Green Pages

To the Rescue!

DEMA’s Rescue & Collection of Endangered & Endemic Plants Project.

Story & Photos By B Naqqi Manco, Caicos Pine Recovery Project Manager

The “bush” in the Turks & Caicos Islands has frequently been under-valued. Often it is maligned as a dense, mosquito-infested, poisonwood-itchy thicket. But this tropical dry forest hosts high levels of species diversity, much of it found nowhere else on Earth.

The Caribbean is considered one of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots — these islands host a disproportionately high number of plant and animal species relative to their size in the world. There are over 100 species of plants found only in the Bahama Archipelago (including the Turks & Caicos Islands). Of those, TCI shares about 40 species unique to TCI and the Bahamas, and there are nine species of plants endemic only to the Turks & Caicos Islands. In addition, a number of our native plants are classified as endangered by one or more international authorities. Under the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES, or the Washington Convention), plant species threatened with extinction due to their value in international trade are classified as endangered. This includes plants historically over-harvested for their valuable lumber (like West Indian mahogany) and plants valued by collectors and gardeners (all species of orchids and cacti are listed on the CITES Appendices). The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also analyses the status of species to determine their level of threat with extinction, and assigns each species a code ranging from “Least Concern” to “Extinct.”

Wooly nipple cactus

This tiny seedling is endangered (CITES) and is grown in the nursery from seeds harvested from at-risk plants.

The vast majority of the assignment of endangered status to plants is due to human activity, and most commonly to habitat loss. When one considers the land area of Turks & Caicos Islands on the globe, the realisation that our endemic plant species are already globally extremely rare becomes apparent. Coupled with TCI’s rapid development and land consumption, the threat to these plants is underscored. Every day, hundreds of individuals of globally rare, regionally unique species of plants are lost under bulldozers and heavy equipment. Protecting land saves some plants, but will enough ecosystem diversity in TCI’s elaborate matrix of habitats be preserved so that all of our special plants have functional and viable populations?

In 2010, the Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs (DEMA), then DECR, applied for a conservation contribution from the UK Government’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee with a project proposal entitled “Rescue & Collection of Endangered and Endemic Plants.” The aim of the project was to utilise DEMA’s role in the Physical Planning process to identify developments that threatened populations of endangered and endemic plants and carry out rescues of rare plant species that would respond well to transplanting. Originally, the project aimed to rescue ten species of plants of endangered or endemic status and incorporate them into nurseries built by the project, for later incorporation into community and school gardens and habitat restoration efforts.

With a dedicated team of DEMA staff members, volunteers, and links to international botanical organisations such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the aim of ten species was quickly overshot. By the end of the project’s first period, five species of plants endemic to TCI were growing in DEMA’s nurseries. A sixth, while not grown in nurseries, was protected by seed storage in RBG Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. One species endemic to TCI and Cuba and 16 species and varieties endemic to the Bahamas Archipelago (including TCI) were being grown in the project nurseries. A further ten native plant species classified as endangered by CITES and/or IUCN were safeguarded by growing in nurseries.

Some of these species were collected as whole plants, such as orchids, Tillandsia (air plants), or seedlings of long-lived trees. Others were collected as cuttings or seeds for growing in the nurseries. Whatever method was used, propagation methods and observations of growth were recorded so that propagation protocols could be established for the first time for these species. In its first season, the project had safeguarded a total of 40 species in nursery propagation. Moreover, the project compiled data for propagation protocols for 39 species, many of them never before grown in a horticultural setting.

Native Plant Conservation Nursery, North Caicos

The Native Plant Biodiversity Conservation Nursery in North Caicos holds over 105 native plant species in its collection.

Exceeding a project goal by three times its intended output is unusual, but through donations of volunteer time, in-kind support and materials, the project excelled. Fortis TCI helped greatly with their installation of poles for the DEMA Native Plant Biodiversity Conservation Nursery at the National Environmental Centre in Providenciales. The Department of Agriculture and the Caicos Pine Recovery Project coupled with DEMA to create space for a larger nursery on North Caicos. This effort did not go unnoticed by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee — this UK Government agency invited DEMA to apply for further contribution to carry out another season of work in the field. This time, DEMA committed to safeguarding another 30 species of endangered or endemic status in the grant application.

Again, DEMA was able to surpass its own expectations. Instead of achieving the propagation of 30 species, an additional 49 endangered and endemic plant species were rescued for propagation in the nurseries, making for a total of 84 species protected in cultivation. After the official close of the project, further collections were made, and DEMA now manages over 105 native plant species in its two nurseries. Full inventories of plants and continual records on cultivation demands are shared with project partners internationally. Many of the plants in the nursery have matured and produced seed, and these seeds are planted to perpetuate the cycle of learning more about horticultural husbandry of these species, some of which are particularly challenging to grow.

Among the more challenging of plants to propagate are orchids. While the Encyclia orchids, TCI’s most common and largest orchids, can be grown from divisions, they are slow to heal and typically only grow one or two new shoots in a year. Encyclia orchids, like most orchids, can produce over a million dust-like seeds in each pod, but these seeds have to land in exactly the right situation to grow — and proportionately few do. Sowing orchid seeds on soil does not work, and so part of the JNCC funding was used to procure the supplies needed for the fascinating process of growing orchids from seed on nutrient medium in sterile flasks. Without a laboratory or clean room, DEMA still managed to grow two native orchid species (both endangered, one endemic to TCI) with this special method.

Not all of TCI’s native plants need the special treatment associated with orchid seeds, but others are equally challenging. Seeds of the pitch apple Clusia rosea sprout only in June, regardless of when they are planted. Some seedlings need to grow in sand or limestone marl; rich potting soil can kill them.

Not all of our native plants are so difficult to grow. A collection of about 12 bushels of West Indian mahogany Swietenia mahagoni fruit in January 2011 led to a population of mahogany seedlings that the nurseries are still having trouble giving away (they are available free in Providenciales and North Caicos to interested individuals!). Sprinkle the seeds of the National Plant Turk’s head cactus Melocactus intortus onto soaked perlite sand and cover with plastic wrap, and in a week baby cacti appear (it will take another two decades for them to reach the size so appreciated in landscaping, and longer to grow the famous cap). Other plants that grow almost too well from seed include the lignum vitae trees Guaiacum sanctum and G. officinale, bastard mauby Colubrina arborescens, and big top palm Sabal palmetto.

Native plants growing in an environment where they receive diffused light, regular water, and specialised fertilisers often do not grow in the same forms of their wild counterparts. The TCI endemic plants Turks & Caicos heather Limonium bahamense, our National Flower, and the Britton’s buttonbush Spermacoce brittonii both grow in the wild as stiff, tangled scrub-brushes of plants, with greatly reduced leaves and decidedly tough textures. In the nursery, the National Flower relaxes into a trailing, hanging plant three times its wild size, and blooms more abundantly. Britton’s buttonbush grows leaves four times as long as its wild parents, and stands proudly upright where its parents squat humbly and amass dead branches within their squat, tangled forms. Our National Flower has even become somewhat of a weed in the North Caicos nursery, as has the Egger’s shamrock Oxalis eggersii, a dainty little flower endemic to TCI and Cuba.

As the nurseries have filled with these plants, sites to install them were found. The Bight Children’s Park in Provo has received some of the more sand-suitable plants. Raymond Gardiner High School’s Science Club has taken on the task of installing plants from the nurseries at the Flamingo Pond Overlook in Whitby, North Caicos. The Turks & Caicos National Museum in Grand Turk has refurbished its arboretum into a Botanical and Cultural Garden, highlighting plants of ecological and cultural significance in TCI. As additional sites become available, further sharing of the plants from this project occurs.

The sharing can extend to the gardens of individuals as well. Not only do native plants require less water and fertiliser in the long term than imported landscape plants, but they also attract some wonderful wildlife. The project nursery in North Caicos is regularly decorated by the Bahama spicebush swallowtail Papilio andraemon, itself a species endemic to the Bahamas and TCI. They come to lay their eggs on the IUCN-endangered satinwood Zanthoxylum flavum saplings. Nursery caretaker Junel “Flash” Blaise carefully observes the presence of their caterpillars (which look like lizard droppings and can erect two vile-smelling horns from the neck!), removing a few when they become a threat to the trees, but allowing many to grow into adults. Other butterflies, euglossid bees, and jewel-like scarab beetles find their way into the nursery. Natural pest control takes the form of anole and curly tail lizards, as well as both species of endemic boa constrictors unique to TCI.

By this extension, the Rescue and Collection of Endemic and Endangered Plants Project has also managed to protect endemic animals in the nurseries. So even as the under-valued bush is being lost to development, the effort to protect its plants has begun growing into its very own recovering ecosystem and safe haven for our unique wildlife.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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