|It was August 2001 and Ms. Dena Garvue, conservation
assistant with The Nature Conservancy, was nearing the end of her assignment
with the Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division (FWPD) on the Eastern Caribbean
island of Dominica. Before the end of her tour of duty, and together with
two staff members of the Division and an intern, Ms. Garvue embarked upon an
important field visit to the north and west coasts of the island. The
purpose of that visit was to investigate the status of a local population of
buccaneer palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii) (Fig.
1) that had first been reported for the island in 1969, by R. W. Read in
Principes. She immediately reported back to the Division that a population
of the palm did in fact exist above the village of Mero, about 11
miles north of the island’s capital. The FWPD was also informed that the
palm is currently classified as threatened or as endangered in other parts
of its range and that the Dominican population was the only one that exists
outside of the Northern Caribbean. Suffice it to say, at the time none of
the officers at the FWPD was familiar with that species of palm.
Not much has been written about the Dominican population of the buccaneer
palm. Notable references, however, are Read’s article “Some notes on
Pseudophoenix and a key to the species,” which was published in 1969,
“Trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands” (Little et al. 1974), and
“Flora of the Lesser Antilles: Leeward and Windward Islands” by R. A. Howard
(1979). Since then, no further mention was made of the palm on the island
until the 2002 issue of PALMS, and the Caribbean Palms Symposium hosted by
the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Florida, USA, in May 2002.
It must be noted that although generally unknown to the botanical
community, the buccaneer palm was well known to local inhabitants who, until
the late 1960s, regularly harvested the spear leaves of the juvenile of this
palm. A small group of women from the nearby villages of Mero and St. Joseph
harvested the leaves, shredded them, put them to dry, plaited the material,
then sold it in bundles to a handicraft outlet in the capital for making
Facing Up to the Challenge
Following a reconnaissance of the site in the hills above Mero, near
Dominica’s west coast (Fig. 2), a 3-man team
from the FWPD set out to work in earnest on 6 September 2001. The aim of
this ambitious exercise was to gather as much information as possible on the
size and characteristics of the population of buccaneer palm on Dominica.
The scorching heat of two short dry spells that interrupted the 2001
official rainy season, the relatively steep slopes – which are more suited
for mountain goats than foresters – combined with the thorns from six
different plants were not enough to dampen our enthusiasm. We spent many
long weekdays and Saturdays, sometimes literally in the blazing sun, in the
rain and even during a thunderstorm, measuring stem heights and girths of
the palms. We also counted leaf scars, measured the lengths of the longest
leaves on younger palms and recorded the status of flowering and fruiting of
Our 15-minute lunch breaks were sometimes spent in the cool of a small
cave that we had stumbled upon accidentally in the “Upper Class,” the
highest sub-population of the palm on Dominica. With mature palms
located at up to 173 m above sea level in “Upper Class,” Dominica’s
population of Pseudophoenix sargentii is not only the most southerly
and easterly in the species’ range, but may possibly be the highest above
sea level (Back Cover).
There were days when, past 6:00 p.m., and while ending a long day’s work,
we would stop to admire the sun setting over the canopy of tree crowns and
palm fronds or to watch the reflection of the sun on the calm waters of the
Caribbean Sea only a few hundred meters away. We had tripped and fallen on
several occasions while working on the clayey slopes, and often got
scratched, cut or tangled among the vines while we documented over 3,340
palms of various sizes and ages, distributed in ten sub-populations over an
area of about 25 acres. However, only about 2% of the current population of
buccaneer palm on Dominica is reproductively mature.
We also assigned descriptive names to the other sub-populations of the
palm, which are contained within two small watersheds. “The Hilltop” is
located at the top of a small hill; a brush fire in 2001 had taken its toll
on some of the palms in “Fireball;” currently there are three large houses
in “The Mansions,” while the remains of a concrete house stand above the
palms in “The Ruins.” Three of the other sub-populations were named “The
Corner,” “Two Roads” and “The Valley.” Also, we had worked all day on the
Saturday before Mardi Gras at “Samdi Gwa,” while the most southerly and
challenging of the subpopulations was appropriately named “Southern Blues” (Fig.
Dominica’s population of Pseudophoenix sargentii grows amongst dry
to semi-deciduous forest, with tree species such as Plumeria alba,
Bursera simaruba, Clusia mangle, Tabebuia heterophylla, Manilkara bidentata
and Sabinea carinalis – the island’s national flower.
Standing Above The Others
Among the ten sub-populations of the buccaneer palm on Dominica, three
stand above the rest. The Hilltop has the highest proportion of
reproductively mature palms (RMP), with approximately 35.6% of the
population of palms at that site having borne flowers by 2002. However, even
with its large “mature adult” population, the Hilltop site hardly has any
regeneration or saplings to show, except for a light scattering of “newly”
Hilltop also hosts the palm with the largest diameter (29.6 cm at breast
height) and the palm with the largest bulge (31.2 cm diameter). Also,
approximately 40% of the palms in that subpopulation have bulges and/or
constrictions on the stem; bulging is rarely encountered in the other
sub-populations except at Upper Class.
Southern Blues has the largest sub-population, although two brush fires
at the end of May and early June 2002 claimed at least eleven palms and
injured over thirty others from the previous population of 1,005. Possibly
the oldest palm in the Dominica population, with 113 scars, a stem height of
3.20 m and a diameter of 15.3 cm in 2002, is located in that sub-population
and was affectionately named “Pampo.” At the age of 127 years in 2002, Ms.
Elizabeth “Pampo” Israel is possibly the world’s oldest living person and
resides in Portsmouth, Dominica’s second town. Only eight of the palms in
Southern Blues are reproductively mature, but this particular subpopulation
has a dearth of young seedlings; it also supports a large number of
juveniles and subadults.
Upper Class, on the other hand, has only 22 palms that had borne flowers
by August 2002. The mature palms in that sub-population are relatively tall,
with stem height averaging 3.28 m, and internodes of up to 18 cm. In fact,
because of the height of the tallest trees in that sub-population, coupled
with the closeness of the younger scars, we resorted to using binoculars in
order to count the upper scars on the taller trees. That subpopulation also
has very few juveniles but a surprisingly large number of young seedlings
(with no rings and leaf-lengths averaging less than 0.5 m in 2002). There is
an even larger number of younger seedlings that have only eophylls and the
first set of lanceolate leaves. It is estimated that that sub-population may
have as many as 1,500 very young seedlings scattered around and among the
handful of “giants.” It is possible that some episodic events occurred in
Southern Blues and Upper Class which resulted in the unusual structure of
these two sub-populations.
The tallest palm in the Dominica population is located in The Valley –
which has only 72 palms with pinnate leaves. In early 2002 this palm had a
stem height of 4.49 m, a diameter of 20.1 cm and only 50 scars. This palm
was jokingly assigned the name, “Overgrown,” as it only reached reproductive
maturity in August 2002.
Harvest of the Cherry-like Fruits
At the beginning of 2002, only ten of the palms in the Dominican
population of buccaneer palms had mature fruit. The fruits on nine of these
trees ripened between the end of January and the middle of February, while
the infructescence on the other tree ripened in June.
The year 2003, however, is expected to bring forth a “bumper harvest.”
The small yellow flowers began to appear in June 2002, providing nectar and
pollen for the honeybees and bumblebees, and at least 75 trees are expected
to produce the next batch of cherry-like fruits from the population.
Agents of Dispersal
After first suspecting fruit-eating bats to be the main agents of dispersal
of the seeds of the buccaneer palm on Dominica, we had the opportunity to
witness a Lesser Antillean saltator (Saltator albicollis), while
feeding on the fruits on one of the palms in Upper Class, chase away a
Lesser Antillean bullfinch (Loxigilla noctis) that had come to
partake of the “harvest” (Fig. 4).
We found a feeding perch used by the saltators in Upper Class, but it
appears that a secondary agent of dispersal may be involved in moving the
seeds. Several pieces of pericarp of the ripe palm fruits were found
scattered over a small area near the perch, but barely any seeds were found.
This would suggest that either the Dominican ground lizard (Ameiva
fuscata), or possibly rats, or crabs (Gecarcinus ruricola and
Coenobita clypeatus) may be carrying away seeds that have been dropped
by the saltators and the bullfinches while feeding.
The Future of Dominica’s Population of Pseudophoenix
Dominica’s (and the Eastern Caribbean’s) only population of the buccaneer
palm faces a wide range of threats. These include the general lack of
knowledge about the palm in Dominica, the annual brush fires, housing
development and the land-ownership situation in the area where the palms
occur. Brush fires may be resulting in some mortality or causing injury to
several palms annually. To these threats may be added the erosion from
runoff on the steeper slopes and habitat degradation from the invasion of
the Mulch or Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus) into the areas where
the palms occur.
Currently, the Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division is attempting to
propagate the buccaneer palm. The Division is also in the process of
developing a Plan-of-Action for the protection, conservation and increasing
public awareness of the buccaneer palm on Dominica. The Division also
proposes to launch a campaign to raise sufficient funds to enable the
Government of Dominica to acquire some of the lands where Pseudophoenix
sargentii (and the endemic Sabinea carinalis) occur. This is in
order to afford some protection to the palm population in the wild, as well
as to conserve part of the habitat of this species.
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance and support provided
in the field by Alvin DeJean and Stephen Toussaint, two drivers at the
Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division in Dominica. The assistance and support
provided by the then acting Director and other members of staff of the
Division on other occasions, as well as the support provided by Dr. Scott
Zona and Ms. Dena Garvue are also gratefully acknowledged.
HOWARD, R.A. 1979. Flora of the Lesser Antilles: Leeward and Windward
Islands – Monocotyledoneae. Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University, Jamaica
JAMES, A. 2002. Buccaneer palm rediscovered on Dominica… So what!
Prepared for the Caribbean Palms Symposium, Fairchild Tropical Garden, 18
May 2002 (Unpub.).
LITTLE, E.L. JR, R.O. WOODBURY AND F.H. WADSWORTH. 1974. Trees of Puerto
Rico and the Virgin Islands. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service,
READ, R.W. 1969. Some notes on Pseudophoenix and a key to the
species. Principes 13: 77–79.
ZONA, S. 2002. A revision of Pseudophoenix. PALMS 46: 19–38.