The national campaign launched to find new plants of the royal oak (Ekmanianthe longiflora) is proving to be successful. A new report at Sierra del Grillo (southeast of Havana) confirms the effectiveness of this initiative that joins scientists and admirers of the Cuban flora across the country.
No botanist can work isolated, illuminated by its own light. Which is why he hopes his truth can be completed or even refuted by others. “If the royal oak was common in Western Cuba in the past, it is possible that there are still some unexplored spots of this long island where this tree is still present. We just have to look for it”. This is how Planta! started a national campaign to find the royal oak in February 2018.
The campaign has combined the effort of specialists and naturalists from different provinces. Reports about new locations where the plant has been found are still coming to us. Initially, 7 plants were identified at the Pan de Matanzas. Now, another plant is reported growing at the location of Yarigua, found by a team from the Botanical Garden of Cienfuegos. Seeds from this tree were planted at a nursery in the mentioned institution, and the seedlings are in great shape so far.
Equally encouraged by the campaign, I remembered Sierra del Grillo. This would be an ideal rocky location for Ekmanianthe longiflora to hide from logging. Guided by my intuition, we explored the site and here is the story.
The royal oak had never been reported for this elevation, unnoticed by many on their way to Matanzas along the highway. Its ecosystems are similar to the ones at Pan de Matanzas, developing on grayish and sharp stone floors. Included in the mountainous group Bejucal-Madruga-Coliseo (southeast of Havana), Sierra del Grillo displays amazing landscape values: limestone walls, caves and natural viewpoints that enhance the beauty of the site. It is estimated that 300 to 400 species of plants inhabit this location.
I never had the chance to explore the area before. I did not have any local contact to help me with permits and coordinations. This time, however, I had lots of help. Mayté Pernús (biologist) , Karel Pérez and Héctor Díaz (Biology students from the Pedagogical University) joined me every step of the way and with their help everything was possible. Karel, who is from Madruga, was even able to find us accommodation in the town of Madruga for the two days of the expedition. So up the hill we went with increased expectations.
The search on our first day was intense. We covered almost 3 kilometres of the mountain walking through a thick forest that showed us a very interesting flora but not what we were looking for. Other native oaks were growing in the area, which we called “plebeians”. Their leaves are similar to those of the royal oak except for the presence of a bright surface -definitely our monarch is discreet.
An hour before sunset we started to descend. At one point on our route, Karel asked me if Ekmanianthe longiflora did not look like the skinny trunk he was holding on to. At first, I thought it was a guao or a plumeria because their trunks are very similar and common in the area. Then, I looked up and I saw a few hand shaped leaves. It was the royal oak!
It was already dark by the time we reached the town of Madruga, we were exhausted but euphoric.
The next morning we went back looking for other trees in the vicinity of the juvenile we found before. After an hour searching, an adult tree was identified, perhaps the father of the young one. We were able to take measurements of the plant but not herbarium samples because the leaves were just starting to sprout and they were inaccessible. As for photos we took quite a few; they worth more than a thousand words.
“Finding the Royal Oak at Sierra del Grillo has been encouraging for the team and has given us hope. We will continue the search of this jewel of the Cuban flora with those who want to join us”.
The discovery of the species at this new location, which we only explored in a 5%, increases the genetic variability of our seed bank. Being adapted to different environments, these trees will be able to resist plagues and to conquer new spaces.
A tree that was considered in 2015 as Critically Endangered – the highest category given before extinction – has started a new chapter towards its recovery.
It won’t be long now before I see the royal oak shading the parks of my town.