Researchers hunt down mystery plant

The Department of Environment is on the hunt for a mystery plant, last seen in Little Cayman 23 years ago by American botanist George Proctor. 

No one has seen this plant since 1991 and there is no photographic record – just a single herbarium collection as proof of its existence. 

Dendropemon caymanensis, nicknamed “mistletoe” is mentioned in Proctor’s book, “Flora of the Cayman Islands” as a parasite of the headache bush and the black candle wood.  

A seven-person search crew from the Department of Environment, Blue Iguana Recovery Program, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens and others began a week-long search for the plant on June 12 in the northeastern interior of Little Cayman, but it was nowhere to be found. 

Department of Environment research officer Jessica Harvey said they were looking for the plant because it is endemic and not proven to have gone extinct, and they were trying to locate and get more information about it. 

“The research is also listed as part of the department’s national bio-diversity action plan,” she said.  

The research was partly funded by the Mohamed Bin Zayed Conservation Group, which donated just over US$3,000.  

Researchers had little proof of the plant’s existence to go on other than a single collection of a dried plant specimen, and records from Proctor’s book, indicating its location on Little Cayman.  

Although the search team was unable to see any signs of the species, Ms. Harvey said there is a chance it could show up in the footage captured through a mini aerial drone, which takes photographs on a pre-programmed course mapped out using GPS coordinates. 

“We are still waiting for all the imagery from the drone to be processed, which may take some time … We hope to get it in the next couple weeks,” she said. 

With the permission of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, researchers also combed Colliers Reserve and Salina Reserve in Grand Cayman, where the host plant species exists. Images taken from these areas will be compared with images taken in Little Cayman.  

Local agronomists and plant experts in Cayman were keen to hear about the plant species but could offer no further information about it. 

Farmer Kirkland Nixon said he had never heard of the plant and never heard his 100-year-old grandmother or other elders talk about it. Joseph Jackman, a former director of the Agriculture Department, said he did not know of it, either. 

“I am completely confused.” Mr. Jackman said. “The reason locals might not know of this parasite plant is because natives did not pass down information about local plants if they were not used in some way.  

“A lot of the medicinal plants that Caymanians used were also used throughout the Caribbean,” said Paul Watler, environmental programs manager at the Cayman Islands National Trust. 

“Why Proctor called it ‘mistletoe’ I have no idea. It is a common name …whether it is a species of the well-known mistletoe, only Proctor could answer that question,” Mr. Watler said. 

Because mistletoe is a parasite and grows in a similar fashion and because Proctor might not have wanted to be speaking Latin, he just went ahead and called it mistletoe, Mr. Watler speculated. 

“In his book Proctor does not describe a common name under the scientific name for Dendropemon caymanensis,” he said. 

Mr. Proctor discovered two species of the plant in Little Cayman, which he said was related to D. puroureus and D. rigidus but a lot smaller. 

According to Mr. Watler, the plant should be very noticeable. “As a parasitic it would ground right on the branch of another plant and be very striking, he said. 

The search team included Research Officers Jessica Harvey, Jane Haakonsson and GIS Officer Jeremy Olynik of the DOE, Species Conservation Assessment Officer Steven Bachman and GIS Officer Justin Moat of Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, and Frederic Burton of the Blue Iguana Recovery Program acting as local plant specialist.  

Paul-Watler-Headache-Bush

Paul Watler, environmental programs manger at the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, shows a headache bush, a host plant for the Dendropemon caymanensis. – Photo: Jewel Levy

1 COMMENT

  1. The Mistletoe plant used to be in Grand Cayman at a special location growing on the headache bush and the also on the wild cabbage bush.
    I first saw both plants in 1968 showed to me by my grandmother who died at age 106, along with another plant she called Jasmine. She mentioned that where the headache bush was seen and where the Jasmine was seen that old time people spent time around that area and sometimes the dead were buried there. The Mistletoe was last seen before Ivan Hurricane in the same area; however it is not there now but the headache bush is still there, some trees which are about five hundred years old is still there.

  2. Further comments is that the mistletoe plant may still be found at this location in Grand Cayman because I have observed that there are sill many of the headache bush still there. It is not easy getting to all of the headache bush because the vegetation highland is too dense with trees and sharp rocks to search without machetes strong boots and thick clothing .

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