1996, Joanna Walmisley, Study Tour, Mexico & Panama

Mexico and Panama Veracruzanian Anthuriums

By Joanna Walmisley

On Thursday 1st August, 1996, descent into its airport showed a vast conurbation that makes Mexico City one of the largest in the world. This marked the start of my three-week travel scholarship visit during which I hoped, in particular, to study Veracruzanian species of Anthurium as part of a systematics project.

Two days later, a five-hour bus journey took me to the university town of Xalapa, state capital of Veracruz. Here I met up with Phil Brewster who showed me round the Jardin Botanico Francisco Xavier Clavijero where he now works. The Botanic Garden, on the edge of town, is approximately 16 acres in size and was opened to the public in 1977. It is set at 1,300 metres, in natural countryside on the slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental in a disturbed cloud-forest environment with relatively high rainfall and humidity and frequent mists.

At this stage the Garden was closed, and all staff taking annual leave. So, at the start of the following week, I travelled with Dr. Andrew Vovides, Curator of the Botanic Gardens at Xalapa, to the Biological Reserve of `Los Tuxtlas’, which is owned and administered by the National University of Mexico, U.N.A.M., (where I spent my final afternoon in Mexico), in the lowland rainforests of southern Veracruz.

In the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas small remaining tracts of rainforest — once the predominant vegetation of the area — are home to many species of rainforest plants at the northernmost locations of their habitat. I was very pleased to find four out of five species of Anthurium that could be expected: A. pentaphyllum; A. scandens; A. schlechtendalii and A. flexile. A particular remit of my visit was to investigate the pollination biology of the genus. In cultivation, seed set is uncommon except in a few species, and a high degree of pollinator specificity is suspected. My attempts to identify pollinators were thwarted in Mexico but more successful in Panama!

On returning to Xalapa, the Botanic Gardens had re-opened. A visit was made to a nearby village to see an initiative that was set up in 1988 by Dr. Vovides, known as the Dioon edule project. Having noted huge quantities of heads of this endemic cycad being sold for ornament at local markets, he obtained funding to help villagers grow plants from seed and to set up an organised nursery business. In 1994, profits were good and the scheme is presently being extended to the cultivation of other endemic plants including several Chamaedorea species.

The third week of my visit was spent in Panama which, according to Dr. Tom Croat of Missouri Botanical Gardens, is a centre of diversity for Anthurium. Indeed, thanks to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, many species of Anthurium, together with innumerable bromeliads and orchids, were found in great abundance at a cool, wet site of submontane rainforest in western Panama. Explanation for the diversity of Anthurium is thought to be due to the large number of endemic bird species in the country with which Anthurium has evolved specialist seed dispersal mechanisms.

The three weeks spent on this travel scholarship visit passed all too quickly. It was a wonderful and unforgettable experience for which I would like to thank the Kew Guild and all those without whose generous support it would not have been possible.

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