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→
The big assumption of our Inga-based agroforest system is that we will improve soil fertility, specifically by increasing soil organic matter, nitrates and in the case of cattle pasture countering compaction. These are all assumptions based on previous work, sometimes with different agroforest tree species. If our work is to have real impact with policy makers and local government in the Pando then it is also important not only that it serves the needs of rural communities but also that we can demonstrate this impact in a verifiable way. Hence the need to take some basic baseline observations. Continue reading Baseline soil observations→