by Larry Smith
The publication being honoured was Flora of the Bahama Archipelago, authored in 1982 by the American botanist Dr Donovan Correll and his wife Helen, who spent seven years collecting plants throughout the islands. Their 1692-page tome includes hundreds of painstakingly drawn pen and ink illustrations by Priscilla Fawcett. Publication was sponsored by Miami's Fairchild Tropical Garden.
Founded in 1938, the Fairchild Garden is both a world class visitor attraction and a centre for education and research. From the plant exploration done in support of the Correll book, Fairchild developed the most extensive living collection of Bahamian plants outside of the islands. You can see them today in a three-acre plot just off Old Cutler Road in Coral Gables, where more than 138 species collected from the Bahamas are happily growing.
The Correll book superseded the first comprehensive record of Bahamian plant life. The Bahama Flora was produced in 1920 by Nathaniel Britton of the New York Botanical Garden andCharles Millspaugh of Chicago's Field Museum. It described more than 1900 species that had been collected over the two centuries since Captain Thomas Walker sent the very first specimens of Bahamian plants to England in 1703.
But the earliest account of Bahamian plants was produced in 1747. Sponsored by London's Royal Society, Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands described more than 65 plants collected during a nine-month expedition here in 1725 (as well as birds, lizards, turtles, crabs and fish). The publication includes a total of 220 colour illustrations, and can be viewed online at http://www.lib.unc.edu/ncc/catesby/index.php.
"I went to Providence," Catesby wrote in his introduction, "to which Place I was invited by his Excellency Charles Phinney, Esq; Governour of these Islands, and was entertain'd by him with much Hospitality and Kindness: From thence I visited many of the adjacent Islands, particularly Ilathera, Andros, Abbacco and other neighbouring Islands."
But scientists consider the 1982 Flora produced by the Corrells as the most systematic catalogue of Bahamian plant biodiversity to date. It incorporates 1371 species of flowering plants and ferns. And although it has played a key role in Bahamian research, education and conservation over the past 20 years, experts say it now needs updating.
According to Dr Ethan Freid, "there have been many changes over the past 20 years in the taxonomy and distribution of Bahamian plant species. Current research accepts 87 endemics which are found only in the Bahamas, and all of these should be protected. An up-to-date flora is a necessary foundation for the formulation of good conservation policy today."
Freid is well-known in the Bahamas. He earned his doctorate in botany at Miami University in Ohio, and taught for a few years at the College of the Bahamas. He is currently a consultant for the Bahamas National Trust, and helped to develop the 25-acre Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve at Governor's Harbour on Eleuthera - the first of its kind in the region.
The Eleuthera preserve features over 171 species of Bahamian trees, shrubs and herbs, including special plots for medicinal and economic plants. Visitors can take guided walks through a mangrove forest and deep into the thick native coppice. And at the property's highest elevation, an observation tower provides a 360-degreee view of the surrounding landscape. There is also a visitor centre and gift shop.
The point man for creating a new database of Bahamian plants (that would include specimens from the Turks & Caicos Islands) is Dr Michael Vincent, curator of Miami University's W. S Turrell Herbarium. He told me last week that work on Bahamian ferns was just about complete, with work on lilies, agaves and grasses ongoing. The fern data already includes a third more species than the Correll book, and there have been numerous name changes based on DNA studies.
"We are also thinking about exactly what form the end product should take in order to make it as useful as possible to the widest audience," Vincent said. "We are working with all the experts in the field, reviewing all the literature, and re-examining tens of thousands of specimens from the Bahamas."
Both Vincent and Freid will be leading participants in a major natural history conference planned for Nassau next March in collaboration with the College of the Bahamas and the Bahamas National Trust.
A potential beneficiary of a new Bahamian Flora would be the Nassau Botanical Garden, currently little more than an open space. It was originally a rock quarry for the construction of Fort Charlotte in the 1780s, and in the early 20th century the site was used as an agricultural research centre. It was converted into a botanical garden when the country became independent in 1973.
A herbarium was created at the site in 1996 - by the Department of Agriculture, the Bahamas National Trust and the College of the Bahamas. This is essentially a database of dried plants collected over the years by various scientists from around the islands. Although still advertised to tourists, the site offers little to match its description as a botanical garden, and is devoid of visitors outside of special events like the cultural fair.
According to BNT Executive Director Eric Carey, the prime minister has approved proposals for the redevelopment of the Nassau Botanical Garden. "His vision is for each island to have its own distinctive mini botanic garden highlighting its flora and providing green space for recreation," Carey told me. "The BNT will be working with the Ministry of Environment to develop legislation which will support the creation of these community botanic gardens throughout the archipelago."
As for the Nassau Botanical Garden, conceptual plans envision a multi-faceted destination linked to other attractions in the area, like Arawak Cay and the Ardastra Gardens & Zoo. Craft cottages will make and sell native produce and plant-derived products, a culinary institute and restaurant will feature Bahamian dishes, while a meeting hall and natural ampitheatre provide space for workshops and special events. All of the buildings will express traditional Bahamian architectural themes.
A new headquarters for the BNT is also planned for the site's northeast corner, Carey said. "The goal is to create a substantive experience for visitors and residents, showcasing Bahamian culture, horticulture and agriculture."