“It’s great every day to be able to walk out into a sun filled landscape that holds new flowering plants for me to learn to identify, draw and paint,” said botanical artist Donald Davidson from his perch in the sand.
After ten years of volunteering in national parks and wildlife refuges across the American southwest, Donald Davidson arrived at the Vieques Refuge to do a month’s work—the beginning of what he hopes will be a long-term relationship with the island’s flora and its residents.
“My focus is on those plants which are of ecological importance,” he says. “It helps to understand the botanical history of Vieques.”
There are many different vegetation types on Vieques, in part because just 11,000 years ago it was physically connected to the islands that surround it. This was during glacial periods when the climate was thought to be drier and cooler, and sea levels fluctuated drastically.
During the 19th century, most of Vieques was tragically cleared of its dense forest under the direction of the colonial Spanish. The ruin of the native forest was so extensive, that by 1851 timber had to be imported. This clear cutting profoundly disturbed the native ecosystem, reduced the natural habitat for both flora and fauna, and caused the rivers in Vieques to dry up. Sugarcane came to dominate the entire island, and as that industry died out, the drier eastern side where grasslands came to dominate was then used for grazing cattle. As both the plantation and ranching eras came to an end, the island thickened with invasive species. People introduced Mesquite, Acacia, Tam-tam, Brazilian Jazmine and other trees, which in turn was spread by the remaining livestock. This was followed by 60 years of military use, including severe bombing impacts by the U.S. Navy.
“Conserving biological diversity and restoring the natural equilibrium of the plants and animals on Vieques is a long term commitment,” said Mike Barandarian, Refuge biologist. “After two centuries of disturbance, it only makes sense that it will take decades to return this island to its natural balance, based on the available scientific data.”
As part of a mid- to long-term coastal forest restoration project on the Refuge, masters’ degree biology student, Franchesca Ruiz, a member of Ticatove (a local community based conservation group) and a Farjado native, commutes daily from the mainland to lead a work crew eradicating invasive species along Playa La Chiva.
To find and identify native plants, Donald has worked closely with biologist, and Vieques Conservation & Historic Trust (VCHT) and Ticatove member, Erick Bermudez, who has helped many understand the island’s flora and fauna, while guiding local school groups, Girl Scouts, and visiting academics, as well as during his six years with the PR Dept. of Natural Resources.
Other ongoing plant conservation projects at the Refuge, include the cataloguing and building of an actual and digital herbarium (samples of dried plants and seeds) collection as a reference resource by botanist Dr. Breckon of University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez.
Vieques, at the center of an archipelago, is considered a land bridge between the Greater and the Lesser Antilles, and has many plants that originated in Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean that have naturalized over many decades. In addition to those introduced by humans, birds continuously carry seeds from one island to another and excrete them, as do imported animals. Seeds also arrive on the wind and in storms.
Eighty percent of the 830 plant species on Vieques are now considered native. These cluster into 109 families—meaning they share genetic traits, just as in humans. There are 27 rare plant species on the island, five of which are listed as endangered because there are few living examples left. During a series of volunteer trips, Donald will draw the endangered species, as well as the ones to be propagated in the new Refuge greenhouses being built later this year as a partially sustainable community project.
Donald’s has so far created twenty botanical illustrations of plants from several of the six ecological zones here on the island—sub-tropical dry forest to subtropical moist forest. From the Mangrove forest he drew one of the four mangrove species, Mangle Botón, whose crimson flower is accented with a yellow stamen. Mangroves are one of Puerto Rico’s most endangered ecosystems, and are critical to migratory birds and the bioluminescent bay. From the beach vegetation, he drew the orchid-like low shrub with succulent leaves and olive-like fruit of the Borbón, as well as several others species commonly found in this zone.
Donald’s botanical images will be used for interpretive display at the Refuge’s new greenhouses that will propagate endangered and native plants so they be used in restoration of the land, as well as to sell to the public to encourage the planting of native species. Donald’s artwork will also be used in interpretive displays for the public at strategic points in the Refuge including along the boardwalk, to be rebuilt. An art exhibit of Vieques Flora has been mentioned for the VCHT museum, and at Ticatove’s new offices opening in 2011.
Workshops with children and adults are in the plans for his next volunteer assignment on Vieques; to show simple ways to depict what defines one flower or plant from another. “Art is an activity that anyone can do regardless of their experience level,” he says. “Teaching art as a way to teach conservation offers essential messages to all participants.” These include:
• Take pride in your natural heritage;
• Be inspired by your surrounds; and
• Understand that some plants are more important to Vieques’ future than others.
“Because forest is so important here, I look forward to drawing more flowering and fruit trees, and to document the importance of edible plants here,” says Donald. “Of course all the rare plants, too.”
“Discovering and drawing a plant I have not seen before is like the thrill of the hunt, but with the benefit of not taking something away. I draw on location not from photos or picked plants. The term is ‘en plein air,’” he says. “Art always gives focus to beauty.”
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