The guardian of the "Aguacate cimarron"

by Maritza Deroncelé Ruano

Maritza Deroncelé is a psychologist turned into a conservationist. Currently the Natural Reserve “El Retiro” manager, she tells us how her work preserving the Aguacate cimarron, changed her life.

 

Fecha: 17/11/2020

 

Project: Conservation, assessment and recovery of Dendrocereus nudiflorus.

 

I never heard about Dendrocereus nudiflorus before, a tree-like cactus now called Leptocereus nudiflorus. In 2007, biologists searching for this plant in the locality of Sigua (Santiago de Cuba) showed me photos of this amazing and long-lived cactus, but at the time only fishers and furtive hunters knew about it. I was then a young psychologist involved in social work, knowledgeable of the area, and the mother of a 12-year-old. Today I can say that cactus changed my life.

A plant researcher

It was not until five years later that I saw it for the first time, as the manager of the Natural Reserve “El Retiro”. I was astonished. The Aguacate cimarron looked like a tree. With help from the community, I started locating individuals, and by 2014, we had located 22 of them. I noticed that it was easier for me to find them, almost as if they were finding me. That same year I started a master’s in Biodiversity Conservation, and I chose this species for my research.

Planta!’s volunteers working on the protection of two cacti species from Eastern Cuba gather to share their results. This final meeting, which is also a time for planting and celebration, could be the beginning of new dreams…

At a Planta! Workshop, I met most people propagating the species across the country, and we decided to team up. We found 115 individuals but no seedlings; it seemed like a mystery. Then, I started to grow Aguacate cimarron from seeds, and the answer came to me like a revelation.

From a researcher to a vigilant "Mom"

I started the nursery with recycled containers. After three long months, nothing seemed to be germinating. Then, on Mother’s Day of 2017, I woke up to find 21 plants of Aguacate cimarron emerging from the soil. It was very symbolic as it was the first present I received that day.

Colleagues working to preserve the Aguacate cimarron are all like a big family.

I used to water them every two days, but starting May, the rain was constant, which must have accelerated germination. It was evident that the species needed abundant water to germinate and survive, quite a challenge at “El Retiro” where the rain is scarce. Duniel Barrios, a colleague from the National Botanical Garden and Planta!, commented that for many cacti, a successful establishment only occurs in years with prolonged rainy seasons.

By the beginning of June, over 200 seedlings were growing at the nursery. Then, everything got more complicated: they were disappearing at night. What a problem! I checked the plants during several nights and nothing happened. However, the nights when I was not checking, up to 10 seedlings were lost.

Preserving the Aguacate cimarron changed Maritza's life.

One mystery gets solved, another one starts

One morning I found mice feces beside some damaged plants. Then I knew. I started a pest control around germinators, and this solved the problem. Mice had been eating the seedlings, which could be one reason for their scarcity in the natural habitat.

Some of the seedlings reached up to 20-25 cm, then another terrible thing happened. Many of the plants turned yellow with a brown spot. A larva was growing inside, causing their death. Like a surgeon, I removed the damaged parts and managed to save many of them, but we still lost about 54 plants. It was hard to watch them go.

Planta!’s volunteer’s passion for conservation makes a whole forest grow. José Angel, Duniel and Sandy take part in the propagation of threatened species at nurseries of four Eastern Cuba provinces…

Soon I realized I was treating the symptoms, not the source of the disease. I watched the germinators for days. I contacted specialists of the Eastern Center of Ecosystem and Biodiversity for advice. They suggested covering the infected plants with a bag and waiting. At the time I was finishing my thesis which made the wait more intense and stressful, but it was worth the wait. The “invader”, a cactus bug (Gerstaeckeria hubbardi), finally showed up, a species rarely reported for Cuba.

“With the support of Planta! and the Cuban Society of Botany, we planted over 1000 young plants in the field, and some of them have already reached 2m in height. This is also the combined effort of the local community: farmers, stakeholders, kids, and families.”

Though many call me the “Mom” of the Aguacate cimarron, I believe that Leptocereus nudiflorus has in fact many parents. Some even say that I will not be able to see them blooming, but I rejoice in the hope that my grandkids will, or their kids. This will be, after all, the true purpose.

Over 1000 plants of Aguacate cimarron planted by Maritza in the field are already reaching 2 m in height.

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