The Green Heritage of Barbados


Sean Carrington

January 23, 2024

It may be hard to imagine today but in 1627, when the English established a settlement here, Barbados was completely covered in dense forest. This is clear from Richard Ligon in his (1657) book ‘A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes’, where we are told that the island was “ … so overgrown with wood, as there could be found no champions or savannas for men to dwell in”. In no time, however, most of the island was cleared of forest such that fire wood had to be imported and fields of sugarcane dominated the landscape. With the demise of King Sugar from the 1960s onwards there has been a significant recovery of the island’s natural vegetation, notably with forest cover increasing about ten-fold in the last fifty years, much of this in the island’s extensive gully system which is over 400 km long.

Turner's Hall Wood in St. Andrew, Barbados
Turner's Hall Wood in St. Andrew

For such a small spot on the earth (166 square miles or 430 km2), Barbados’ flora is surprisingly well-documented. Ligon’s (1657) book that was just mentioned was the first to describe several local plants including the towering cabbage palm (Roystonea oleracea) which still abounds today in our gullies. Important plant collectors and scientists also did their bit like physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane. He left England in 1687 for Jamaica to serve as physician to the Governor there and Barbados was one of the stops en route where he collected and described several native plants.

cabbage palm illustration from Ligon's book
Illustration of Cabbage Palm from Ligon's ‘A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes’

These specimens were among the vast natural history collection he had acquired by the time of his death at 93 and which helped establish the Natural History Museum in London. Several publications continued to increase our knowledge of the plants of Barbados culminating in 1965 in the Flora of Barbados with lead author, Barbadian botanist Graham Gooding. My own Wild Plants of Barbados, with a third edition just published, is a flora for the general public with many colour photos, built on this foundation. About three quarters of our 663 species of wild flowering plants are native (i.e. established here without human help) and only two of these are endemic or unique to Barbados. The Caribbean islands constitute one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots with some 13,000 plant species, 62% known only from this region. Barbados is but one of over a thousand islands and cays that make up this hotspot.

Wild Plants of Barbados by Sean Carrington
Wild Plants of Barbados by Sean Carrington

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Barbadians and visitors have become increasingly interested in our native plants. For some it is simply to commune with nature, whether the sand dunes of the East Coast, wetlands like the mangrove swamp at Graeme Hall, the few stretches of coastal forest that remain, the expansive forested gully network or Turner’s Hall Wood, that sole remaining patch of original forest. For others it is to better understand the individual plant species themselves, especially with respect to their medicinal and other uses.

Tuner's Hall Wood

In revising my Wild Plants of Barbados I had a look at how our plants were and are used. Almost half of our wild flowering plants (46%) have a recorded use with just as many having medicinal uses as non-medicinal uses. There has been so much said about medicinal uses and bush teas that I will focus instead on non-medicinal uses of our plants. I tallied some 248 non-medicinal uses, grouping these into broad categories like baskets, brooms, charcoal, dried flowers, dyes, fibre/rope, fishing aids, fodder, food/drink, fungicide, furniture, glue/exudate, honey, horticulture, insecticide/repellant, jewelery, kitchen utensils, perfume/toiletries, personal care items, rat poison, soap, tanning agents, timber, torches and toys/games.

A basket maker preparing the hanging roots of the balsam tree Clusia plukentii
A basket maker preparing the hanging roots of the balsam tree Clusia plukentii

The top use was in the food/drink category and here we are speaking of fruit and other plant parts gathered from the wild, not cultivated. Coming in second was horticultural use of native plants in landscaping which is a no-brainer in the sense that these plants are well adapted to local conditions so with little care they look just fine. My favourite is the area of basketry in which several woody vines and trees are used. Rock balsam (Clusia plukenetii) is a tree that grows along gully rims with its slender roots hanging down along the walls of the gully. These roots are harvested sustainably and with the bark scraped off, the roots are then split and plaited into high quality baskets. Unfortunately, many of these uses have been abandoned in favour of mass-produced, cheaper alternatives but many are deeply woven into the island’s cultural heritage.

The fruit and flower of the balsam tree Clusia plukentii
The fruit and flower of the balsam tree Clusia plukentii

Being a botanist in Barbados has been a rewarding career. At the University of the West Indies, I have had the pleasure of teaching young people from across the Caribbean who shared different stories about our wild plants. Like academics everywhere, aside from teaching, much of my time was spent on researching a relatively narrow topic but being one of the few botanists on the island meant I got involved in much more.  Aside from having great areas in which to enjoy nature on my doorstep, I helped the Barbados Postal Service design several stamp issues on plant themes, served on various Government and NGO committees relating to our biodiversity and used my scientific expertise to advise on the potential environmental impact of several projects. Although I have retired from the University, plants continue to play a big part in my life.