“Tear this leaf and hold the cut side to the tip of your tongue,” says Ann Stafford, indicating a tree in her garden. “Spicy, isn’t it?”
“This one,” she says, pulling aside the leaves of a shrub, “is called the snowberry because of these little white fruits. That tree there is a fiddle wood. It’s not the prettiest of trees, but it attracts lots of birds because they love the fruits.”
Ann Stafford, of Nature Cayman, is an expert in the flora of the Cayman Islands and can point out all manner of fascinating plants (and insects) without leaving the garden of her George Town home.
The Cayman Islands may not have the exotic rainforests and rivers to rival some of its Caribbean and Central American neighbours, but it’s natural wonders are not limited to coral reefs and marine life. Cayman has a significant number of plant species that are endemic – meaning that they are only found here. Some of these occur on only one or two of the three islands – making them very unique, but also vulnerable. If these species become extinct, they will be gone forever.
Butterflies and plants
The wild banana orchid and the critically endangered ghost orchid are two such examples. Ann, however, rescues those that have been cut down in the process of clearing land and nurses them back to life in her own garden.
The co-author of a book on the butterflies of the Cayman Islands, she also is an expert on the relationship between butterflies and plants. The two depend on each other for survival, she said.
“In the case of the ghost orchid, its pollinator is probably the giant sphinx moth, because it has a long enough proboscis to be able to do this,” she says. Without the moth, the orchid could not reproduce.
Many of the 58 known species of butterfly in the Cayman Islands are selective about the plants they lay their eggs on because their larvae can only feed on one particular plant. This is known as the larval food plant.
The snowberry is a larval food plant of the Queen Monarch and Soldier butterflies. The Cayman Brown Leaf butterfly, on the other hand, will only lay eggs on the leaves of the wild cinnamon tree.
“People don’t want butterflies in their garden because they don’t want their plants to be eaten [by the caterpillars],” says Ann. “No, no, no – unless the caterpillar has its special plant, it will die.”
But it’s not only a case of the caterpillars not having the leaves they need to feed on: the birds that eat the caterpillars and the lizards that eat the butterflies are all affected if one species is removed from the equation.
In her garden off Walkers Road, Ann has planted, rescued and allowed as many native and endemic species as possible to grow. As a result, the garden is alive not only with flowers, shrubs and trees but with butterflies, lady bugs, lizards and birds.
It is an example of what could be achieved all over the island.
“If we can retain or replant we can still attract native birds and butterflies through pockets of woodland, parks, gardens and so on,” she says.
What’s in a name?
Through her nature tours (which will soon be listed on www.responsibletravel.com) Ann aims to educate people about
the plants and butterflies of the Cayman Islands, as well as its places in the history and culture of the islands.
Even those who have lived on the island all their lives will learn all sorts of fascinating facts about the natural history of the islands on a Cayman Nature tour. Spend half a day or even a full day touring the less travelled parts of the Eastern Districts with Ann and you will come away with a newfound appreciation for moths, caterpillars and the humblest of plants.
Ann insists on using the common names of plants and butterflies, rather than the scientific names, even if it can lead to confusion: The same plant may go by a completely different name in Florida, for instance, but the name given to it here is tied up with the manner in which it was encountered and the way in which it was used.
In Cayman, rosemary is not the herb used in much Mediterranean cooking although the long narrow leaves do have a similar fragrance. Cayman rosemary bushes, Ann says, were used to make rosemary brooms, which people would use to sweep their homes and yards.
Behind a silver thatch palm she points out a snakewood tree, whose bark flakes off much like a snake’s moulting skin, and behind that a leafless, thorny-looking tree.
“That’s a shake hand tree,” she says. “Imagine walking through the bush holding back one branch then another. What would you do if you had just grabbed onto that one?”
A tree known as strawberry bears no relation to the sweet red fruits, but was important in house building in old Cayman – the wood is flexible and therefore ideal for weaving into the wattle and daub walls.
The bull rush, an unassuming plant, hides its fruit down at its base, well out of sight. It is the root of this plant that was once the most valued part however, as it can be mashed and made into a porridge. The people of Cayman Brac once survived off this.
Having seen so much native vegetation bulldozed and cleared for construction, Ann is keen to raise awareness of the value and importance of these indigenous species and says she thinks their preservation can add another dimension to tourism in Cayman.
“These are what make the Cayman Islands unique,” she says. “It’s a selling point for tourism. Why can’t we retain what is unique to Cayman?”
Educating the public about their natural surroundings is key. If people don’t know these species exist and are in danger, she says, how will they know to save them?