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"Extinct" plant found on GC


Thursday 26th July, 2007   Posted: 15:21 CIT   (20:21 GMT)

Mrs. Carla Reid was forced to bring her vehicle to a stop one day last month so that trenching machinery could be moved on Queen’s Highway.

As she waited, she looked out of her window and saw something she had feared did not exist any more – a uniquely Caymanian plant identified years ago as salvia caymanensis and known less formally as Cayman sage.

Carla Reid & Mat Cottam

For the presentation of the $1,000 reward, Mrs. Carla Reid and Mr. Mat Cottam chose an area in which she found the Cayman sage. Unfortunately, the flowers were no longer in bloom. Fortunately, Mr. Cottam had taken close–ups the previous week. Photo: Carol Winker

Although Mrs. Reid travels that section of road frequently, it’s a 50 miles per hour stretch, so chances of seeing the plant’s little blue flowers were minimal.

The flowers apparently don’t stay in bloom very long: when photographers went to the area last week, the blossoms were gone. Without them, the plant is not as easy to identify.

Mrs. Reid knew what she was looking for. The Darwin Initiative’s recent offer of a $1,000 reward reminded her of her earlier interest.

“Years ago the National Trust produced a colouring book about endangered plants and animals in Cayman,” she said. “I was cleaning one of my children’s rooms, found the book, looked through it and was intrigued. Some time after, Dr. George Proctor – the botanist who wrote Cayman’s Flora – came down and said he wanted to be taken to a certain area to look for Cayman sage because he hadn’t seen it in 30 years or so. We didn’t get around to taking him, but that sparked my interest again.”

The Darwin Initiative is a programme to conserve endangered species. Its newsletter published in April contained the reward offer.

Mr. Mat Cottam, senior research officer with the Department of Environment, thought that a cash prize might get more people involved in the search for Cayman sage.

The timing was right because the plant was thought to flower around June.

The Caymanian Compass publicised the reward and Mrs. Penny Clifford contributed her colour sketch of the plant, based on a dried specimen in the National Trust herbarium.

After the article was published, Mr. Cottam received calls from over a dozen people who thought they had found the Cayman sage.

“There are a number of confusion species and several promising reports turned out to be similar–looking Hyptis and Desmodium. The sites reported by Carla were the only real Cayman sage,” Mr. Cottam said.

He could speak with authority because specimens were sent to Mr. Proctor, who confirmed the plant’s identity.

And he could refer to sites in the plural because Mrs. Reid continued to explore roadside environments with fellow nature photographer Mrs. Ann Stafford. Together they found Cayman Sage in the Cottage area of East End’s south coast.

In total, about 300 individual plants have been located, in several small groups, Mr. Cottam said.

Approximately 18,000 seeds have been collected.

They will be divided between the Darwin Partners at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for their long–term storage programme, and the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park for the conservation propagation programme.

If this effort is successful, the park nursery will be able to offer the plants for sale.

Park manager Andrew Guthrie said there are over 900 species of salvia worldwide. Many of them have medical properties and others have become popular ornamental plants for gardens.

“It is very good news that Cayman’s own unique salvia species has been rediscovered after being lost for so many years,” Mr. Guthrie said.

The last word on the subject, for now, belongs to Mrs. Reid, who volunteered to tell what she is doing with the $1,000 reward.

She has several purchases in mind, all for the National Trust, of which she is chairman. Some will be botanical books, she said. But the thing she seems most excited about is a hand–held GPS, so that future finds can be pin–pointed for posterity.

Mr. Mat Cottam said the next Darwin competition will be aimed at encouraging school children to think about their environment and teaching them about some of the special plants that make Cayman truly unique. The topic will be the plant hohenbergia caymanensis –– a giant bromeliad with leaves that can grow more than three feet long. The one thing it is lacking is a local name to match its fantastical appearance.

“It is time for hohengbergia caymanensis to take its place alongside Silver Thatch, Duppy Bush and Ironwood with an exciting local name,” Mr. Cottam said.

The competition will be to think up the best local name. “I’m not sure what the prize will be yet, but it will be something pretty exciting,” he said.

Details will appear in the next Darwin Newsletter and then in the Caymanian Compass.

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