Exploring for Plants at Isla Beata

Fairchild and Armour
Allison V. Armour and Dr. David Fairchild. Bestowing the Order of Beata, during a humorous and lighthearted ceremony on board Utowana celebrating the difficulties of collecting on Isla Beata.

A Previously Unpublished Account of the Utowana Expedition to the Caribbean Islands

By Janet Mosely

“To land on the shore of an uninhabited tropical island is the experience of a lifetime…Beata was no disappointment. If I could throw at my readers [sic] feet or bring before his senses all the thrills that the days on Beata brought to almost every person on the Utowana, I would be a Conrad or a Lefcadeo Hearn in the use of words.” Unpublished manuscript, “Through the West Indies” by David Fairchild, p. 23

In 1932, Dr. David Fairchild, his wife Marian and daughter Nancy Bell, once again set sail on the research ship Utowana. This, the ninth excursion in the Allison V. Armour plant collecting expeditions for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, took them to the West Indies. Accompanying them were Allison Armour, old friends Howard Dorsett and Jordan Mott as well as new colleagues Harold F. Loomis and Leonard R. Toy. 

Nancy Bell Fairchild
Howard Dorsett photographed Nancy Bell Fairchild "holding a flowering branch of Montezuma sp. On one of the most spectacular of the wild places found on the A.V.A. Exp." January 17, 1932.

Except for a brief trip to Cuba, Dr. Fairchild had not visited the Caribbean area since 1889, when he and Barbour Lathrop visited Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. This would be his first trip to the Bahama Archipelago.  The goal of this expedition, according to an unpublished manuscript by Dr. Fairchild entitled “Through the West Indies”, was “…the getting of as many and as large a variety of palms as it was possible to get.” Other objectives were to study the overall tropical flora of the archipelago as well as to discover if Sea Island cotton, grown off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, originated in the Bahamas. They also had requests to collect reptiles and snails for Thomas Barbour and ants for Dr. Morton Wheeler who had accompanied the Fairchilds on earlier Utowana expeditions.

After stopping at New Providence, Cat Island, Conception Island, Rum Key and Great Inagua, the Utowana party sailed through the Windward Passage. Their destination was Isla Beata, located off the southernmost point of the Dominican Republic, and they arrived January 17 in the early morning. As they approached the small, uninhabited island Loomis spotted tall, slender stems of what they thought might be a new palm. According to Dr. Fairchild’s account, they were all eager to land and see it, with Loomis “…the craziest of us all to get his hands on it for he was the palm man of the party."

Leonard R. Toy
Howard Dorsett photographed Leonard R. Toy examining a flower of 'Montezuma sp., a large flowered malvaceous plant. Beata Island off the coast of Haiti." January 17, 1932.

Armour, who had visited the island once before, called for care but was ignored. The party soon found out that the thickets were impenetrable, made up of Hold Back bean (Guilandina ovalifolia) and the ground was sharply ridged limestone with huge piles of old conch shells to be climbed. The heat was extreme and all but Loomis returned to the shore to reconsider penetrating the island.  

Meanwhile Loomis made his painful way up the cliffs toward the palms he had seen. He dragged a specimen, 27 feet tall but only two to three inches in diameter, back to the shore where the others were gathered. As Dr. Fairchild photographed Loomis with his palm, they all marveled over how such a tall slender plant could grow in the sea winds which rarely stopped blowing on the cliffs.  Although they hoped this was a palm new to science they would later realize it was the Cocothrinax eckmanii first described by “…that genius of a collector of the West Indian flora, the Swedish naturalist Eckmann…” Fairchild wrote.

Loomis with Coccothrinax eckmanii
"It's crooked as a dog's hind leg." Harold Loomis with his Coccothrinax eckmanii. January 17, 1932. 

Despite the hard going, the stopover at Beata was considered a success. Dr. Fairchild described the extreme heat, thorns, knee deep piles of conch shells and getting lost in the thickets. “It was exciting”, he summed up. The frangipani was in full fruit so seeds were collected. Seedlings of Opuntia moniliformis were safely stored in Wardiian cases and later planted at Chapman Field in Miami. A large white flowering Montezuma sp. was collected for trials in sea side South Florida gardens.

Several photos taken that day on Beata have recently surfaced in the Archive as a result of the ongoing photo indexing and scanning project. This project aims to catalog and make accessible to researchers the entire collection of Dr. Fairchild’s photographs. These photos and the preceding account of the stopover on Beata have not been previously published.

Unless otherwise stated, all photographs on this page property of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Please contact the Archivist for permission to use or reproduce photographs.

Please contact:
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Center for Tropical Plant Conservation
11935 Old Cutler Road
Miami, Florida 33156 USA
tel. 305/667-1651, ext. 3424
fax 305/665-8032