Inspired by David Fairchild’s global travels studying and exploring the world of tropical plants as told in The World Was My Garden over seventy years ago, I invite you to share in both the wonderment of international plant exploration and the challenges of scientifically sound conservation—in some of the world’s most diverse and fascinating habitats. Every day, Fairchild’s spirit of inquisitive and intrepid exploration lives on as we work to conserve biodiversity by bridging connections between people and plants the world over.
Text and photos by Melissa E. Abdo
JAMAICA. Gray clouds met us at our field locale in the mountains this morning. Rain is not typical this time of year, but there are some southerly winds blowing through and bringing some precipitation with them. For the local farmers, the untimely rain may be a blessing for their crops - especially the unique varieties of local yam they're famous for- but for fieldwork in steep mountain terrain the rain is less than desirable.
Despite being keen to get out into the mountains and start our climb into the Cockpit hills, where wonders lie in wait for us, for the moment we're stuck waiting the rains out. There is some sun visible in the distance, so hopefully this will blow over soon and we'll be on our way. In the meantime, check out this view of rain clouds over the mountains...
Update: we did get out to the field, but ended up getting rained on when we were pretty high up a hill. It was a cold, windy rain but we managed to get some good work done and carefully climb down - and were rewarded by remarkable views of the sun peeking through the rainclouds.
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO. Dr. Larry Noblick sits and carefully cleans precious palm seeds collected during the day's fieldwork. We'll continue our own version of this botanical 5000K marathon as we continue processing specimens and seeds late into the night - this is typically how we spend our evenings after each day of fieldwork.
So far, we have searched for, collected, and processed over six thousand seeds!
Searching for Trinidad's rarest palm
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO. After bidding Juan a warm farewell this morning, as he set off to carry out a final meeting and prepare our precious plant cargo for departure back to Miami, we made our way several hours south into a forestry site. We were intent on following up on information from our colleagues at the National Herbarium of Trinidad and Tobago regarding the island's rarest palm, Astrocaryum aculeatum - also known as the "banga" or "boogaloo" palm.
As a scientist, I must admit that I hold a bit of disdain for solely referring to the common names of plants as these names can often be confusing or facilitate inaccurate understandings of plants. However, there are some instances when the use of common names is helpful- and I'll even confess that it is a bit fun at times... especially when those plants have common names like "boogaloo." Seriously, though, such names are helpful when asking local people about where particular plants might be found. We knew that we were in the right vicinity, and so after inquiring about where the boogaloo grew in that area, we ventured down a shaded path far back into the forest and towards a stream that we were told to head towards.
Sure enough, it wasn't long before we spotted some juvenile Astrocaryum aculeatum. The young palms are painfully obvious - literally! They are covered by long sharp spines. Nonetheless, we were very happy to find these young rare palms (sure sign that the mother palms were indeed in the area) and I couldn't resist taking a comical picture "hugging" the spiny plant!
Further searching permitted us to locate fertile adults, such as the majestic one pictured above. The inflorescence of this palm is unique in that it is held erect; and the fruits may be likened to miniature works of art, as they are covered with tiny emblems of stars - hence the Latin name, Astrocaryum (Astro = star).
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO. Greetings from Trinidad! The last few days have been completely encompassed by fieldwork and processing of our plant specimens. I hope you enjoy perusing a few images from the field...
Ms. Abdo and Mr. Rivera of Fairchild take a momentary break beneath a gigantic tree found along a mountain ridge top in the northern range of the island.
A stately Mauritia palm is one of only two in its genus. This ancient palm reaches its northernmost native extent in Trinidad, and extends into South America. This particular individual was found in the lowlands of Trinidad adjacent to a seasonally flooded savannah.
Trinidad… since our arrival in Port of Spain on this neotropical island we’ve been fortunate to have been afforded pleasant weather, exceptional colleagues, fertile verdure, and Caribbean color at every turn.
It is a grand pleasure to undertake this joint expedition between Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and Montgomery Botanical Center (MBC) in close collaboration with our long-term collaborators and colleagues from the University of the West Indies (UWI) National Herbarium. The National Herbarium of Trinidad & Tobago is home to true experts in the regional flora, and is well-regarded by the Caribbean botanical community as an impressive center for botanical studies and authoritative information on the flora of Trinidad and Tobago.
Barely three days have passed since we took our first steps into Trinidad’s natural areas, and yet our plant press and field notebooks already hold interesting specimens and notes. The core team, consisting of myself and Mr. Juan Rivera of Fairchild and Dr. Larry Noblick of MBC, met with success mere hours into the trip. Dr. Noblick, a renowned expert on palm biology based at MBC, successfully found good specimens of a Bactris palm that both of our institutions were keen to locate. Juan and I identified several charismatic Rubiaceae species at two different localities. Staff from UWI not only expertly identified indigenous Trinidadian plant taxa, but made us feel right at home every step of the way. (This morning before fieldwork, they even indulged us with an introduction to some local gastronomic delights called “doubles” – the chick pea and habanero spice of the “doubles” really got us energized!)
Spending time together during the expedition, one is reminded of the importance of collaborations such as this is. Not only are such occasions truly productive and supportive of the respective missions of all of our institutions, but the synergistic results really do outweigh the sum of the parts.
And so, I end with words borrowed from the Trinidadian national anthem: side by side we stand. Indeed, the thought of working side by side in Trinidad’s rugged and diverse northern range- our planned field locale for tomorrow- brings me great anticipation and excitement for what is to come.
- text and photos by Melissa E. Abdo
JAMAICA. An inspiring day it was – to say the least. We were really far off the beaten track, way past the “end of the road.” The “road” in this case was an old bridle road that had been completely overgrown and was now dominated by full-grown trees and shrubs. Odontocline sp. was frequently encountered climbing all over the plants around us, bringing sunny bursts of its bright yellow flower clusters into view all around.
Botanist and plant lover that I am, I must nonetheless admit that what most inspired me today was not the local flora. (Although documentation of the flora was our focus of course!) It was an area we came across that inspired me most. Let me relive for you what we discovered in this unique spot:
As I mentioned, it really felt as though we were far out in the middle of nowhere. The area was completely uninhabited and there were no signs of recent yam-stick harvesting or any other recent human-caused disturbances in the forest. However, on one hill we climbed, we came across definite sign of human activity… from a long, long time ago. We discovered a hillside completely covered in terraced, hand-piled, low rock walls. After climbing many a Cockpit Country hill, I had never seen anything like it. Limestone rocks, both large and small in size, had been piled in low walls of about 1.5 meters high by about 2-3 meters wide, in terrace fashion all the way up the hill. Why had they been put there? By whom? When?
We still don’t really know the answers to those questions. Our local partner, who grew up in the area, told us that his ancestors came from a long line of escaped slaves that had once used these remote mountains as cover, and had once utilized a footpath through the mountains all the way to the north coast to the famous “Runaway Bay.” These independent, strong people overcame the serious challenge presented by the rugged terrain of these mountains and turned it into their advantage. Maybe the rock walls we saw were hideouts, perhaps they were small hidden vegetable plots, or maybe even lookout points to the landscape below. We just don’t know.
I stood for a time looking out over the hidden rock terraces, made by people I will never know, but whose strong spirit will remain alive in generations to come.