Often described as one of the most unusual plants of the Falklands Islands, the snakeplant (Nassauvia serpens) is named for its long, straggling stems which may reach up to two metres in height. The leaves are tough and slightly curved, with sharp hooks along the edges. The underside of each leaf is typically whitish and the upper surface is dull green. The stems bear the growing, greener leaves towards the top, with dead leaves clustered below. The long curving stems of the snakeplant often form tangled patches in amongst boulders, and these patches may measure a metre across (2).
The tiny white flowers of the snakeplant have club-shaped heads, with purplish stamens. In full bloom these delicate flowers produce a strong, sweet scent. The heads of the flowers turn brown as the seeds develop (2).
The snakeplant belongs to the Compositae family (also known as the Asteraceae), which is one of the largest families of flowering plants, containing around 25,000 species. One of the most characteristic features of Compositae species is the head-like inflorescence, known as a ‘capitulum’, which is made up of numerous small individual flowers, called florets. The clusters of tiny flowers are surrounded by a whorl of specialised leaves, called ‘bracts’, which often resemble petals. The whole structure looks like a single flower, and is often confused as such.
Like other plants in the Compositae family, the snakeplant produces a single seed in each fruit, which is typically dispersed by the wind (5).
The snakeplant typically inhabits inland rocky places in the uplands, and more rarely in scrub (Chiliotrichum spp.) and dwarf shrub heath. It is found between elevations of 5 and 700 metres (1)(3).
This species occurs as a lowland plant on Big Arch Island, Little Chartres and Narrows Island. These areas have stone runs which provide a ‘retreat’ habitat, allowing the snakeplant to persist in a landscape otherwise subject to high levels of grazing and trampling pressure (1). There is growing evidence that the snakeplant’s mainly upland habitat in other areas may be an adaptation to the introduction of livestock, and that it was once more abundant in lowland areas (3)(4).
The principal threat to the snakeplant is grazing and trampling by livestock (1)
As part of the native flora of the Falkland Islands, the snakeplant also faces a number of other threats. Historically, much of the Falkland’s native flora was cleared for agriculture through grazing and burning, meaning that many native species now have restricted distributions across the island. In addition, introduced and invasive species, together with increasing levels of tourism, are placing further pressure on native species (3)(6).
Despite having relatively low diversity, the plant communities on the Falkland Islands include a high proportion of threatened species and a number of endemic species. Of the islands’ 172 native plant species, some 13 species are found no where else in the world and 5 are threatened with extinction (4)(7).
The snakeplant will no doubt benefit from conservation programmes which are currently focusing on protecting plant species on the Falkland Islands and mitigating the threats to their survival (4). The Falklands Islands Plant Conservation Project, with assistance from Falklands Conservation, is developing a strategy for the long-term conservation of the islands’ threatened flora, with plans for sustainable land management and protection. Public education projects are also aiming to tackle human disturbances to natural environments (7).
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Woods, R.W. (2000) Flowering Plants of the Falkland Islands. Falklands Conservation, The Falkland Islands.
Broughton, D.A. and McAdam, J.H. (2005) A checklist of the native vascular flora of the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas): new information on the species present, their ecology, status and distribution. Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society, 132: 115-148.
Broughton, D.A. and McAdam, J.H. (2002) A red data list for the Falkland Island vascular flora. Oryx, 36: 279-287.
Heywood, V.H. (1978) Flowering Plants of the World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
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