Finding magnolias on mule-back

Finding new magnolias in the mountains of Eastern Cuba and contributing to their conservation is the goal of one of Planta!’s teams. This time, they are traveling to one of Cuba’s most isolated sites.


Fecha: 22/01/2020


Project: Conservation of threatened mountain species.


Magnolias are unique natural treasures. Some of them are exclusive from Cuba although they are not especially abundant in the Island. In the wild they are rather scarce, and their exceptional durable wood have been exploited for years. This was the reason that took us towards the mountains of Eastern Cuba to monitor the populations of five Cuban species of magnolia and find new individuals.

Magnolia’s magnificence is almost impossible to catch with a camera

Our colleagues Aisel and Alexander were waiting for us at the town of Municiones. The mules looked at us suspiciously. For two hours, we travelled uphill on mule-back towards the station of Cupeyal. At times, it was frustrating since the mules were stubborn and uncooperative in response to our inexperience. 

Lightnings, hail and the laugh of Maria

The first site we visited was Calabozo, where we found three of the species reported for the area. It is close to the Toa river, the biggest one in Cuba, and we did not miss this opportunity to see it. At about 1 pm, it got very cloudy and we had to head back earlier. Our timing could not be better, since we were close to the station when the rain started. The lightnings were so close that we could feel the ground trembling under our feet.

Travelling uphill on mule-back towards the station “Cupeyal del Norte”

With the soil still wet from the rain, we left the next morning towards the furthest site. During our 15 Km walk, we monitored many magnolias and other valuable plants. On our way back we were surprised by another torrential rain, this time with some coin-sized hail. We were exhausted after the first two days but when we got to the station there was grilled pork waiting for us. I ate so much that I ended up with un upset stomach. María treated me like a son and provided me with every local remedy she could think off. There is nothing our legendary cook cannot do. She is the first one working in the fields, she can cook like no one would, and if you are sick she knows which plant would make you feel better. All with a big smile on her face.

Censing magnolias is exhausting but finding healthy individuals along our way was quite rewarding

Growing in the proximities of the Toa river, this tree of Magnolia minor has a 2.26 m in diameter

A world of giants

Back on my feet we continued our search, but my strength was very much diminished. I was lucky to have Aisel and Alexander in our team. Their help during the field work was vital. We travelled to Mucaral, a site with a unique vegetation growing on limestone. We visited every forest on the proximity of the Toa river: a trip that took about two hours on mule-back and several kilometers on foot. This is where we found one of the best populations of Magnolia minor in northeastern Cuba, and the biggest tree of the species I have seen so far, up to 30 m high and with a trunk 2.26 m wide.

Ernesto Testé started as a volunteer for the magnolia conservation project. Ten years later, he leads several Planta!’s conservation projects.

The beauty of the landscape by the Toa river makes the journey all worth it

The protected area “El Gigante”, at about 1300 m above sea level, was our next stop. This is a group of mountains with sharp hills where we once found five individuals of Magnolia orbiculata. This time, however, it was sad to see that one of the trees had been cut down. It was discouraging for a moment but it also reaffirmed our commitment to work towards the conservation and sustainable use of the species.

“For about ten years, I have been working with Planta! on the conservation of Cuban magnolias. Successful results, learning from mistakes, a lot of field work, and the genuine support of the local community and technicians of the protected areas make me envision the future of the Cuban flora with lots of positivism”

Ernesto Testé

National Botanical Garden

Collaborator of the project “Conservation of threatened mountain species”

A nursery with a view

This long journey across three different Cuban provinces ended at the protected area “Gran Piedra”. We checked the population of Magnolia cubensis under another threatening cloudy sky. The technicians of the area have counted up to 50 individuals, more than the ones officially reported. Considering the extension of the area and the time we had left, it was impossible to reach every tree but the technicians agreed to come back and monitor them. We also looked for a new location to establish a nursery for magnolias. The one created in December 2018 was not successful, but learning from experience we chose a different area with more suitable climatological conditions to start all over again. These nurseries will contribute to propagate magnolias that will grow across the Island thanks to the perseverance of Planta!’s volunteers. Like the mules, we too can be stubborn.

Magnolia cubensis lives in the protected area “Gran Piedra”.

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