Plant experts make field trip to Brac

The scientists forge through the Brac’s rough terrain gathering samples.

In an exciting development for scientists and local plant enthusiasts, a pair of botanists keen to learn more about Cayman Brac’s unique plants recently paid the island a scientific visit.

The scientists, both PhDs, are botanists working at the University of Michigan. The duo are experts in Caribbean plants and some of the plant families found on the Brac, explained Paul Watler, environmental programs manager for the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, who joined with the scientists on their three-day Brac visit last week.

The scientists also conducted research in Grand Cayman during their week-long stay.

Botanists Kent Kainulainen and Paul Berry preparing to collect samples.
Botanists Kent Kainulainen and Paul Berry preparing to collect samples.

Paul E. Berry is an expert in crotons, a plant genus in the spurge family. Many types of plants in the spurge family, also known as euphorbiaceae or euphorbias, are found on the Brac.

Fellow scientist Kent Kainulainen is an expert in plants in the rubiaceae (coffee) family, also found on the Brac.

The visit came about with the involvement of Joanne Mercille, who collaborated with Dr. George Proctor, considered to be the authority on plant life in the Cayman Islands. Dr. Proctor’s book, “Flora of the Cayman Islands,” the second edition of which was published in 2012, is the definitive guide to plants on all three islands.

“Dr. Proctor sadly passed away in October 2015 and this leaves a vacuum regarding who we have as our go-to plant doctor,” said Mr. Watler.

“We have been reaching out to various institutions, looking for people who are familiar with the specific plant families found in Cayman, as there are always new and unusual plants being discovered,” he said.

“Not only that, but some of the plants we currently have catalogued may actually be mislabelled so we are always looking to ensure the scientific knowledge about our amazing plants is as up to date as possible.”

Mr. Watler noted Ms. Mercille has been an avid contributor to the Trust’s plant collection of samples contained in its herbarium, and has developed many contacts throughout the botanic field.

He explained that Mr. Berry is a taxonomist, a biologist who specializes in classifying plants.

“He is looking over the entire euphorbia family and making lots of revisions, and was very excited to come to the Cayman Islands to see what species we have here, and check that they have been named correctly,” said Mr. Watler.

“We asked specifically if he could come around to look at crotons, particularly on the Brac, since Dr. Proctor spent a lot less time on Brac, so there might be some gaps there.”

There are already people working in the Brac to fill in those gaps. In recent years, volunteers at the Cayman Brac District National Trust have developed a list of plants they knew were growing on Cayman Brac but are not in Dr. Proctor’s book. “Among other things, we want to get specimens of some of those plants for the herbarium,” Mr. Watler said.

Mr. Berry was also able to get samples for review of the spurge family for his research.

“It was a very successful visit, we did find a lot of crotons for Mr. Berry which he was very excited about. Mr. Kainulainen was able to familiarize himself with the rubiaceae that are found in this part of the Caribbean, and everyone had a great time,” said Mr. Watler, noting that the group was able to collect numerous plant samples both for the Trust herbarium and others that will be taken back to the U.S. for further study.

“Who knows, we just may come up with some new information on these plants, furthering science both here in Cayman and farther afield.”