Sophia is FFI's Eastern Caribbean Coordinator. She was born in St Vincent but now lives in Antigua. Sophia specialises in the management of marine protected areas and fisheries, but currently works on a wide portfolio of projects including globally threatened trees, endangered reptiles, habitat restoration and strengthening the conservation capacity of FFI's partner organisations.
With their verdant steep slopes emerging dramatically from the clear blue Caribbean Sea, the Pitons are likely one of the first images to come to mind when hearing the name Saint Lucia. Held in high veneration, these twin peaks and surrounding areas boast superlative beauty and harbour an array of rare and endemic species. It is here, at the tippy-top of Petit Piton that we find the last remaining wild population of the pencil cedar Juniperus barbadensis var. barbadensis.
This tropical conifer, only ever found on two Caribbean islands, once covered wide areas of the southern and western regions of Saint Lucia and flourished in the neighbouring island, Barbados. Sadly, the pencil cedar is no longer found in the latter and, until recently, it seemed inevitable that Saint Lucia’s shrinking population would follow the same path towards extinction. That was, until the hopeful intervention of a popular Christmas symbol.
In 2016, with assistance from Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the Saint Lucia Forestry Department finalised its 10-year strategy to sustainably manage the country’s terrestrial ecosystems.
One upshot of this is that Saint Lucia’s native plants are getting more attention than ever before, with more and more species becoming the focus of research and conservation.
The pencil cedar is one such species to benefit from this closer attention. The Forestry Department, FFI and local botanists are now developing a plan for saving this rare conifer, using the symbolic Christmas tree as inspiration.
Farmed under the right conditions, pencil cedars naturally grow into the popular conical Christmas tree shape, and the soft shade of their leaves makes a perfect backdrop to the lights and ornaments of the festive season.
One component of this conservation plan hopes to draw on the charitable spirit of Christmas and encourages people to lend a helping hand to boost the population of the trees across the island. Once the merry holiday is over and Christmas decorations are back in their boxes, people will be encouraged to plant their trees in their back yards. Consumers can feel a sense of pride in the important role they have played in in bolstering the country’s pencil cedar population, a gift in itself!
The planned recovery of this Critically Endangered tree is a good example of the Government’s overall strategy for protecting the forests of Saint Lucia while providing tangible economic and cultural benefits to the people of the country. Aside from the trees planted by local householders, the Forestry Department will use pencil cedars to reforest degraded land.
Strong winds and a rocky substrate force the trees on Petit Piton to grow in a twisted and stunted shape. In less extreme environments the tree naturally grows into a tall conical shape, like any other Christmas tree. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.
With support from the Global Trees Campaign one of the prime focuses of the project for 2017 will be to experiment with different propagation techniques. Initial efforts by local botanists have seen some success and rapid growth for these trees using seedlings and branch cuttings.
Propagation by seed will also be tested, but germination is expected to be slow, based on knowledge of temperate junipers. These trials provide an exciting opportunity not just for the conservation of the pencil cedar, but also for the propagation of other tropical conifers – knowledge of which is currently rather lacking.
It is also essential that the current population on Petit Piton – which is small, and limited in range – is monitored and protected from potential threats, such as fires and invasive alien species.
Hiking up the steep slopes of Petit Piton is no easy feat though and the climb ends in rocky outcrops at the summit, where you can find just 50 to 60 of these trees. Nevertheless, the Forestry team will continue to make trips to this last wild population, both to monitor the health of the remaining trees and to carefully choose and collect a sustainable amount of plant material for propagation in the nursery.
For many years, the non-native Cupressus lusitanica has been cultivated for the Christmas market in Saint Lucia, but these trees are susceptible to disease. The Forestry Department sees the pencil cedar as an opportunity to make a positive shift away from alien species. Credit: Sophia Steele/FFI.
Depending on the growth rates of the propagated trees, we are hoping that by the end of 2017 young pencil cedar plants will be ready to graduate from the nursery and begin their new lives in suitable forests and Christmas tree farms across Saint Lucia. It may not be until 2018 that the first native Saint Lucia Christmas tree is available for sale and for adornment with tinsel and ornaments and subsequent planting into back yards; however, in the meantime, Saint Lucians will be hearing much more about this tree.
Running parallel with monitoring and propagation, efforts the Forestry Department and FFI have begun investigating consumer demand. We are exploring not only what consumers look for in a Christmas tree (height, shape, etc.) but also the interest and value residents place on the country’s native biodiversity.
Will residents support local enterprise and purchase native Christmas trees? Will they go one step further and plant their Christmas tree in their back yard? It is hoped that within the next 10 years, many will be able to proudly say that they played a role in repopulating Saint Lucia with native Christmas trees, and ultimately helped save a species from extinction.