The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands are protecting and propagating the BVI's native plant life.
by Claudia Colli
Trekking through thick undergrowth in some of the islands' most inhospitable terrain, botanistsfrom London's Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in conjunction with staff from the National Parks Trust, are on a quest for rare and often endangered native plant species. It is hot and tiring work, but when a new population of an endangered species is found, the rewards are great.
A place rich in different species, the BVI is considered one of the world's biodiversity "hotspots." Over 80 percent of the UK's biodiversity is found in its overseas territories, and remote and lightly developed islands such as Anegada and Fallen Jerusalem are home to species often found nowhere else.
The first staffer from Kew Gardens to travel to the BVI was Walter Fishlock, who worked in the BVI from 1902 to 1919. His studies of local flora revealed many previously unknown indigenous species including one that was named after him, Croton fishlockii, a rare member of the Euphorbicea or spurge family. Dried specimens of Croton fishlockii are in storage at the Kew Gardens Herbarium.
Croton fishlockii is still found growing in parts of Anegada, Virgin Gorda and Prickly Pear, and gratifyingly, a new population has recently been discovered on Beef Island and Tortola. This endemic plant with a small white flower has also found a safe haven in the Botanic Gardens' Conservation Collection, where many of the islands' rare and endangered plant species have found a new home.
Another indigenous species discovered on Anegada by the resourceful Fishlock is the Acacia anegandensis, a spiky plant that is locally known as the "Poke Me Boy." Today the plant is considered highly threatened on this low lying island from possible sea level rise, and it was with relief that the present-day Kew scientists found an additional population on Fallen Jerusalem, an isolated national park off the western shore of Virgin Gorda.
Over the past decade, researchers from Kew Gardens have made numerous trips to the British Virgin Islands as part of the Darwin Initiative, which has conducted biodiversity assessments of countries throughout the UK's Overseas Territories. Here in the BVI, assessments have been carried out for Anegada and Gorda Peak, and currently one is being conducted for all the islands. One of the organization's most ambitious endeavors is the Millennium Seed Bank Project which is identifying and preserving the seeds of endangered species not only from the BVI, but from throughout the far-flung overseas territories.
With each excursion, new and often groundbreaking discoveries are made. According to Colin Clubbe Head of the UK's Overseas Territories Program and Conservation Training at Kew, Senna polyphylla var neglecta, a wispy plant with a delicate flower had been considered rare and highly endangered. The discovery in March of a new population of possibly several thousand plants heavily in fruit found south of Soldier Point on Anegada, was "one of the most exciting discoveries of the trip."
In a subsequent trip in July a team comprised of Nancy Woodfield Pascoe, Planning Coordinator for the National Parks Trust, and Sara Barios and Martin Hamilton of Kew Gardens came across another rare gem, the Calyptranthes thomasiana on Virgin Gorda's Gorda Peak, substantially increasing the known population of this Puerto Rican Bank native.
Discovering new plants is only part of the story. The scientists are also determined to preserve and propagate them as an insurance policy against a time when the unthinkable might happen – a species dies out in the wild. On a 2013 visit, Marcella Corcoran, a Kew botanical horticulturist, trained local staffers on the cultivation of a number of native plants in the BVI's JR O'Neal Botanic Gardens. As part of this ongoing effort, National Parks Trust Terrestrial Warden, Natasha Harrigan, completed training at the Kew Gardens Millennium Seed Bank Facility outside London, and is now continuing the propagation work here on Tortola.
"We are working towards understanding how to grow and cultivate each native plant before there is only one in the world," explains Marcella. "With the current rate of climate change and development this becomes more pressing."
The threats are manifold. She points out that as the climate warms, plants at the top of Sage Mountain that had thrived in its cooler environment may no longer survive in that location. On Anegada, one of the biggest threats to plant life is sea level rise, while on Tortola and Virgin Gorda, it is development. "To make sure that species are here for the future makes the world a better place," she says.
As an additional insurance policy, the scientists preserve the specimens in a variety of ways. The traditional method is to dry a specimen between newspaper pages (the BVI Beacon has donated hundreds of out of date papers for this purpose). The specimen is then pressed and mounted onto sheets of non-acidic paper. Fishlock used this well-tried method over 100 years ago and the BVI specimens that are stored at Kew are in perfect condition. Seeds from each endangered plant are also dried in a special container and sealed in airtight bags, a method that will preserve them indefinitely. Half of these seeds are stored in the Botanic Gardens storage facilitiy here in the BVI and the other half are sent to Kew Gardens' massive storage facility on the outskirts of London to join seeds from 3,000 species preserved from the UK's many Overseas Territories.
More often than not, seeds are collected directly from the plants. If the plant is not in seed at the time, a cutting will be taken, which will be cultivated in a special medium until it can be planted in soil. It will be carefully tended, including daily misting, until it bears fruit and seeds. The plants are also being cultivated for sale in the Gardens' native plant nursery, where they can be sold to home gardeners, an ideal way to spread native plants throughout the community. Others will be added to the JR O'Neal Botanic Gardens' Conservation Collection, a display of purely native species.
"Education plays an important role in conservation efforts," emphasizes Diehdra Potter, the National Parks Trust Environmental Outreach Officer – and the Conservation Collection is just one way of sharing the BVI's abundance with the general public.
When the Kew team is not in the BVI, Nancy Pascoe and National Parks Trust staff members are working on creating a vegetation mapping system using the global Information System (GIS). Using government aerial photographs as reference, the team, which includes Terrestrial Wardens Keith Grant, Marcusgavy Maturine and Natasha Harrigan goes into the field weekly and conducts what Nancy refers to as "ground truthing" – looking for and recording the location of species of interest in the wild. A hand-held computer utilizing GPS, notes the plant's exact position, which will later be added to the vegetative map. This map has multiple uses from determining which plants need protection to helping Town and Country Planning with development decisions.
"If we find an area rich in species," explains Nancy, "we will have the Kew people come and look at it for further identification." If the Kew team is not on island, they will instead send photographs to Kew via Dropbox. One area of special interest is on a trail lined with endangered native species near Biras Creek in Virgin Gorda's North Sound. Nancy's team has also spotted other special finds, including Bastardiopsis eggersii, commonly known as Indian Mallow. Sporting a delicate flower when in bloom the plant is found in various areas of the BVI, but the largest known global population is on Ginger Island.
According to Nancy, where to find these species can be guesswork, and it is only by covering a large area throughout the territory that one can draw a complete picture of the islands' native plant life. "On Tortola we discovered Zanthoxlum thomasianum, a Puerto Rico Bank endemic that had never before been recorded in the BVI outside of Virgin Gorda. So I am very proud of our NPT team, we really enjoy our adventures and making a new discovery is thrilling!"
She made one such discovery with Colin Clubbe at the top of Beef Island near the airport. "Once we hiked to the top of Beef Island near the airport beacon and found a full grown Malpighia woodburyana which is also known as Mad Dog for the itchy hairs that cover it," she explains. "Before that, the only known population had been some small bushes on Anegada."
"There is the potential for the BVI to become an exemplar of integrated conservation," says Colin Clubbe. "You have the National Parks Trust in charge of managing the terrestrial areas and the Botanic Gardens and a staff committed to forwarding conservation. Our philosophy in conservation is to actively conserve and protect. But in the end, he says, "Sustainability is all our responsibilities. Everyone has a role to play."