is one that does stand in the spotlight, unlike the burning match plant. It stands right up in the biggest spotlight of all, the sun. On the harsh high windward dunes of a few islands in the Turks & Caicos, there lives a plant that survives by making itself into a sun-and-wind-pounded rock.

Bahamas buttonbush, Borreria bahamensis

Bahamas buttonbush, Borreria bahamensis

The Bahama buttonbush Borreria bahamensis is a tiny shrub, botanically identified as a “suffrutescent.” Like its relatives, it has a small stature with compact stems and spiky, succulent leaves. Growing on windward dunes, constantly blasted by harsh, hot, salty air, this plant caricatures the compact nature of its genus and makes itself as absolutely squat as possible. It becomes so squat and dense that the short, tangled branches catch blowing grains of sand and hold them tight. As the plant’s stems thicken, they compact the sand within the branches, and the leaves grow tight and dense around the core of sand. The end effect is a plant that looks and feels like a round rock coated in thick moss, but has the texture of a boot brush or bristly welcome mat. These “vegetable rocks” take decades, perhaps centuries, to form. Their root systems are extensive through dunes and so they cannot be relocated or moved. Their tiny white flowers sparkle across the moss-like surface of the plant. It takes getting nose-to-ground to really appreciate the Bahama buttonbush (and all of these tiny plants) but because it can only be found in a few places in the TCI and Bahamas, it is worth getting to know.

And where else can one get to know my friend Wilson, if East Six Hills Cay is not on your island agenda? I have indeed met Wilson again on several other islands. He frequents East Caicos, West Caicos, South Caicos, and Salt Cay, but is strangely absent from Grand Turk, Providenciales, and North and Middle Caicos (his worldwide range is restricted to several other islands in the southern Bahamas). Knowing that Little Ambergris Cay had plenty of his preferred habitat — weathered rock slopes with no soil, where little else can grow — I made a point to seek him out when I visited the islet in May 2009. I scanned the ground for any sign of my wiry little friend, but found nothing. The mid-afternoon sun was at its highest as I arrived at the old coconut and date grove on Little Ambergris Cay, now comprising only three stunted palms, and I sat myself down on a slope of soft, dry sand in the shade of the only upright coconut palm.

As I put my hand down on the sand, I realised I was not there alone. Sharing my shade was a diminutive plant . . . sprawling, compact, definitely grey. I stooped over, brought my nose within inches of the ground, and scrutinised this familiar but strange looking little fellow. His stems were short, his branches were tight. He did not stand, but rather lay down on the ground, prostrate and supine, his middle twisted into a compact lump, his leaves hugged tightly almost under the stems. He was quite obviously cowering, terrified of something. The scattered tracks of passing iguanas explained his fearful posture — he had been grazed to within an inch of his life — and an inch of life was more than he could afford to spare.

Upon further searching I located several other Wilsons nearby, all likewise cowering as much as possible, hiding under themselves on the bare sandy slope. In a precocious fit of gumption, I slyly lifted one of Wilson’s branches and noted a few of the familiar black and yellow diminutive flowers and even two tiny fruit. I stood up and dusted myself off to continue on with my trek, satisfied in knowing that Wilson, or at least his little Wilsons, will be there to befriend me on Little Ambergris Cay the next time I am cast away there.

Epilogue: Wilson may survive on the remotest sea-sprayed cays (I visited him again on Little Ambergris Cay in March 2010), but he hasn’t survived the rigours of botanical nomenclature. Euphorbia wilsonii was considered to be similar enough to the pinweed spurge Euphorbia lecheoides to be combined with this species. Plant scientific names always favour the older name, so Wilson (1909) lost to lecheoides (1906, resembling Lechea plants). Tom Hanks may have lost his Wilson in the movie, but my Wilson will always be Wilson to me.

1 Comment

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Mar 11, 2013 8:49

I have a question; Are there any edible plants on the West Caicos island? (e.g. fruits, nuts, vegetables)

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