(By Paul Temple, on 13 June 2001)
1 - A Lament
He was from Africa and he had started to travel West. At first nobody cared. At first nobody noticed. George became more angry as he travelled. His mindless rage was matched only by his mindless direction; he had no favoured direction, no specific destination.
His anger grew and attracted attention. People watched. People worried. People feared. But still he had done no harm. His strength grew as he travelled ever westward and it became obvious that he would visit the islands. He landed first in the first Island, the leading edge of a string of pearls. The people worried. They ran. They hid. But George already had a reputation and the people gained by fearing it. They lived. And George moved on.
His mindless anger had been partly vented but he was not finished. As he travelled further West his strength renewed. A second pearl. A different people worried. They ran. They hid. And again this different people gained from their fear as George moved on and the people came out of hiding. They too lived. But George was not finished. He headed North, into the mountains. The people had long since moved away (in fear). The animals too were gone. The silence (at first) was broken only by the sound of the wind and rain. And then George arrived. The fury that he loosed had few targets. The people and animals had gone. The plants simply moved aside as he thrashed at them. But a tree. Not just a tree but the tree. George attacked it head on, relentlessly, terribly. And before he moved on he broke it. The tree was old, mature, sound. But George mindlessly attacked until the tree could not withstand more. It broke. It lay down. And it lies there still.
The loss was noticed when the people returned. But what is the loss of one tree? No one noticed the others that were lost. Not trees. They had been known. They had been cared for. They had been hundreds. A few remained. Perhaps too few. But their loss seemed unimportant and was not explained or exposed. And George moved on to lose his rage, only to be ignored and then forgotten.
But George's heritage remained. Perhaps forever. But still no one spoke.
George - Part 2 - A species all but destroyed.
George was of course Hurricane Georges. It hit the Caribbean at a speed of 103mph with gusts to 115mph. On 29 September 1998 Georges killed over 300 people in the Dominican Republic including one intelligent man who was up on his roof tampering with his TV aerial which as his picture was not very good as the storm passed !!!
I like people (well, some of them), but they (we) are a decidedly overpopulated species that has proven itself well capable of filling any population gaps caused by a passing hurricane. So I can't get too worked up about an occassional death that isn't a friend, neighbour, colleage or family. (Oh I grieve for victims when it's a calamity, but not really for the odd few.) So, Georges' toll in Santo Domingo was merely a reminder of a hurricane's power. But Georges moved on.
North was it's path, and so it hit the mountains. These mountains are in Vega Province. It shouldn't have taken genius to realise that if I (Paul Temple) am writing this, and if it's about the Dominican republic, then the mountains in question are dominated by the one that gives this group it's name, Casabito. And Georges hit it head on, at full strength. As you haven't visited the mountain, let me explain. At its peak, it's a cloud forest. For most of the forest, there is no record of it ever having been cut, farmed or otherwise interfered with. Indeed, parts of it are thought to have never been entered by mankind and are considered impenetrable. In most parts, this forest is strewn with fallen trees and branches. It is impossible to walk on the ground as, unless paths are cleared, there is a maze of fallen wood that creates a false and treacherous floor that can be anything from 1 foot to 10 feet above the actual earth. These bits of wood are the result of wind damage or the fall as they rot while still on the tree. This area is the most humid part of Dominica so things rot regularly and quickly. So imagine the result of a hurricane. It slammed into the mountain with all its force. It hit the peak head on. And the peak is the home of Pinguicula casabitoensis. The plants are documented as found in 3 locations. The first is just North and slightly below the peak. I visited this site in early 1998 and it contained some hundreds of plants. Almost all were within the canopy of a single tree. A few others were mostly on devris from this tree, with perhaps a dozen plants on saplings. As one moves further North, there is a second site where a handful of plants, less than ten, grew on two small trees. Still further North is a third site, again small, but I've never seen it.
The second site has gone. There are no Pinguicula plants there. But it was always small so plants may have been adventurous but never likely to maintain a colony. The third site is still a mystery and locals could not tell me if Pinguicula still existed there. But the first site. The main site. The tree. Georges literally snapped it in to. The tree lies there still, as if in an open grave. Rotting. It fell across the only path into the forest and it's canopy shattered as it fell. What remained of the canopy was cleared to allow the path to be re-opened. The hundreds of Pinguicula casabitoana (note the spelling - Jan!), were lost in the clearance. No one attempted to rescue them. No one thought to contact anyone. They were simply cleared along with the wood. And what remains? 10 plants. So few that I doubt enough remain to sustain the colony. This plant has a very slow reproductive strategy. It will not easily increase the plant's numbers. But worse still, the tree has gone. The tree maintained humidity. The most important factor in P. casabitoana's survival is high humidity. So the micro-habitat has been altered and plants look unhappy. Even the moss-less environment, where the tree resisted moss growth (very smooth bark) has gone, with new growth being by plants taking advantage of newly increased light levels now the canopy has gone. These young shrubs and trees have rougher bark on which moss does grow. It holds water that P. casabitoana dislikes and smothers plants growing on previously bare wood.
P. casabitoana was verging on extinction before, what of it now?
George - Part 3 - From bad to worse!
Life is full of surprises. In May 2001 I suddenly ended up on a plane to the Dominican Republic. It hadn't really been planned. It all got arranged in seconds and off we went. (Followers of my earlier expeditions will know that the "we" represents my wife, who I met while hunting for P. casabitoana, and my daughter - a 9 month old addition.) I hadn't planned to go plant hunting this time. I was exhausted and really wanted to just sit back and relax. The plants were not a major attraction as I'd seen them several times before. I hadn't expected them to be in flower or bearing seeds as previous visits suggested this all happened in December and January. My earlier visits to see the plants had been successful based on my having found important people who could assist me gain entry to the protected (men with rifles and shotguns) park where they grow. The most important of these was a man holding a politically appointed office. A letter from him was all I needed to gain entry, and he happened to be a personal friend of my wife's father! However, a recent election resulted in a change of Government and my friend was therefore pushed out and replaced by someone I didn't know. And she wasn't even in her office so I couldn't meet her. This simply convinced me not to bother trying to see the plants.
Then I got ill - the usual tummy problem from drinking strange water. It lasted over two weeks, enforcing my choice of rest. By the time I was well, it was well into my last 7 days of holiday. I did this and that and with 4 full days left I passed by the office of my previously important friend. It's a small town. My red hair makes me easily remembered. They flagged me down and told me that I should come in. My friend's replacement was in. I was introduced. We chatted about who I was, who I knew. The replacement proved to be a friend of my wife! Suddenly life changed. Should I visit the plants?
Oh why not, I thought. So the new friend agreed to write a letter. It was Friday morning (early) and I was to leave on Tuesday. I was told to wait until 2 pm for a letter of permission. At 2, I returned. There had been an electricity cut. The typewriter was an electric model. No letter! They sent the secretary to another Company where there was a generator. Meanwhile, in came the press. Rumour had it that an incredibly important botanist was visiting the country and the press wanted to interview whomever it was. I was interested too. Could it be a new contact for me? I chatted with the press, and eventually managed to find out the name of this famous botanist. It was (written the way it was said in Spanish) a Senyor Templay. It was me!
Back came the letter. The press accompanied me on a drive to the research center where visits are arranged. By 3.30 pm we were there. Or at least, we were about 1 mile (2.2 km) away with one more road to go. My rental was not a Four Track. That mile took me over an hour as I negotiated standing water, river crossings, rocks, mud. Finally we were there. The manager took my new friend's letter and started to organise the visit (phone calls, walkie-talkie calls, etc.). But it was 5pm. Too late to go. The press couldn't make Saturday. Sunday is sacrosanct - it's a family day in Dominica (still a deeply religious country) and I'd be a fool to go out and not be with the family. That left Monday as the only available day - so we agreed on it.
Monday 7.15 am saw me outside the home of the reporter. He was ready - amazing as time keeping is a not a strong point ij Dominican life! We drove to Casabito and were there as agreed at 8 am. Amazingly, the guard was waiting for us and unlocked the gates (now with barbed wire tops and sides, added since I last visited). It was raining. It was perfect. Just enough rain to keep the day cool and hide the sun (I burn if someone shines a torch on me!). Not enough rain to cause us to become more than damp. The walk proved as long as I had remembered but we got there.
walked down the path from the summit passing endemic species varying from huge
trees to fingernail sized orchids. One grass caught my attention. It was tall,
creeping and could cut flesh to the bone. Ugh! The path continued but became
strangely different from what I remembered - I still didn't know about the
And then we found the plants. The shock was double. Obviously the hurricane damage was clear. But along with this disappointment - I saw flowers!!! Suddenly a mildly interesting visit changed and became an opportunity. I couldn't hope to find seed, but I looked.
Time out for a brief botanical lesson. Very few of you will know much about P. casabitoana. Many of the web entries I've found contain errors. So let me explain a little. It is a very unstudied plant. It is clearly a close relative of P. lignicola which is epiphytic and endemic to Cuba. The two are so alike that I have been toying with investigating if they should be reclassified as a single species. P. lignicola is slightly more studies. I have seen it. It's got a fascinating reproductive strategy. Yes it flowers and yes it has seed. The seeds grow inside the capsule attached to the ovary by seed stalks. Those with good memories will recall reading in my earlier expedition reports that these seed stalks are capable of growing into plants. (I must put the pictures on the web!). As far as I know, no other Pinguicula species has been described as having this ability.
Back to Dominica. I have long been desperately seeking evidence to show if P. casabitoana shares its reproductive strategy with P. lignicola. All I needed was a plant that had flowered about 3 weeks ago. I looked. And there they were. Although the whole site had been reduced to about 10 plants, 8 of them were displaying seed pods I various states of maturity. Each plant bore two or three such seed pods. Unfortunately I could not get close enough to see inside. Unlike most Pinguicula the pods do not grey, harden and burst. The capsule is like a cup and within it (not on top, actually inside it) the capsule roof splits or rots to allow seed to escape. But I was allowed to take two capsules. I chose carefully trying to take two different stages of maturity. There was no chance to check them there.
Back at the house, I bathed, changed, had a drink. Then out came the precious package. I looked at the pods. Amazing. The first had already matured and burst open. There were no obvious sign of seeds which presumably escape easily. But there were the seed stalks. Between five to ten of them. Green, fresh. And the other pod. It was perfect. Unbroken, but swollen enough to look as if it was mature.
The plan was an old one. I'd long since hoped to implement it but hadn't hoped that this trip would present the opportunity. I needed fresh material. If seed stalks could be obtained while still in a sealed pod, the pod could be returned to the UK, sterilised intact and the content placed in Tissue Culture. The seed stalks are so delicate that they would not withstand sterilisation. But inside a sealed capsule is sterile, so sterilising outside would allow the sterile seed stalks to be used undamaged. And maybe I had them - but I couldn't be sure, I didn't dare open the capsule to see.
The flight back was only 24 hours after I collected the material allowing only enough time to sleep and travel to the airport. I went straight home, re-assembled the computer, and sent off an appeal for help with Tissue Culturing. And then I waited. And I waited. And I waited. The heartbreak was terrible. I had the material. I was well known. I should have had the contacts and I should have received a response. But I didn't. Not one! And as the days went by, I watched as the sealed capsule deteriorated. The open capsule didn't even survive the plane journey, but this was no surprise. In esperation, I had not relied entirely on the CP community. I had also contacted the orchid community. They don't know me, but plant people are generally nice people. After a while, they did respond, but with email addresses. I emailed again. I waited some more. Eventually I got a promise of help. The capsule is now in their hands.
However, I can be certain that all the seed stalks are now long since dead. They were the ideal source of material and will have lasted perhaps two or three days after I arrived home. The only hope is that there is also some seed. We will not know until next Sunday, when the seed capsule will be opened.
I wait, fingers crossed but already assuming that seed will be dead or absent. I cannot bear to recall that I had the seed stalks. What a loss!
4 - Update - Dominica
The body count is as follows:
Minimum 30 seeds counted (15 per capsule).
Minimum number seed stalks must equal number of seeds.
Therefore there were 60 viable seeds or seed stalks in total.
Number that survived = 0
I doubt anyone else has my contacts so I doubt anyone will get this species. I doubt I'll have much chance ever again and if I do, it will be along time
before I can manage. And if I can, it has to be within 24 hours of travelling, another difficulty.
So, I guess you can all kiss goodbye to this species!