1999, Christopher Weddell, Study Tour, British Virgin Islands

An account of a travel scholarship to The British Virgin Islands

By Christopher Weddell

In June 1999 I arrived in Road Town, Tortola, to begin a five week study tour. I proposed to spend most of my time working with the J. R. O’Neal Botanic Garden in setting up a plant records system, though I had arranged visits to other islands and National Parks.

The J. R. O’Neal Botanic Garden is important not only as a main tourist attraction but also as a focus for environmental and horticultural education for the local population. It holds important Caribbean flora and so also plays a part in ex situ conservation. With five permanent members of staff looking after four acres, the garden contains a wide array of local and imported tropical plants. Features include a small Fern House, Orchid House and a Herb and Medicinal Garden in landscaped grounds with a small pond and waterfall.

It has the regular plants you would expect for a tropical botanic garden, but it also contains several specimens of native and endangered plants, including: Opuntia dillenii, a native of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, as well as the endangered Acacia anegadensis, which is endemic to Anegada. It also has a specimen of the endangered Sabal casuarium, endemic to Puerto Rico.

The upgrade of the plant record system involved the customisation of BG-Recorder 2, developed by Botanic Gardens Conservation International to be used by members, free of charge, to manage plant collections. Customisation included the addition of sublocations within the Plants/Clone File data input screen and associated reports and tables. The main switchboard and data input forms were simplified to allow easier navigation and data input. Reports were also customised to allow for better reporting and the use of existing hardware to produce plant labels. Data from the previous plant records system was inputted into the new records system as a starting point for the gardens staff.

During my stay I was able to learn a great deal about the British Virgin Islands, the people, the flora and the effects of development and agriculture on the islands. They form an archipelago of more than 40 islands, with a population of under 20,000 people, forming the northern extremity of the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean. They are generally mountainous and volcanic in origin, with the exception of the low-lying Anegada, which is formed of coral and limestone.

The climate is tropical and tempered by the trade winds. There is little variation between summer and winter. Rainfall is low, varying slightly from island to island. The islands are subject to hurricane conditions from July to November, which can cause extensive damage.

The islands are neither big enough nor tall enough to receive enough rainfall for true tropical rainforests. The result is high-elevation, semi-rainforest areas, some (probably the last remnants) of which remain in the National Parks of Sage Mountain, Tortola and Gorda Peak, Virgin Gorda. The first one, Sage Mountain National Park, was set up in 1964. Now in 1999 The National Parks Trust manages 17 National Parks scattered about the different islands. They are used not only to protect the flora and fauna but to help provide areas for recreation for both locals and tourists.

Sage Mountain National Park, Tortola, covers 92 acres on the summit of Sage Mountain. In the centre of the park, where it is wettest, Piper amalago, Tillandsia sp., Aechmea sp., Anthurium sp., Heliconia caribea and Xanthosoma sp. and Syzygium jambos can be found.

Gorda Peak National Park is significantly lower than Sage Mountain and the south eastern slopes have a fine example of Caribbean Dry Forest. Here Hymenocallis caribaea, Bromelia pinguin, Clusia rosea, Ardisia obovata and Catopsis sp. occur.

Most of the vegetation on all of the islands has been greatly affected by the activities of man, especially in the 17th century, when a large population of slaves were used to farm the land. Many crops of economic importance were grown, including Cotton Gossypium barbadense, Suga Cane Saccharum officinarum, Mango Mangifera indica, Banana Musa, Papaya Carica papaya and the Breadfruit Tree Artocarpus altilis.

Today the dominant natural vegetation at lower levels is dry cactus scrub, most of which has been modified by human activities and is secondary regeneration, having filled the spaces previously cleared for sugar and cotton plantations. At sea level the islands feature some swampland. This is especially so on Anegada, where there are several large salt ponds which have been recognised as important sites for biodiversity.

The one island totally different to all the other islands is Anegada, being little more than an uplifted reef surrounded by more reef with the highest point just over 20 feet above sea level. This is a harsh environment, but Tabebuia heterophylla manages to grow out of gaps in the limestone, along with Melocactus intortus. The island is important for two reasons: the West Indian Roseate Flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber, and the endemic Anegada Rock Iguana, Cyclura pinguis. Both of these are the subject of recovery programmes.

There is much to explore and study in the Virgin Islands group.While much of the BVI look unremarkable, real gems exist within the different National Parks. I learned a great amount throughout my trip and I would like to thank the Kew Guild for their generous support that enabled me to undertake it.

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