A Cuban Magnolia in Topes de Collantes

Ten years after unveiling the mystery of Magnolia cubensis subsp. acunae, a team of Planta! assess the outcomes of this conservation project and sets ambitious goals, like preserving the forest where it grows this legendary tree of Topes de Collantes.


Fecha: 09/08/2019


Project: Conservation of threatened mountain species.


The Guamuhaya mountain range, in Central Cuba, is one of the richest areas for plant diversity. Its rainforests treasure hundreds of plant species that are exclusive for this region, including outstanding orchids and trees, ferns and epiphytes. This magnificent vegetation, specially the one growing under the canopy of the forest, is linked somehow to the same species of tree. A tree that was more abundant in the past, with scented white flowers and an exceptional durable wood: the “mantequero”, or how botanists call it, Magnolia cubensis subsp. acunae.

The mantequero has scented white flowers and an exceptional durable wood.

Magnolia cubensis subsp. acunae is an endemic species of the Guamuhaya mountain range.

This Cuban magnolia is Critically Endangered. Even though its population includes over 400 adults, it grows in patches of vegetation that used to be a continuous landscape. The main threats the species faces are the habitat loss due to livestock and mountain coffee cultivation, timber overexploitation, a low natural regeneration, the loss of genetic diversity within the population and the degradation of the habitat due to invasive exotic species.

Experience can be the turning point

Our efforts to preserve the Cuban magnolia started ten years ago, in the Summer of 2009. We received a phone call from workers of the protected area of Topes de Collantes. They were worried because they could not find new individuals of the magnolia within the population, just old trees. There were seeds in the field but no seedlings. Something was happening with the new generation, and off we went looking for answers.

The mantequero trees can reach up to 25 meters high.

My colleagues Duniel Barrios, a student at the time, and Julio León Cabrera, an expert of the flora of Central Cuba, joined me in the first of many trips to this location. We surveyed almost every farm in the region but just as we were told, there was no trail of young magnolias. There we met Norlys Albelo, a specialist of the protected area who became a key person for the project since the very first day.

A few months later, when the trees were producing fruits, we returned to Topes; this time accompanied by Alejandro Palmarola, a magnolia expert of the National Botanical Garden. Our goal was to collect magnolia seeds and test their germination. Results showed that over 90% of the seeds were fertile. So, what was happening with the young magnolias?

With Alejandro and Norlys, cleaning thousands of seeds of magnolia for germination tests.

Germination tests for Magnolia cubensis subsp. acunae showed that over 90% of the seeds were fertile.

We continued searching for seedlings in the field. Then, we reached the biggest farm and coffee producer of the area: the farm of Domingo Ramírez. It was here where we met Matías, a Haitian old farmer who could not remember his age but was certain he was over a 100 years old. “Of course there are young magnolias, here they are” -he answered calmly, with the wisdom that only experience brings. At this farm, young magnolias germinated and established easily, since he was able to identify them and protect them from regular weedings. Thanks to this old friend’s expertise, we realized that young magnolias had been cut during the cleaning and maintenance of the coffee plantations.

Searching for young magnolias with Matías, at Domingo Ramírez’s farm.

Matías was a Haitian farmer, he was over 100 years old and still walked the forest like he always did.

This was a crucial step when designing the mantequero’s conservation project. We started by training locals and workers of the area in the identification of young magnolias, followed by the creation of nurseries to produce new plants to reinforce the population. Moreover, local technicians and volunteers were trained on forest management and plant propagation techniques, and the community was getting more involved with the project. Today, the outcomes greatly surpassed our expectations, and the community plays a key role in the recovery of the Cuban magnolia.

The nurseries have been constantly monitored by members of the project.

Many volunteers helped to create nurseries for the mantequero.

A decade of success

The collaboration among all members of the project, with the support of many university students, have triplicated the size of the population of the Cuban magnolia. Individuals of this species have been planted as well in coffee plantations, so they can shade the crop in the future, and also in gardens of touristic facilities as a natural attraction.

“The success of this project has been possible due to the collaboration among volunteers, park rangers, conservation specialists of the area, coffee farmers, the local community, specialists from national institutions, and university students among others. Integration is the key behind every achievement of this project.”

Luis Roberto González-Torres

Executive Director

Planta! – PlantLife Conservation Society

The young magnolias planted in Topes, almost ten years ago, are now blooming. The good news was brought to us by Norlys Albelo, our colleague and friend, who has been part of the project since the beginning. It is a special time for all of us. A time to celebrate these accomplishments and also to prepare for new goals, like the long-term conservation of the species and the forest where it grows. Securing a future for the Cuban magnolia will also benefit many species of plants and animals relying on this species to survive. It will give us, once more, the encouragement to work hard and reach for the stars!

This project could not have been carried out without the participation of all the actors.

The alliances have enabled local actors to be trained to carry out conservation actions.

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