Often neglected in the Caribbean is the land vegetation. The coral and the deep seas get so much attention, as do the endemic birdlife, reptiles and amphibians. But the curious mix of land habitats are worthy of mention. Cayman is a fairly flat island, no volcanoes here, and the pitted limestone makes it a difficult environment for any vegetation to get a grip. Most of the natural vegetation appears to be a tangle of spiny , half dead shrubs. The glamorous stuff is to be found in gardens where the imported bougainvilleas and the crotons colour up any backyard.
Conservationists are horrified at the amount of invasive species which have colonised the OTs. Some, like the Casuarina trees, could not be eradicated, and many have been adopted by the islanders as loved local favourites. Given the remote location of many islands, the native vegetation is often not as large or showy as those brought in for gardens and erosion control but there are many species out there in the scrub. If only the scrub were not treated as wasteland; most developers have it in mind to “beautify” the island with their hotels, estates and shopping malls where they plant up the same plants out of pots that might line a highway in Miami. This tangle of scrub to them is at best an eyesore, at worst, in need of simplifying down to grass verges and manicured monocultures.
Cayman’s attempt to educate the island about the true value and the need to conserve its areas of natural vegetation is centred on the Mastic Reserve. It is one of the only true wildernesses left on Grand Cayman, distant from the heat of development in Georgetown and away from the coast too. Bordered by mangroves to the west and the coast road round the rest of the island, the poor terrain of old coral stone, plus the lack of access to the sea, meant it was relatively untouched by humans, and fortunate for itself, largely impenetrable. We were driven in a minibus round to the north side of the island and down a little side track where we were dropped off and waited in the still sun drenched air for our guides. Members of the National Trust came in another vehicle and were delayed en route, so we tried to find some shade. It was difficult – the trees are not all that tall round here and they had an open structure which at best gave a dappled shade.
Eventually our hosts turned up – but then spent ten minutes talking about the trail. It was a good job we did because as soon as we started out on the footpath, it was clear that the group was going to split. Many of the animal conservationists, the managers, the media types and GISsy people like myself were keen to have a good walk, enjoy the countryside and the key sights. The botanists though went into field study mode. They wanted to absorb every plant species they could find. That meant not just the trees, but the shrubs, the herbaceous layers, the grasses, the epiphytes and parasites. And it was not just a case of plant spotting, they had to look at the leaf, the stem, the root, the flower and fruit, maybe dissect them, discuss amongst themselves and make copious notes in their little books.
Most of us had gone a half kilometre before we realised we had left them behind. One of the Cayman guides went back – reporting later that they had hardly passed the board which marked the start of the trail.