Occurring only on the volcanic island of Montserrat in the Caribbean, where it is one of two surviving endemic plant species, like other orchids the Montserrat orchid (Epidendrum montserratense) is best known for its beautiful flowers. The small, vivid yellow flowers are clustered in inflorescences and are borne on elongated, swollen stems called ‘pseudobulbs’, which store water so that the plant can survive through the dry season (2). Each flower consists of three petals, one of which is quite distinct from the other two. This petal, called the lip, or ‘labellum’, lies at the base of the flower and acts as a landing platform to attract a particular species of butterfly to its pollen (3). The leaves are leathery and green, and can be rather hard to spot amongst the forest foliage before the plant comes into flower (2).
Orchids have a complex life cycle that is dependent on a symbiotic relationship with various fungi. The fruit, which is usually a narrow pod or grape-like capsule, produces vast numbers of very small seeds that require the help of a fungus to germinate. The ripening of the seed may take as long as 18 months, but it can take a further 4 years before the full life cycle is complete. The plant is also dependant on various fungi for it to grow. The hypha (the main vegetative growth) of the fungi is usually found in the roots of the orchid. The flowers of orchids are usually bisexual, but the sex organs are fused into a sexual structure called a ‘column’ (3).
The Montserrat orchid occurs only on the volcanic island of Montserrat in the Caribbean (2). It once grew in the Soufriere Hills, but its habitat there was destroyed by volcanic eruptions between 1995 and 1997, and it is now restricted to the forest of the Centre Hills (4).
An epiphytic species, the Montserrat orchid is most commonly found growing on old or dead trees, particularly mango trees (Mangifera indica), in forested areas that have been disturbed by storms or human activities, such as agriculture. It is less frequently found on rocks (2)(5).
Between 1995 and 1997 an active volcano erupted on Montserrat, resulting in widespread devastation of the island’s natural landscape. Hot ash, gases and rocks destroyed trees, blocked rivers and caused flash floods, destroying much vegetation. This habitat loss has since been compounded by encroaching agriculture, which has cleared much original forest, particularly on the Silver Hills in northern Montserrat. Feral animals, such as pigs and rats, have also degraded areas of native vegetation and destroyed seedlings, while invasive floral species, such as the purple allamanda (Cryptostegia madagascariensis), are smothering native plants (2)(4)(6). As a result of these widespread threats, the Montserrat orchid is now rare and has a very restricted distribution (5).
With over 800 native plant species, Montserrat is one of the richest of all the UK Overseas Territories in terms of its plant diversity. The UK Overseas Territories Team at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has been involved in conservation projects there since 1998. Once such project, entitled 'Enabling the people of Montserrat to conserve the Centre Hills', collected specimens and habitat information, and assessed the plant diversity of an area relatively undamaged by volcanic eruptions. An additional project focused more closely on the islands two endemic species: the Montserrat orchid and the pribby (Rondeletia buxifolia). Two collections of Montserrat orchid seeds are now stored in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. Living Montserrat orchids rescued from dead mango trees have also been taken to the Montserrat National Trust’s botanic garden, where they are being cultivated for future display (2).
ARKive is supported by OTEP, a joint programme of funding from the UK FCO and DFID which provides support to address priority environmental issues in the Overseas Territories, and Defra
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