At the Reserve “Cupeyal del Norte”, in Eastern Cuba, a Planta! expedition follows the trail of three lost species of melastomataceas and another one perhaps new to science.
Project: Lost Melastomataceas of the Cuban flora.
A rediscovered species of melastomataceas and another clearly unknown, were the reasons of my first trip to Cupeyal del Norte. I arrived at sunset, one day in November, nearly 30 years after seeing my first melastomatacea as a university student. Accompanied by José Luis Gómez, we were looking for three lost species of this family of plants: Miconia susanne, Miconia munizii and Miconia pseudopinetorum. The only references we had so far were Latin notes of ancient herbarium records.
We could easily recognize the melastomataceas because the veins of their leaves resemble stairs.
Cupeyal is a 700 meters high plateau occurring in the National Park “Alejandro de Humboldt”, in Eastern Cuba. On the northeast slopes there are forests with arborescent ferns and three species of magnolias known as azulejos. On the steeper slopes and rocky peaks, a shrub develops with a very diverse flora, rich in species that are exclusive from Cuba and even from this area. It is hard to think that in the 40s and 50s these lands belonged to North American logging companies, with sawmills and even a landing strip. A Natural Reserve was established in 1963 and the deepest traces of damage have healed almost completely. Today, once again, there is only forest.
In Cupeyal, a fresh smell of pine turpentine impregnates everything since dawn. Five rangers and Aysel Garcia, a specialist in the area, eat rice and beans. For most Cubans this is the basis of lunch but it is essential to face the hard work ahead. María Baró, the excellent cook, manages to turn any food into a delicacy: like her famous fried cookies. “Well nourished” also by her love we take the road.
Under a clear blue sky we visited up to three locations per day and we arrived at the source of headwaters of the Toa River, the largest in Cuba. We were always accompanied by forest rangers, indispensable guides who know the area better than anyone else since they have been working there for many years. Some had traveled kilometers, in mule or even on foot, only to learn what we could teach them.
In addition to our search for the lost plants, we were also looking for an intriguing melastomatacea. This plant was found in 2016 by our colleague José Ángel García when he visited Cupeyal with a Planta! group. At the time, Jose collected a branch without flowers or fruits. When he showed it to me at the National Botanical Garden, I agreed that it was a strange plant. However, without the flowers or fruits it was impossible to say that it was a new species among the almost 200 species of Cuban melastomataceas. This time when we found it, the plant had flowers and fruits, so we were able to compare it with similar species and to demonstrate that it is new to science.
As much as we climbed and retraced those forests we could only find Miconia munizii. It was discreetly growing in a dense and possibly unexplored forest, surrounded by large ferns, orchids and spectacular flowers of another regionally endemic melastomatacea, Meriania angustifolia.
But the end of an expedition is not the end of a dream. The rangers of Cupeyal del Norte will take upon our search because they already know how to identify several botanical families, in particular those with threatened species. Now, they are as “plantophiles” as we are and the forest is only a few steps away.