A rare species reappears…on the Internet

You probably have never heard about Bembicidium cubense before. Let me tell you about this species’ unexpected reappearance. First, it happened in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was rediscovered through social media and not while working in the field. The team of Planta! proves once more the efficacy of their working dynamics—one where collaboration among members and sharing experience and knowledge is the best way to move forward.


Date: 04/09/2020


Project: Conservation of threatened mountain species.

Noel, the archeologist

I work at the Archeology Museum of Baracoa, on the Eastern end of Cuba. Aiming for a multidisciplinary approach, since the beginning I combined my research with one of my passions: plants. I studied the plants that were daily used by the first nations. Then, one day, Planta! came to the National Park Alejandro de Humboldt. I trained with the team and today I lead local conservation actions to preserve exclusive species like acana (Manilkara valenzuelana), the palm Coccothrinax yunquensis, and one species of magnolia known as azulejo (Magnolia minor).

The archeologist Noel Countín works at the Archeology Museum of Baracoa and is involved in preserving the regional flora.

Baracoa’s flora is a Facebook page I created in 2009 to increase awareness about the Park’s natural treasures. I regularly post pictures of the amazing plants I find during my walks along the Park. The team of Planta! often helps me to identify the species so I can include each plant’s name with their picture. 

Last May 1st, I went to the Park with a colleague to monitor Magnolia minor. We wanted to see if the trees had flowers or fruits to collect some seeds, but we could not find what we were looking for despite our search. We decided to visit new sites looking for magnolias or acana trees. We came close to a stream, an affluent of the River Miel I had never seen before when I found a plant with beautiful flowers I could not identify. I took a picture of the plant and posted it on my Facebook page, waiting for help to identify it.

Bembicidium cubense, a species rediscovered through social media.

Checking Facebook the next day, I read a question from one of the most eminent botanists of Eastern Cuba, MsC. José Luis Gómez: “Where did you take the photo?”. I also had messages from Dr. Eldis Bécquer from the National Botanical Garden, asking if I had collected herbarium samples of the specimen. He communicated, via WhatsApp, with his friend Dr. Lisbet González from the National Herbarium; he wanted to know how many individuals of this plant she had seen before. I knew then that all this inquiry was following the trail of a singular Cuban plant.

Lisbet, the biologist

Plants sometimes are like faces; they capture your attention to trace where or when you saw them last. For this particular plant, it was its flowers, showy red flowers that were impossible to include in a specific botanical family or genus. The online debate kept on growing. MsC. José Luis Gómez thought it was one of the species wrongly identified as Poitea gracilis. We all agreed at first, but then we concluded that this species was Bembicidium cubense, a species described a long time ago.

Lisbet González is a researcher at the National Herbarium and one of Planta!'s founders.

It is a complex group of plants. Decades ago, taxonomists considered several plants as variants of the same species. Bembicidium cubense was described in 1920 from a material collected by the North American botanist John Aldolph Shafer in 1910. It was never seen again and was grouped with similar plants that eventually masked its true identity. Today, we bring the species back, clearly distinguishable from its relatives by the red-purplish flowers emerging from the stem in a row. This feature makes it unique at first glance.

“A hundred and ten years after its recollection, this rare species reappears in social media to all our delight. Without an exact location and descriptive clues, this plant almost lost its identity. Its attractive red flowers and the Facebook community have brought back this endemic Cuban plant.”

Lisbet González-Oliva

Researcher at the National Herbarium of Cuba (HAC)

Institute of Ecology and Systematics

Noel and Lisbet, "plantophylls"

Four days later, I went back to the site to confirm that the plant I photographed was not the only one; it happened to be the only one with flowers at the time. I counted 32 individuals of Bembicidium cubense, almost all being healthy adults. Most of them grow close to the stream, and they are shrubs between 40 and 70 cm in height.

This story showed us how social media could enhance communications towards the preservation of our flora. A Cuban plant almost forgotten for over 110 years has come back through technology and collaboration. Even in this moment of social distancing and isolation, technology keeps the Planta! family united.

The 32 individuals of Bembicidium cubense grow close to an affluent of the River Miel.

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