Using Christmas to save Saint Lucia’s pencil cedars

Conservation Problem

Deforestation has eradicated the pencil cedar from Saint Lucia’s lowlands

Project goal

Restore the pencil cedar to Saint Lucia’s lowland forest, supported by a national scheme to grow the cedars as Christmas trees

 

Why this species?

Rising from the Caribbean Sea, Saint Lucia’s volcanic rock forms three iconic peaks rich in tropical forest. One of these peaks, Petit Piton (Saint Lucia’s smallest mountain), is home to the last remaining population in the world of the Critically Endangered Juniperus barbadensis var. barbadensis. Known locally as the pencil cedar, it is in fact a type of juniper (famously used in gin).

Once common in Saint Lucia, intensive deforestation of lowland areas has decimated this conifer to less than 100 individuals. The remaining trees grow on the precarious, inaccessible cliffs of Petit Piton which rises out of the ocean like a shark’s tooth.

In parallel to this environmental concern, Saint Lucia Forest Department struggles to meet demand for Christmas trees come December. As such, they have resorted to using two alien species: an Acacia and Cyprus lusitanica. However, these species are susceptible to fungal infections. In contrast, the native pencil cedar is a relatively fast growing conifer that has strong potential to be grown as a Christmas tree to eventually replace the use of these exotic species.

The pencil cedar has been subject to very little conservation action to date but with a little help, could be returned to the island’s lowland forest and used to develop a local, sustainable market for Christmas trees.

Petit Piton at dawn. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

What are we doing about it?

Working with Saint Lucia Forest Department we aim to reintroduce the pencil cedar to Saint Lucia’s lowlands and to promote simple, effective conservation measures amongst the Saint Lucia community to develop a local market interest in the species. Selling pencil cedars also has the potential to generate long-term financing for the Saint Lucia Forest Department to continue restoration and conservation efforts. To achieve this we are taking the following steps:

  1. Recruiting trained climbers to collect seeds from the inaccessible pencil cedars. To preserve genetic diversity, seeds will be collected from as many pencil cedars as possible.
  2. Carrying out propagation trials to establish optimal growing conditions.
  3. Establishing a genetically diverse population in Saint Lucia’s lowland forest.
  4. Generating public support for pencil cedar conservation through community involvement in restoring this species to the lowlands.
  5. Growing pencil cedars locally as Christmas trees and following the festive period, helping Saint Lucia locals to plant the trees into their gardens and public areas.

Wild Pencil cedar fruits. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

Key achievements

We have completed the first inventory of the wild population and are happy to confirm the population is slightly bigger than previously thought. Adventurous surveys of Petit Piton, using ropes, binoculars and abseil transects, verified the existence of at least 100 individuals. However, these are restricted to the cliffs north-east of the summit which is  exposed to high winds and is potentially vulnerable to fire.  Only five adult trees are accessible without climbing ropes. The total distribution range appears to be just a few hectares. It is important we identify as many pencil cedars as possible so seeds can be collected from as wide a range of trees as possible.

Another exciting breakthrough is that we have learnt how to grow and rear this species successfully for the first time.  The number of pencil cedars in existence has now tripled, from around 100 to more than 300. The project is also working on increasing awareness and a consumer market survey has had promising results; almost 100% of participants said they would prefer to buy a native Christmas tree, to support conservation, and that they would be willing to plant it out after Christmas. A survey with Christmas tree retailers about buyers’ preferences has led to the distribution of 42 young nursery-grown individuals to Christmas tree farmers. We are looking forward to seeing how these trees perform, as feedback from the Christmas tree farmers on their experiences on the growing and marketing of the trees will determine if the species can realistically serve as a natural substitute for the exotic trees currently grown in Saint Lucia.

Eighteen nursery-grown plants are being planted out into natural areas, and there are plans to upscale production to enable more reforestation moving forward. The Forestry Department have agreed a plan of action for the next few years, including ongoing nursery production and reintroductions to increase the wild population. More generally, information about Juniperus barbadensis var barbadensis generated through the project has also fed into a review of Caribbean Key Biodiversity Areas, benefiting its conservation in the long-term.

Contact details

For more information on this project, please contact globaltrees@fauna-flora.org

Did you know?

Over exploitation of the huarango tree led to ecological devastation and the consequent downfall of a pre-inca civilisation, known as the Nasca.

Read more more about trees with important ecological roles.