Like every winter, a team of Planta! climbs two Western Cuba hills to collect the Royal Oak seeds, a treasure hard to find but always reassuring.
Five hundred bags with soil await for us at the nursery. We look for seeds of Ekmanianthe longiflora, an almost extinct tree that many Cubans have been trying to find in the wild. Once a year, we go back to Pan de Matanzas and El Palenque, two beautiful rocky hills with the biggest population of Royal oaks in Cuba. We choose the time when mature fruits are about to open and release the seeds. Waiting could be counterproductive. This story is a lesson of that too.
Walking through these hills is tricky. You are constantly balancing your body weight to avoid a dreadful fall. Careful not to step onto dry leaves that do not cover the soil but the edge of an abysm or a loose rock. Cautious of not holding the trunk of an urticant plant or the spiny Leptocereus scopulophilus, these hills’ icon.
When reaching every oak, we look for the fruits hidden between the leaves. Sometimes, we use our camera to recognize them in the distance, disguised among many branches and leaves. We collect fruits with tree-pruning scissors. Despite this tool’s long reach, sometimes we have to climb to a lower branch and work from there. We cut the base of the fruits and watch them fall. Once in the ground, we open the fruits to extract the seeds. If the fruits are cut while closed, we can still collect the seeds. However, if they open while still on the branch, the wind will disperse the seeds, and it is almost impossible to find them, especially in this kind of soil.
Last year we were able to find closed and open fruits. This time we arrived a week ahead, hoping to find them all closed. As soon as we got closer to Pan de Matanzas, we perceived a greyish tone in the vegetation, clearly affected by the first cold front.
We visited the five mature oaks distributed between both elevations. We were surprised to see that the very few fruits we could find, they were all open. When we tried extracting the seeds, the seeds flew with the wind, and we could barely recover 10 of them searching on the soil. It was very discouraging, but we chose to turn this inconvenience into a lesson, and learn from it.
Plants detect a dropping temperature. The cold front is usually followed by water stress when temperature and humidity decrease. The fruit loses water and opens up so the wind can take the seeds. The best time to come cannot be more than 3 or 4 days after the first cold front arrival.
Collecting seeds was not our best reward for this trip. However, learning more about this species and its environment was the turning point of this apparently unsuccessful visit. We also checked the healthy status of previously introduced plants: 51 individuals of Leptocereus scopulophilus and over 70 royal oaks. The nursery bags awaiting us are still going to be used with other threatened species. After all, this is truly our overall mission.
“Even though we expected to collect about 1000 seeds in this visit (double the amount of last year), the ten seeds we took with us are still a valuable treasure. I will not forget that the first time I came, I was only able to find eight seeds, and that was the beginning of this project to protect one of the most threatened species of the Cuban flora.”
Over the years of working in these hills, about a hundred people have come to help us. There will be lots of stories about the Pan de Matanzas and El Palenque. Maybe one day, these stories will contribute to turn these valuable sites into recognized natural reserves. Who knows where the best seed awaits?