Second population of rare flower being protected

A second population of the rare 'Agalinis kingsii' has been found in the Frank Sound area. The flower is unique to Cayman.

The discovery of a second population of a rare flower found only in Grand Cayman has altered plans for a residential development in order to protect the species.

The Conservation Council, at its Wednesday meeting, approved an interim directive protecting a 24-acre section of land where the flower was recently discovered. It also approved funds to negotiate acquiring the land from the current owner, Andy Parsons.

The flower, Agalinis kingsii, which was first identified following a British botanical expedition in 1938, is so infrequently seen that it does not have a common name. Until recently, it was thought only to grow in the Salina Reserve, an area east of Frank Sound and south of Queens Highway. That land is owned by the National Trust.

Fred Burton, who oversees land-based biodiversity for the Department of Environment, said he unexpectedly found some of the flowers during a survey of the property.

“This was a new discovery,” he said. “We had no idea this plant was on that land before.”

Burton said the flower is not easy to find as it grows in sedge wetlands. Finding it involves wading through swampy terrain in chest-high cutting grass.

“It’s serrated and will actually cut through your skin,” he said of the grass.

The small trumpet-shaped purple flower has a remarkable relationship with its surrounding environment. According to Burton, the seed it produces has a small ‘food package’ at one end that is attractive to an as-of-yet unidentified ant species. The ants carry the seeds back to their underground nests, devour the food portion and leave the rest of the seed where it is ready to sprout when conditions are right.

In normal conditions, Burton said, the flower’s distribution is sparse. But when the sedge is removed, for instance, in a fire, “then suddenly it’s everywhere. Boom, out they come”.

The discovery of the new population, he said, will not take the plant off the protected species list. Numbers of the actual plant are still small. But, he said, “The population is twice as big as we thought it was. What it does mean in real terms is we haven’t got all our eggs in one basket. If something terrible happens [to one site], the other one won’t necessarily go with it. Having two populations is a safety net.”

He said there are a number of reasons for protecting the flower.

“The Cayman Islands has a distinct character,” he said. “Nowhere else has the blue iguana. Nowhere else has the Agalinis kingsii. It’s what makes Cayman, Cayman. If everywhere is the same, it doesn’t matter any more.”

He said he’s hoping to involve the public in a naming campaign for the flower, so that, for the first time, it will have a reference other than its scientific name.

It’s also important to preserve as much biodiversity as possible in an age where species are disappearing from the Earth at an unprecedented rate, Burton said.

“One species depends on another and another,” he said. “You take one species out of the matrix and another is affected. It’s like pulling threads out of the web of life.”

Burton said the next step in the process will be writing a conservation plan for the new flower population. Eventually, a management plan will be produced and he’s hoping part of that will include provisions for public access.

Current law prohibits development of the land because of the endangered species, he said. Relocating the flowers is not a possibility, due to their unique relationship with their surroundings.

“We don’t really see any other way than buying the land,” he said.