Magnolia cristalensis: on the heights of Cuba

The magnolia conservation project that started in Topes de Collantes ten years ago is aiming to protect other magnolia species in the mountains of Eastern Cuba. Majela and her team look for Magnolia cristalensis, an endemic species of the region.


Date: 12/13/2019


Project: Conservation of threatened Mountain species.


The journey from Havana to “El Toldo” in Eastern Cuba seemed endless. It took almost three days and included going uphill on mules. What could possibly brought us here, to a site that is 1175 m over the sea level? We wanted to find and count individuals of Magnolia cristalensis, an endemic species threatened with extinction. Once we know how many of these plants remain in their natural habitat we will be able to assess its risks.

The trip to “El Toldo” seemed endless but it was worth it.

An unfortunate mistake

As soon as we arrived, we set up the camp in a place known as Piloto 2 and started the search for magnolias. Despite our efforts our first field day was unsuccessful. I was not really surprised because the characteristics of the site did not seem to match the ones of the species’ natural habitat. It was not very helpful either that any of us had seen Magnolia cristalensis in the field before, we only knew it from herbaria records. However, walking through this well preserved site with an amazing flora was a reward itself.

The camp in Piloto 2 was not the right one to look for magnolias.

After a little though I tried to get in touch by phone with Jorgelino Gámez, also known by Canelo, who was going to join us initially on this trip. By mule, I backed down the road for an hour trying to contact him. Getting a signal on my phone was almost as hard as finding a magnolia around. Luckily, he had the answer we were looking for: we had camped in the wrong place. He had seen magnolia trees close to the camp Piloto 1, about 4 Km away from our camp, Piloto 2. It was time to switch camps.


The next morning we moved our camp to the site recommended by Canelo and we started the search once more. After an intense day of work and about 5 hours of walking we finally found what we were looking for: the first magnolia. It was barely a meter and a half tall, but the fruits were unmistakable. We were thrilled. I had never seen a magnolia this size bearing fruits.

After 5 hours of walking we found the first magnolia

Magnolia cristalensis with fruits, growing at “El Toldo”

From this point on all our efforts paid off. One by one, magnolias were showing up until we reached 46 plants. They were all labelled, measured and georeferenced. We also collected some samples for herbaria records and future genetic studies.

It was the first field trip for Gabriel Martínez, his first big experience with Planta!

Gabriel’s first field trip

Gabriel is a third year Biology student from the University of Havana. He started as Planta! ’s volunteer two years ago. He likes genetics but cannot give up to the idea of working in the field as well. However, this was his first big field trip. He will conduct genetic studies with Cuban magnolias and apply them towards their conservation. What a better way to start than surveying one of Cuba’s most spectacular natural sites! He now loves Biology and Nature like never before.

Planta! has had a great influence on me. I have no doubts now that I want to work to preserve Cuban biodiversity and that I want to do it with such a great team, where we are all like family.”

Gabriel Martínez

Third year Biology student

It was exhausting locating the 46 individuals of Magnolia cristalensis, but we are sure there are more. The conservation status of this population is very good, which highlights the successful conservation work conducted in this protected area. The National Park “Alejandro de Humboldt” remains an example for all.

Gabriel and Jhonny collect data from the magnolias growing at “El Toldo”

Our work is done and the results are encouraging. There was nothing left to do but to say goodbye to our great allies in this journey: the park rangers. We started our way back to Havana. In our hearts we take the love of the friends we met and in our minds the indelible images of one of the most beautiful places of Cuba.

The team of this trip was amazing. Our great allies were the park rangers of the protected area

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