Catalpa macrocarpa (Bignoniaceae) - a strange catalpa in dry forest
In April of this year, I traveled to the Dominican Republic with FLAS curator and melastome/cactus expert Lucas Majure. He had been planning a trip for several months with the goal of collecting several poorly understood (and new) flowering plant species from the western part of the country, and invited me along - obviously an offer I could not turn down. Lucas does a lot of work in tropical dry forest, which I often avoid (not too many ferns there!) but we worked out an ambitious and exciting itinerary that would lead us to a diversity of localities, both in dry forests and in some of the wettest parts of the country. Precipitation regimes aside, we were excited about these localities because each was home to really strange plants that had only been collected a few times, by some of the great plant collectors of Hispaniola: Erik Ekman, Emery Leonard, Alain Liogier, Tom Zanoni, Walt Judd, and Teodoro Clase. We knew at the onset of the trip that several of our target species were undescribed, and figured we were bound to find other notable taxa, if we could find the collecting localities.
With some luck, our start-of-trip organization went better than last time (we got a 4x4 truck at the first agency we went to!) and we had hashed out a rough plan of our trip with our colleagues Yuley Encarnación Piñeyro (curator of the JBSD herbarium) and Teodoro Clase (research associate at JBSD and plant collector extraordinaire) by the end of our first day. We would split our trip into two legs, with a break in Santo Domingo in the middle to process specimens and annotate specimens in the herbarium. We would cover over 1000km in each part of the trip, reaching the island's northern and southern shores, and skirting along the isolated Haitian border for hours. For anyone who has done field work in the Dominican Republic before, you know this means lots of motorcycles, fried chicken, guineo hervido, and a spectacular amount of speedbumps (usually with a banca or two adjacent). And lots of Presidentes.
On the first leg of the trip, we skirted the southern coast just west of Santo Domingo, heading for a low, isolated mountain range overlooking the Caribbean. This mountain range, the Sierra Martín García, belongs to the national park system and harbors a number of endemic species. As we passed through the disturbed tropical dry forest to the west of Baní, we started to worry about how the trip would go - the vegetation was all brown and withered. Most of the country had been in the midst of a severe drought for months, and this part of the country was hit the worst. We wondered if our principal target species for the site (an undescribed Castela, Simaroubaceae) would even be visible.
When we arrived at the base of the sierra, things seemed much the same as they did near Baní, but we hoped they might get better are we climb in elevation (a small fragment of cloud forest persists at the peak, around 900 m elevation). We dropped the car in four-wheel drive and slowly crept up the dry streambed that was the only road to the summit, and kept an eye out for the Castela. After about an hour, and 2/3rds of the way to the summit, Yuley spotted the plant - a thorny, nearly leafless shrub that stood out only on account of its bright red, raisin-sized fruits. We stopped, and Lucas confirmed that this was indeed the mystery Castela, to that point only known from a single collection by Teodoro Clase from the same site a few years prior. Lucas made some collections, including material with fruits and pistillate flowers (most Castela are dioecious); now we needed to track down the male plant. We continued towards the summit, and I found some fun ferns (Polystichum trapezoides, Thelypteris serra, and a Goniopteris only known from the type collection gathered by Erik Ekman a century ago) but did not see any more Castela. The sun was starting to set, so we drove hurriedly down the steep path towards base of the mountain when we heard Yuley again = ahí está la Castela! This time she spotted a plant bearing staminate flowers. Lucas, convinced that the plant was indeed a new species, snapped a few photos, pressed the second specimen, and we were on our way. We made it to Barahona late that night and finished pressing sometime in the early morning, leaving us a few hours to sleep before 6 am breakfast.
Pityrogramma trifoliata (Pteridaceae)
The following morning, we continued our tour of the country's southwest with a trip to a site known as Las Filipinas, where John Mickel and Tom Zanoni had collected a number of odd ferns in the 1980s.. I have no idea where the name Las Filipinas came from, but the site refers to a region with dense mid-elevation cloud forest on the eastern flank of the Sierra de Bahoruco, just south of the town of Barahona. The site is accessible only along a steep dirt road that leads to a mine for larimar, a spectacular blue gemstone known only from this part of the Dominican Republic. The mine itself is quite the site - Haitiian men work in deep shafts to extract the rock by hand while their families subsist on small farms carved into the surrounding forest. Finding the collection locality itself would have been impossible if not for the experience of Teodoro, who had gone there numerous times in the past; he simply pointed at a shack along the road and told us to park alongside it. The family living there agreed to watch our truck while we scrambled down the forested ravine (fortunately their Spanish was much better than our collective handle on Haitian Creole), and we were on our way. Immediately, I found hundreds of the plant I was looking for - an odd fern called Goniopteris scolopendrioides, which stands out by having knife-shaped, irregularly lobed leaves. Based on specimens I had seen at JBSD, I expected to find it at Las Filipinas, but I never would have expected to see it in such abundance! It was the dominant small herb in the forest. We continued down the ravine for perhaps an hour, filling our collection bags with other ferns, melastomes, gesneriads, and even a strange Phyllanthus. After a short while, however, we realized we could go no further, and so we headed back to our car. We eventually found our way back to Barahona, and continued our trip. Before the first leg of our trip was done, we would find a different Castela in the far south of the country, rediscover a strange (probably undescribed) Polystichum on a remote hilltop in the far north, and find a number of odd cacti in the dry valleys that run into Haiti between the Sierra de Neyba and the Cordillera Central.
After a two-day stop in Santo Domingo, we headed out again, this time principally to a series of mid- and high-elevation sites in the Cordillera Central. We started at a site called Rancho Arriba, which is adjacent a town of the same name in a small valley between Santo Domingo and the small city of Constanza. This site is a famous collecting locality, and was of particular interest to our group because it was the type locality for several Miconia species that had not been recollected since their initial discovery. Armed with locality data from Ekman's herbarium sheets, we took off in search of these plants, meandering along a series of anastomosing dirt roads in the mountains. After hours of circling the same hillsides on parallel dirt roads, we found two of our queries in short succession - each seemingly restricted to a single patch of forest that could be measured in meters squared. Botanically and literally, we were standing in the footsteps of Erik Ekman. Buoyed by our good fortune, we continued down an increasingly narrow and muddied road towards the Río Mahoma, another nearby locality that Teodoro assured us held lots of interesting species. As we inched over makeshift log-and-mud bridges towards the river, however, we had our doubts. Where there certainly had been pristine forest at the time of Teodoro's last visit, the area now was stripped of vegetation, save for the corn that a lone Haitian man in the distance was sowing. The road got narrower and narrower, and we soon became worried we would become stuck with no way to get back to civilization before sunset, which was only a few hours off. Teodoro ignored our protests, hopped out the truck, and walked ahead. We had no choice but to follow.
Amauropelta cf reducta (photo by L. Majure)
After a few hundred yards, the road ended at the side of the river. We decided to cross the river on foot, heartened by what looked to be (finally!) intact forest on the other side. I somehow managed not to slip on the algae-covered boulders in the stream, and soon made it to the far side, where Amauropelta sancta, a small Fuirena, and a rheophytic Ludwigia competed for space in the gravel banks. I followed a small stream into the forest, and quickly found myself surrounded by ferns. I counted four Alsophila species, Elaphoglossum apodum and its giant cousin Elaphoglossum crinitum, and a new species for me, Diplazium hastile. As I stuffed my collecting bag, I came across a small fern growing in the stream and along its banks. I immediately recognized it as a member of the marsh fern family, Thelypteridaceae, but it was not a species I had seen before. The plant was perhaps 10" tall, with a tiny erect "trunk" and small, once-pinnate leaves. I immediately assumed it must be a member of the genus Goniopteris, which is very diverse in the Antilles, but this plant seemed to lack the small stellate hairs characteristic of that genus. Whatever it was, I decided it was strange, and made some collections. (Later, after studying collections at JBSD and consulting with thelypteridologists Alan Smith and Susan Fawcett, I decided it was in fact a dwarfed species of Amauropelta; either the poorly collected Amauropelta reducta or a new species...more soon!). I managed to stuff another few interesting species in my bag before the skies turned dark and threatened to strand us with a flash flood. After several wrong turns in the mountain roads above Rancho Arriba, we made it to the town of Bonao around 9 pm, and finished pressing plants a bit before two in the morning.
Road to Valle Nuevo. Not pictured: precipitous dropoffs on either side of this narrow road.
The last goal of the trip was to visit the high elevation grasslands of Valle Nuevo, 20 km (as the crow flies) south of Constanza. This site was at the top of my list during the last trip to the country, but we didn't arrive until the sun was setting and had little opportunity to collect. Valle Nuevo is one of the classic collecting localities in Hispaniola, due in large part to the unusual habitats present there and the associated assemblage of taxa. Although the area is only ~2200 m above sea level, there are extensive bunchgrass (Danthonia domingensis) llanos, reminiscent of paramos of the northern Andes. The occurrence of these alpine grasslands at this low elevation is due to a general effect of insularity that depresses elevational habitat zonation relative to nearby continental areas, and presumably contributes to the high biodiversity of tropical islands, despite their (generally) small size and (generally) low elevations (anyone have a good reference for that?). I was particularly interested in it because Erik Ekman collected three strange lycophytes there in 1929 - an Isoetes, a Phlegmariurus, and a Lycopodiella. The Isoetes and the Lycopodiella are known from nowhere else on earth (the Lycopodiella only from Ekman's collection) and the Phlegmariurus is only known from a handful of other collections from nearby sites.
Thanks to Ekman's impeccable notes, we were able to find the site pretty easily, and it was loaded with great plants! Among others, I collected a new species of Pityrogramma (pictured in the banner image for this page), the giant firmossPhlegmariurus sintenisii (otherwise only known from the type locality in Puerto Rico, where it is apparentlyextirpated), a Sceptridium, and an irridescent Elaphoglossum. I even collected the world's smallest (?) Miconia, M. sphagnicola, another narrow endemic from Valle Nuevo. Unlike most members of that genus, which grow as large shrubs to medium-sized trees, this species barely reaches knee height. Unfortunately, the three lycophytes I was searching or were nowhere to be found, and with clouds closing in, we needed to start the long journey downhill towards Constanza (though a short distance in a direct line, the route takes several hours due to the poor condition of the road and the endless switchbacks). The following day, we made it back to Santo Domingo, and started the long process of writing labels and processing the rest of our specimens. It seems like another trip to the Dominican Republic is in order - I'll have to bring camping gear this time and stay at Valle Nuevo for a week to get all those clubmosses!