By Melissa Abdo, June 19, 2009
‘Twas a bright cloudless morning…
I felt invigorated with fresh air as I hiked over red clay footpaths, heading away from the small-scale agricultural fields dominated by thorny yam vines and the heart-shaped leaves of taro, and towards the unknown Cockpit mountains in the distance. With every step closer to the unexplored mountains, I could feel my blood rushing and excitement pulsing through my bones as I anticipated the botanical exploration that lay ahead.
The scenery around us began to change from small farm plots on sloping rocky hills to limestone cliffs brimming with bromeliads and ferns; to the east and west of the footpath the characteristic steep Cockpit hills now bordered us on all sides. To the east the Cockpit mountains looked to my eye to be quite intact, undisturbed, and especially promising… and from my thorough literature- and herbarium- based research combined with excellent insights from the world’s authority on the flora of Jamaica, Dr. George Proctor, I was confident that these particular hills were hitherto unexplored by botanists.
Once we were satisfactorily deep enough into the Cockpit Country landscape, we stopped along the footpath to survey our remote surroundings. My eyes moved closely over the craggy limestone rock hills and cliffs, trying to scout out a potential spot to attempt our ascent. Mr. Grant pointed at a Cockpit mountain peak about 100 meters off from us, as the crow flies- and said that this particular peak was giving him a “tingling feeling.” It was bordered by two other Cockpit crests both at a lower elevation than its peak, and I was inspired by his instinct and his ambition to climb the highest one! I asked the other members of our expedition team if they all felt they could go for it, and after some pauses surveying the hill the answer was a unanimous and firm YES! It seemed to me that we all drew in deep breaths at the same moment, and then set off…
Soon thereafter, bipedal hiking gave way to hands-and-feet gripping of each crack, crevice, and mossy tree trunk as we scaled the craggy limestone hillside. Always looking out for his expedition-mates, Stephen kindly advised Hillary - who was enthusiastic to now be conducting her first day of fieldwork in the tropics – to test every rock, tree trunk, and branch before pulling up one’s body weight with it or otherwise stepping or relying on it. Indeed, it is good advice; probably a quarter of the tree trunks one grasps for support will undoubtedly give way, and seemingly solid ground often reveals itself to be deep limestone solution holes covered by an illusory layer of leaf litter.
Halfway up the hillside, Mr. Grant and I met an old bittersweet companion: the “mountain dog,” whom we made a point to introduce to all of our new expedition members. The mountain dog is actually a plant (Acidoton urens, the local vernacular name is mountain dog) and one can say it is sweet because it is a species endemic to Jamaica and found mostly in the forested mountains, and bitter because it has the mean characteristic of being covered in stinging hairs that will give you quite a harsh painful “bite” if you get too close to him.
The mountain dog bites us all at some point, no matter how careful you are. Faces and arms sting, feet slip, backs tire, and hands lose their grasp, but eyes glisten with wonder and hearts pound with happiness as we explore for plants in this botanical wonderland. We carry on determined to make it to the top.
Ah, the feeling of achievement as we reach the peak! The habitat changes markedly at the crest, giving way to a sunnier and more open habitat abundant with bromeliads (Hohenbergia spp., Guzmania spp., and Tillandsia spp.), slender trees (Myrtaceae, Euphorbiaceae, and Sapindaceae species, with many other families also well-represented) and flowering shrubs (the lovely pink-flowered Tetrazygia fadyenii was a charismatic stand-out). One can’t miss the wavy heart-shaped leaves and meter-long phallic inflorescences of Anthurium grandiflora, a locally common aroid found on the leaf-littered substrate and atop the limestone rocks surrounding us.
A diverse array of Cockpit Country ferns- some fragile and dainty, others strap-leaved and boisterous- poke out from rocky crevices, creep up tree trunks, and come up from the honeycombed rocks below our feet. I am fascinated by all plants, and have always been very fond of ferns. Residing on my nightstand for many moons, beside a window overlooking some maidenhair (Adiantum tenerum) ferns, is a well-thumbed copy of Dr. Proctor’s magnificent and seminal work Ferns of Jamaica. How fortunate we all are to have the honor of working alongside the living legend that contributed this book -and such an impressive volume of significant work- to Caribbean botany and conservation.
This cloudless, wondrous day atop an unexplored Cockpit mountain turned out to be the day we’d make a grand rediscovery of one of the Caribbean’s long-lost plant species. Not seen since November 22 of 1905, more than a hundred years have passed since the famed botanist William Harris collected Euphorbia alata. To our knowledge, the species has in fact only been documented twice: upon its first discovery circa 1840 and then by Harris in 1905; it is, however, quite hard-to-miss in appearance as it is known for its distinctive “stick-like” look of having large elongated ridged green stems and branches. The tiny white flowers are barely bigger than pinheads.
We proceeded to document the amazing find by carefully collecting voucher specimens, and conducting the first scientific examination of its population and habitat.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and leading Jamaican institutions have been searching for this lost species for years, and as I stared at the plant before my eyes, I knew without doubt that we had finally found it. Indeed, it is the discovery of the century for the Cockpit Country!
I concluded this exquisite day feeling my heart beam with contentment, and my mind full of a scientist’s quiet imaginings of the unknown and lost plants still to be encountered and studied…as our expedition presses onward!
Fairchild scientist and expedition leader Melissa Abdo documents the rediscovery of the century for Jamaica's Cockpit Country, Euphorbia alata, lost for over 100 years.