Tweet This beautiful plate from Plumier’s 1760 Plantarum Americanarum was designated as the lectotype for the Linnean name, Urtica baccifera by de Rooij in 1975 ( Fl. Suriname 5: 302). Whilst very beautiful the plate is not sufficient in its own right to distinguish the species from closely related ones and so I designated an epitype in 2009: Fawcett 7177, collected on 13 Mar 1898; in Jamaica and stored at BM.
Pilea is a genus or group of over 700 species in the nettle family (Urticaceae). It is mainly comprised of succulent herbaceous plants that grow in the shade of forest and is especially diverse in the Greater Antilles and on limestone. Currently over 110 species are recorded for the island of Hispaniola which encompasses the Dominican Republic. They are very variable in their shape and form and probably most people (including many botanists) might not think that they were related to nettles. It is a group that I have been working on for over 15 years and I began work on revising their classification for neighbouring Cuba in 2010. Surveying the species in the herbarium of the National Botanic Garden in Santo Domingo helped me to see how they compared to the species in Cuba.
After a week looking at the collections and sorting them into piles I started to get an idea as to the species present on this amazing island. Of course establishing their correct names involves a whole other body of work but at least I now have an idea as to what there is in the Dominican Republic, what might be conspecific with Cuban species and where there are complexes of closely-related and potentially interbreeding species. Not bad for a week’s work.
For a week now I have been accompanying a team from the Jardín Botánico Nacional and Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank on a field trip to collect seed of plants endemic to Hispaniola for banking at the Jardín Botánico and Kew. I have been taking advantage of this trip to collect nettles but also to learn how to harvest and bank their seeds. The Greater Antilles which includes the Dominica Republic / Hispaniola is a centre for species diversity for nettles and most of the 100 or so species found here are found nowhere else. Given obvious pressure on the island’s forests both in the Dominican Republic as well as in Haiti, banking their seeds could support their reintroduction as a last ditch attempt to prevent their extinction.
The seed bank at Kew which banks the seeds of >50,000 species currently has only 14 sp of nettle which for me seemed a little on the low side given that there are about 2,000 species Worldwide. Support from the Bentham Moxon Trust is helping me to increase this figure significantly, both by enabling me to help develop seed-collecting protocols for nettles and so encourage seed banks to collect them, but also because I am learning from them how to collect seeds, something that I can do myself on future fieldwork in collaboration with other seed banks. Continue reading Collecting nettle seeds, no easy task!→
I have just spent an amazing week with a team from the Jardín Botánico Nacional Dr. Rafael M. Moscoso and Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank collecting nettles in the Dominican Republic, thanks to funds from the Bentham Moxon Trust. The Dominican Republic represents half of the island of Hispaniola, the other half being Haiti. Thanks to a rich geological history, varied climate and very high mountains (to 2,760 m) the country is host to a very rich and diverse flora of over 5,500 species, many of which are only found on Hispaniola. We made some very interesting collections, the first two on the first day! One was of a genus, Rousselia that I have never before seen alive and of which few collections exist in herbaria, and which by coincidence I posted about a couple of months ago. The other was of a very unusual tuberous species of Pilea, a genus of ca 715 species of mainly succulent herbs, over 70 of which are found only on the island of Hispaniola.
It always surprises me the unpredictable mix of chance, curiosity and vision which can result in the birth of a new research project. Several conversations over the past few months with the British Ambassador to Bolivia, colleagues at Kew and at the Natural History Museum are hinting that a new research project focussed on a small forest on the UK Overseas Territory of Ascension Island could be forming. It would be a project with strong links to the history of Kew Gardens, the Royal Navy and of two of the most famous UK scientists of the 19thC, Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker and their idea of using forest to capture moisture from clouds to provide an isolated and important staging post in the middle of the South Atlantic with freshwater. Darwin and Hooker, each famous in his own right had visited the isolated volcanic island of Ascension in the South Atlantic during the first half of the 19thC. Both were struck by the barren nature of the island’s central peak and lack of water. For unlike many island peaks Ascension island had no forest to trap and extract moisture from passing clouds and so the Royal Navy Garrison stationed there suffered from water shortages. Darwin and Hooker set upon the idea of planting a ‘fantasy’ cloud forest using the most appropriate species from around the World supplied from the Tropical Nurseries of Kew Gardens and the South African Botanical Garden in what was also a great experiment in reforestation and forest species assembly.
As well as working directly with rural communities through our collaboration with the Bolivian NGO Herencia, the strategy for our project is to influence regional decision-makers. We were very lucky therefore to be able to host a visit by our Ambassador, Ross Denny and for him to use the opportunity to formally introduce our project to the Governor of the Pando, Lúis Adolfo Flores Roberts. Ross Denny visited our agroforest demonstration plot, tree diversity inventory plot and the children’s Bosque de los Niños forest reserve being developed in collaboration with Herencia. Ross’s visit attracted a lot of interest from the local media which we were able to benefit from through several television interviews with Ross himself, forest engineer Rolma Velarde and I, to be broadcast nationally soon. Continue reading UK Ambassador visits and we present our project to the Governor of the Pando→
In addition to restoring soil fertility to abandoned slash-and-burn sites we are also working to use Inga to rehabilitate degraded pasture and severely degraded soils. Soils that have been heavily compacted by cattle over several years or by heavy machinery. Rehabilitating such sites, especially in the case of cattle pasture could have a significant impact in the region because adding value to such marginal land could help reduce the pressure on natural forest. With this aim we planted two such sites in March 2014. Revisiting the sites in July has shown mixed results with some of the seedlings doing very well (see image below) whilst others are clearly suffering (see image above). In comparison with slash-and-burn sites where we have lost very few seedlings, and most of those to overzealous weeding, Continue reading Inga establishment on heavily compacted degraded soils→
We have established Inga agroforest plots on abandoned slash-and-burn sites, degraded pasture and land used for road grading where the topsoil is removed with a bulldozer. Our seedlings have established on all of these sites but with slower growth and more ill-health on the bull-dozed and pasture sites. We planted out our plot at Motacusal, an abandoned slash-and-burn site, four months ago and since then the seedlings have done very well, some growing to 1.5 m in height. At this site we have 1,200 plants growing and they look close to ‘capturing’ the site, that is to dominating the weeds and no longer requiring weeding. Thanks to the nectaries on their leaves most of the seedlings have their own group of ants taking the nectar and protecting the plant from leaf-eating insects such as crickets, grasshoppers and stick insects. As the dry season is just beginning here, with rainfall reducing to once a week, it will be interesting to see whether the seedlings continue to grow or become dormant until the rains return in November. Overall a very positive start! Continue reading Our first Inga agroforest plot four months on→
Although fast-growing Inga is not the fastest growing plant on a bare site. Several species of grass, vine, tree and shrub, commonly known as ‘pioneer’ species specialise in just such conditions. For the first few months they can outcompete Inga which once over-topped will struggle to grow. Indeed some of the weedy vines are capable of strangling and killing seedlings after only a few weeks. Weeding is therefore essential and if not done can lead to the loss of the site. It is also risky though as it is easy to damage seedlings by mistake and in the case of vines, disentangling them from a seedling, once they have tendrils or suckers firmly attached is a real challenge. Continue reading Weeding: essential for agroforest plot establishment→
Alex Monro's blog about the documenting and conservation of biodiversity