The Discovery of Rhododendrons on Jamaica
By David G. Leach
Last winter, in the course of a vacation on Jamaica, I decided to leave the seaside resort of Montego Bay for a series of forays into the interior. Jamaica is a countryside of extraordinary beauty with mountains hanging invitingly on the horizon, inviting the amateur naturalist to explore them. The little tropical island is also a botanical wonderland, with a rainfall of only 29 inches a year on the arid southern coast and a downpour of about 300 inches on the luxuriant northern slopes of the mountains in the Northeast.
On March 15th, in the company of two friends, I set out by car through the lowlands of the north coast, the road brilliantly marked by Hibiscus, Bougainvilleas, flaming African Tulip Trees and exotic Palms. We drove along past Sugar Cane fields and Banana plantations in a countryside typical of a hot Caribbean climate. In four hours we were at the hamlet of St. Peter's, a tiny cluster of stone huts on the lower slopes of the majestic Blue mountains which thrust upward in a violet haze as a gigantic backbone along the length of the island. Transferring to mule back at St. Peter's, we began the ascent to New Haven Gap, hidden in the clouds far overhead. At the lower elevations the arid flanks of the mountains were the dull brownish green of the landscape familiar to tourists on cruise ships which stop for a day or two at Kingston. The eroded slopes were patterned with young trees planted by a government agency in an indifferently successful attempt at reforestation.
As we gained altitude the mountains became greener and the trail steeper until we came upon violent evidence of the earthquake which had rocked the island two weeks earlier. The trail had been erased by a rock slide and the mules refused to cross over the loose earth and gravel covering the eight or ten inches remaining from a once wider path hewn out of a cliff side. A dismaying drop of hundreds of feet lay before us, with nothing more bracing than the clear mountain air of the great precipice which fell away at our feet. But we had come too far to turn back. Each step sent cascades of earth and gravel sliding over the lip of the chasm, but we inched along the ruined trail dragging the reluctant mules behind us until the had passed the threatening void. Finally we reached Cinchona, about halfway up the mountain, an abandoned government station which had once been a plantation of trees for the production of Quinine. As we continued upward the character of the vegetation changed at the higher altitudes on the exposed slopes, greener and more varied but shaped by the wind and elevation to a dwarf dimension, the shrubs and small trees forming an undulating cover of vigorous scrub six to ten feet tall. A surprising trailside feature were the Blueberries ( Vaccinium meridionale ), which had become naturalized after having been imported for trial planting at the government Cinchona plantation we had passed on our way up the mountain. It was startling to see them thriving and in full flower, interspersed with the shrubs native to the area.
By this time we were above the clouds, looking down between them at times to a toy village nestled below us in a little valley serene in the protection of the towering peaks. As we traveled along at about 5,500 feet elevation we saw several Ilex species, notably Ilex montana , Waxwood ( Myrica microcarpa ), West Indian Sumach ( Brunellia conocladifolia ) and such large trees as Cinchona officinals , Eugenic harrisii and Blue Gums. Finally we gained a ridge at about 6,000 feet and crossing it, stepped into another world, with ferns 30 feet tall as the dominant vegetation in a rain forest. Everywhere the living greenness took on a thousand unfamiliar forms, the trees encrusted with orchids and bromeliads and the ground underfoot so thick with mosses and lichens that it felt like a giant sponge underfoot. Here was an unimagined vigor and variety of growing plants, so vibrant with vitality in the clean washed air that they seemed to rustle in a whisper of expanding leaves. It was incredibly beautiful, with the powerful character of a Rousseau painting, a world of green lace woven by the fronds of ferns in a thousand variations at every level, from the ground up to the canopy of exquisite patterns against the sky made by the giant fans of the tree ferns. At times clouds drifted in to draw a great gray veil over the scene and transform it into a misty landscape imagined in a dream. Suddenly they lifted like a giant theatrical curtain to reveal the brilliant and dramatic scene before us.
This idyllic woodland with its vivid mantle of jeweled greenery is the product of a rainfall amounting to 120 inches a year. Mr. J. A. Harker, of the British Caribbean Meteorological Service, located some old government records at my request from a temporary station which was maintained at New Haven Gap in the 1880's and they give a good idea of the climate.
The ridge could perhaps best be described as a mist forest, the plants bathed intermittently in moisture from the great banks of clouds which form and disperse endlessly at that elevation. The leaves are always a little damp to the touch and water can be wrung at any time from the luxuriant mat of lichens which coats the ground.
As we continued our exploration of this botanical paradise we turned a spur of the ridge and suddenly looked down on a slope aflame with scarlet flowers. I could scarcely believe my eyes but there before us were mammoth rhododendrons, a billowing sea of incandescent color atop a solid canopy of interlaced crowns, the whole making a spectacle of barbaric brilliance against the rich green landscape. As in the best tradition of the plant hunters of Asia, some of the flowers had fallen to make the trail a sinuous river of glowing color and we rode over it as on a royal red carpet beneath the tree-like rhododendrons overhead.
The trees were about 25 feet tall with trunks about 20 inches in diameter, spaced only five or six feet apart so that their upper branches formed a dense green roof above us. A few orchids clung to the limbs in the dim light. Heavy moss covered the ground. Volunteer seedlings were springing up around the outside of the thicket, a reassuring sign of adaptation to the environment. (Fig. 29)
Fig. 29. Trunks 20" in diameter of
at New Haven Gap, Jamaica
D. G. Leach photo
There the incredible rhododendrons were growing and flowering brilliantly on a mountain peak in an inaccessible wilderness in the tropics of the new world, 1500 miles from the nearest region presumed to be suitable for their growth. They should not have been there, no public record of their presence can be found, and so they have remained unknown and unseen except for an occasional wandering native or perhaps a venturesome botanist every few years, none of whom apparently thought their presence remarkable.
But the presence one in Jamaica is a botanical sensation, as such things go in that stately science, and these became even more sensational as I gazed upon them for the first time and realized that the abundant scarlet flowers in rounded trusses could only be produced at that season by a tree species in the Arboreum subseries from southern Asia. Specimens taken and later pressed for leisurely examination confirmed the first impression that they were R. arboreum , native to the great arc of the Himalayas from Kashmir to Bhutan, and with an outlying representative in Ceylon. (Fig. 30)
Fig. 30. Some of the rhododendrons found by the author at 6000 feet in the Blue
Mountains of Jamaica.
D. G. Leach photo
These exiles from a homeland half way around the world were extraordinary in their health and vigor, far surpassing their brethren in Cornwall, in England, or in the fine rhododendron collections on the west coast of Scotland. In my experience they did, in fact, represent a new standard of handsome vitality for the Asian rhododendrons. The plants in view were at least 75 years old. They were reproducing themselves by self-sown seedlings and gave every appearance of being indigenous to the mist forest.
How came these improbable foreigners to this lonely mountain top? They could scarcely have migrated from southern Asia through thousands of miles of uncongenial climate without leaving a trace of their evolutionary progress. Then whose hand, long dead, had planted them to flower in solitary splendor far from the nearest human habitation? The mystery is impenetrable.
Perhaps a sentimental Englishman took them up the mountain to the ridge where the climate was most similar to their Himalayan homeland. I can envision a solitary Victorian figure scattering the seeds on the moist green velvet moss in the cathedral-like stillness of the vaulting trees three quarters of a century ago, planted there in the tradition of British exiles the world over when the indomitable will to cultivate and enrich the earth was reflected in the exchange of plants and seeds throughout the empire on which the sun then never set. The rhododendrons of Surrey may have been a part of the beloved memory of home to our imagined Englishman as he toiled up the trail to New Haven Gap so long ago. He may have hoped to create in the mountain cloudland above him a bit of Britain halfway 'round the world.
Whatever his motive he established a notably successful plantation in a quarter of the globe where rhododendrons have been assumed to be impossible to grow, and everyone with a special interest in the genus will be gratified to note this enormous expansion in the area of possible cultivation. Elevations with similar temperatures and rainfall exist in many parts of the Caribbean and in Central America, and in all probability rhododendrons would thrive in most of them with the same vigor as at New Haven Gap in Jamaica. In the frost-free climate of this latitude it should be possible to assemble a collection of unparalleled variety, possibly encompassing the entire genus and including even the tenderest epiphytes.
Addendum: I have searched in every promising place for a previous reference to these plants. The "Notes of the Natural History Society of Jamaica," which contain many scholarly accounts of the flora and fauna of the island, do not include a description of these rhododendrons even in an article published in 1948 on the vegetation of New Haven Gap.