The New York Botanical Garden


Caribbean Biodiversity Program

(Click to enlarge map)

Caribbean Biodiversity Portal

The Botanical Garden's Caribbean Biodiversity Program focuses on the Wider Caribbean Region comprising insular and coastal states and territories with coasts on the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico as well as waters of the Atlantic Ocean adjacent to these states and territories. This semi-enclosed region is home to many varied ecosystems, including sea-grass beds, mangrove stands, coastal forests with extensive river systems, cloud forests on high mountain peaks—and many plant species found nowhere else. Among the threats to the unique plant diversity in the Wider Caribbean Region are habitat loss from population and tourism pressures, habitat contamination from oil spills and other toxic wastes, unsustainable agriculture and forestry practices, and climate change and sea level rise.

For more than a century, Garden scientists have been partnering with local people and international colleagues to explore, understand, conserve, and manage the incredible plant diversity of the Wider Caribbean Region. In the process, the Garden has amassed the world's largest and most important collection of Caribbean plant and fungal specimens and associated scholarly literature for use by Garden scientists, local colleagues, and the international community of scientists, students, and scholars.

Exploring and Understanding Caribbean Plant Diversity 

Botanical Garden systematists and their local collaborators tackle some of the most diverse, ecologically important, and complex groups of plants in the Wider Caribbean Region. Systematics, which begins with field exploration, is the basis for all plant diversity studies, and all of them—whether they relate to management or conservation—depend heavily on rapid, accurate, and consistent identification of plant species and their relationships. Systematic studies of Wider Caribbean plant groups also allow Garden scientists to develop models for revealing evolutionary mechanisms and biogeographic patterns.

Selected Projects
The island of St. Eustatius, looking toward The Quill, a dormant volcano.
The Statia morning glory, Ipomoea sphenophylla (Convolvulaceae), found only on the island of St. Eustatius.

Plants and Lichens of St. Eustatius. In a collaborative effort by Garden researchers, the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture, and Innovation, and the St. Eustatius National Parks Foundation (STENAPA), the project is surveying the plants and lichens of the 11.8-square-mile island St. Eustatius ("Statia"). Project data will be used to produce illustrated checklists (a virtual museum) of native and introduced plants and lichens growing from Statia's beach forest at sea level to its elfin forest on the summit of The Quill, a dormant volcano.

Find out more information

Zamia erosa from Jamaica. All cycads are listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as plant species needing protection from over-exploitation through international trade.
Retrieved from

Phylogeography and Conservation Genetics of the Caribbean Cycads: An Integrated Systematic Approach with SSRs and Single Copy Nuclear Genes. Co-led by a multi-institutional research team, including Garden scientist Dr. Dennis Stevenson, the project is using microsatellite DNA markers to investigate genetic variation in populations of Caribbean cycads (Zamia spp.) and testing the delimitation of species of Zamia using DNA sequences of low copy nuclear genes. Data from the project will inform conservation strategies for Caribbean cycads, which are all endangered species. Six students from a university with the largest proportion of Hispanic undergraduates in the United States will have research opportunities through this project.

The Cycad Pages

More Projects


Caribbean Collections 

Scientific collections—resources from and about the natural world—are primary objects for discovering and understanding the species diversity of a region and for informing efforts to conserve and manage that diversity. The Botanical Garden's William and Lynda Steere Herbarium houses more than half a million plant and fungal specimens from the Wider Caribbean Region collected over almost 200 years and being actively added to today. The associated C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium provides rapid Internet access to data, images, and distribution maps for Wider Caribbean collections and is an essential resource for Garden scientists, Caribbean colleagues, and the international community of scientists, students, and scholars. Specialized catalogues within the Virtual Herbarium focus on specific areas within the Wider Caribbean and electronically repatriate information about the area's plants and fungi to institutions and interested persons living there.

Selected Projects
(Click to visit this specimen in the Garden’s C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium)

Coralita, Antigonon leptopus (Polygonaceae), native to Mexico, is noxious invasive species in the Caribbean. Herbarium specimens contain data that can help track the movement of invasive plant species and predict their future invasions.

Digitization of Caribbean Plants and Fungi in The New York Botanical Garden Herbarium.Led by Garden scientists Drs. Barbara Thiers and Brian Boom, this project is completing the digitization of the 300,000 specimens in the Steere Herbarium from the Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles, and the Bahamas—and making information from these collections available electronically to Garden scientists, Caribbean colleagues, and the international community of scientists, students, and scholars. Specimen data from algae, bryophytes, fungi (including lichens) and vascular plants will help inform Caribbean conservation efforts by indicating areas of diversity for protection, among many other uses.

(Click to visit this specimen in the Garden’s C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium)

Digitized record of Polygala penaea growing on a cliff south of the Maricao Insular Forest in 1965. One of thousands of pieces of information being electronically repatriated to Puerto Rico.

Plants and Fungi of Puerto Rico and Flora Borinqueña. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Barbara Thiers—in collaboration with local and international colleagues and various Puerto Rican institutions—the project is combining disparate information from Puerto Rican plant and fungal specimens, publications about Puerto Rican plants and fungi, and archival information about Puerto Rico into one deep, electronic, easily accessible resource on the natural and cultural history of Puerto Rico.

Find out more information:

Plants and Fungi of Puerto Rico

More Projects


Training Caribbean Scientists 

At the same time that increasing environmental pressures are putting plant species at risk, the Wider Caribbean Region is facing an acute shortage of scientists trained to discover, understand, conserve and manage plant diversity. In addition to working directly with Caribbean scientists on plant diversity issues, the Botanical Garden is continuing a century-long tradition of training doctoral candidates from the Wider Caribbean Region in its Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program. Additional students and scientists from the Wider Caribbean receive training in plant diversity science through internships or short-term visits to the Garden. Garden scientists also actively train scientists and students within the Wider Caribbean countries themselves.

Selected Projects
Garden scientist Dr. Fabian Michelangeli (right) examines plant specimens with visiting Cuban student and colleague Eldis Becquer in the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory.

Botanical Training for Cuban Conservation Scientists. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Brian Boom in collaboration with Cuban institutions and other Garden scientists, this project is providing training and access to state-of the art tools and protocols for Cuban scientists who lack research capacity to successfully inform plant conservation initiatives in Cuba. Since 1992 18 Cuban scientists have completed four-month rotations at the Garden, working with scientists and technical staff in the Steere Herbarium, the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Laboratory, the Scanning Electron Microscope facility, and the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics in the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory.

Passiflora cubensis (left), occurring only in Cuba, and Miconia dodecandra (right), occurring in Cuba but also widespread throughout Latin America. In addition to exploring and understanding plant diversity, graduate students study the implications of species distribution.

Graduate Training. Responding to the accelerating rate of habitat destruction, the Garden has placed a priority on tropical research and the training of more botanists through its Graduate Studies Program—not only from the United States, but from other countries such as those in the Wider Caribbean. After graduating, most foreign students return to their native countries to hold positions in government agencies, research centers, universities, and botanical gardens, where they have a direct impact on conservation, education, and biodiversity research.

Find out more information


Conserving and Managing Caribbean Plant Diversity  

More than 500 years of colonization, conflict, and economic development have taken a heavy toll on the Wider Caribbean Region's biodiversity. Impacts on the plant species and vegetation have been intense, and threats will continue to grow because of changing climate patterns due to increasing greenhouse gases and ongoing modifications of marine and terrestrial habitats. The Botanical Garden uses its human and physical resources to partner with colleagues and institutions within the region to provide the data and analyses of data to inform the sustainable management of Caribbean plant diversity and to conserve the region's diverse species and ecosystems.

Selected Projects
Microcycas calocoma (Zamiaceae), a critically endangered seed plant occurring only in Cuba.

Identifying Cuba's Most Vulnerable Plant Species in the Face of Climate Change and Habitat Loss. Cuba is home to more than 3,000 seed plant species found nowhere else (endemic species). Co-led by Garden scientist Dr. Brian Boom and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist Hannah Stevens, in collaboration with Cuban partner organizations, this project is providing authoritative assessments of the degree to which endemic Cuban plant species are threatened by environmental changes such as habitat modification or climate change. Project results—including thousands of new plant collections and solid, digitized distributional data and GIS analysis—will be used to inform Cuban conservation initiatives, including in its many terrestrial protected reserves.

The New York Botanical Garden's Threatened Plants Program, Phase I: The Puerto Rican Endangered Plants Initiative. This project—led by Garden scientists Drs. James Miller and Holly Porter-Morgan, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist Hannah Stevens, and Puerto Rican colleagues—is using novel rapid-assessment protocols to evaluate which of the some 3,300 Puerto Rican plant species are threatened with extinction and which are not. A preliminary study using the new protocols and readily available Puerto Rican specimen data from the Garden's C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) indicate that as many as one in five Puerto Rican plant species are threatened or near threatened.

Find out more information on page 6 of this PDF

Map of Puerto Rico showing localities for all plant species categorized by the rapid-assessment protocol as At Risk, overlaid with outlines of Puerto Rico’s current protected areas.

More Projects


Exploring and Understanding Caribbean Plant Diversity – More Projects 

Plants and Lichens of Saba. Part of the Netherlands, Antilles, Saba is a five-square-mile island off the coast of St. Maarten in the Caribbean Sea. Led by a team of Garden researchers including Dr. Scott Mori, Dr. William Buck, Carol Gracie, and Melissa Tulig, the project is surveying and producing illustrated checklists (a virtual museum) of Saba's bryophytes, lichens, and vascular plants—from those native to the cloud forest on Mt. Scenery, to those occurring in near desert at lower altitudes, to those found growing in the surrounding sea.

Find out more information

Our inventory also includes lichens, ferns, mosses, liverworts, and even marine algae such as the delicate red alga (Griffithsia schousboe) shown here.
Photo by D. S. Littler
This white-flowered member of the coffee family, Hillia parastica, flowers at night when it emits a strong and pleasant aroma that attracts moths. These nocturnal insects insert their long "tongues" to extract nectar from the bottom of the white corolla tube.
Photo by C. A. Gracie.
Mt. Scenery, at 877 meters (2877 feet), is the highest point on the island of Saba. Although the cloud forest on the top of the mountain was destroyed by Hurricane Lenny in 1995, the vegetation is regenerating and still harbors many of the original plants of this area
Photo by C. A. Gracie.

The LevyPreserve on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas.
Tabebuia bahamensis (Bignoniaceae) documented from the LevyPreserve.

Plants of the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve. A collaborative team of Garden scientists, including Dr. Brian Boom, Melissa Tulig, Lisa Vargues, and staff from the Bahamas National Trust, principally Eric Carey and Dr. Ethan Freid, is documenting the plants of the 25-acre Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve on the island of Eleuthera. This project will help to position the Levy Preserve as the finest nature preserve in the Bahamas, a facility for the propagation of native plants, a research center for traditional bush medicine, an educational center for Bahamian biodiversity, and a must-see tourist destination.

Find out more information

Valley of Constanza, Dominican Republic. Large areas of the Valley are devoted to growing food and ornamental flowers.
Image by Francisco Jiménez

Floristic Inventory of the Native, Introduced, and Cultivated Plants of the Valley of Constanza, Dominican Republic. The Valley of Constanza boasts a temperate pine forest ecosystem and extensive areas devoted to food production and growing ornamental flowers. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Thomas Zanoni, in collaboration with Francisco Jiménez from the Jardin Botanico Nacional in Santo Domingo, the project is producing a floristic inventory of the native and introduced (including cultivated) plants occurring in the Valley.

Leccinum andinum (left) and Rozites colombiana (right), two new species described by Garden scientist Dr. Roy Halling. They are known only from oak forests of Colombia and Costa Rica.

Macrofungi of Costa Rica. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Roy E. Halling—and collaborators Gregory M. Mueller, the University of Costa Rica, and Costa Rica's National Institute of Biodiversity—the project is documenting the diversity, distribution, and ecology of mushrooms and other macrofungi (bracket fungi, puffballs) associated with neotropical oak and páramo (alpine) habitats in Costa Rica. The survey has focused on six conservation areas: Guanacaste, Tempisque, Arenal, Amistad Pacifico, Amistad Caribe, and Osa.

Find out more information:

Macrofungi of Costa Rica

Catalog of Costa Rican Fungi

Published field guide

Both Elaphoglossum erinaceum (left) and Elaphoglossum peltatum are common and widespread in the Caribbean region.

Morphological Diversity in Elaphoglossum Fern Species. Led by Garden scientists Drs. Robbin Moran, Alejandra Vasco, and Barbara Ambrose, the project is investigating diversity in the fern group Elaphoglossum section Squamipedia found throughout the tropics and the Wider Caribbean Region. Combining methodologies from systematics, phylogenetics, and genomics, the project will explore and understand evolutionary relationships and diverse leaf morphologies within this small group of ferns. Besides research, the project will help to train Caribbean scientists from Cuba in the molecular systematics of Elaphoglossum ferns.

Find out more information

Bixa orellana. In Belize, the seed is ground and used as a spice for foods, such as tamales. It is also used as a food colorant.

Ethnobotany and Floristics of Belize. Subtropical Belize has a wealth of forest lands, a system of protected forest reserve, and nine distinct cultural and ethnic groups. This long-term project led by Garden scientist Dr. Michael Balick and local collaborator Dr. Rosita Arvigo has inventoried the plants of Belize and documented their traditional and contemporary uses by the variety of ethnic and cultural groups. Drs. Balick and Arvigo are currently writing a guide to the useful plants of Belize (expected publication date 2012).

Find out more information

Interview with Mike Balick

Project publications available:
  1. Plants, People, and Culture
  2. Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Belize with Common Names and Uses
  3. Rainforest Remedies: 100 Healing Herbs of Belize


Caribbean Collections – More Projects 

Showy Delonix regia, one of the trees occurring on Navassa Island.
Image by Kevin C. Nixon. Retrieved from
Melocactus communis, a cactus occurring on Navassa Island.
Retrieved from

Catalogue of the Flora of Navassa Island. Navassa Island, a two-square-mile uninhabited island south of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United States. A multi-institution program organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Center for Marine Conservation, The New York Botanical Garden, and others is providing basic information about Navassa's geology, flora, and fauna. Led by scientists Drs. William R. Buck and Thomas Zanoni, the Garden's project is cataloging the plants of Navassa Island in the Steere Herbarium as part of documentation of Navassa's vascular plants.

Find out more information

Seeds of Mucuna urens, often called Sea beans for their ability to drift long distances across the sea.

Catalogue of N. Britton & P. Wilson Reference Seed Collection. The high structural diversity of the outer layers of seeds is usually little influenced by environmental conditions and can provide valuable characters for distinguishing plants at the species and family levels. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Lisa Campbell, the project has digitized the 1,400 seed samples in the historic Caribbean collection of Nathaniel Lord Britton and Percy Wilson and cross-referenced them to vouchers in the Steere Herbarium. This resource is available to U.S. Customs and other law enforcement agencies, archaeologists, and forensic and biodiversity scientists for sample identifications.

Find out more information

Broughtonia domingensis and Stenorrhynchos speciosum, two West Indian orchids at risk of extinction.
Retrieved from

Catalogue of West Indian Orchids. Orchid species (family Orchidaceae) in the Wider Caribbean Region are diverse and often endemic (i.e., occurring nowhere else on Earth). Many are at risk of extinction from habitat destruction and other environmental pressures. This project digitized the West Indian Orchidaceae specimens in the Steere Herbarium as part of a wider effort to facilitate transfer of Cuban plant species information.

Find out more information


Conserving and Managing Caribbean Plant Diversity – More Projects 

National botanical garden in Havana. Foreign Secretary Dr. Sergio Pastrana (left) and President Dr. Ismael Clark (center) of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, with Dr. James S. Miller (right), NYBG Dean & Vice President for Botanical Science.

Facilitating Environmental Cooperation between the United States and Cuba: The Critical Role of NGOs in Creating and Implementing a U.S.–Cuba Bilateral Agreement. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Brian Boom, the project is identifying common habitat, biodiversity, and other environmental interests between the United States and Cuba, outlining an initial state-to-state agreement to advance those interests, and convening a working group of environmental organizations (NGOs) to provide specific input. The ultimate goal is a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Cuba that ensures cooperation between the two countries on issues of joint environmental concern.

Pimenta haitiensis, found only in the Dominican Republic, has been placed on the authoritative International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) global Red List of animals and plants threatened with extinction.

Plant Conservation in the Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo Biosphere Reserve, Dominican Republic. Co-led by Garden scientist Dr. Brian Boom and local colleague Dr. Jackie Salazar, the project is surveying the plants of the Reserve, using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyze those that are IUCN Red List species, and building a database of plant diversity information that will be accessible online and via hand-held units. Data from the project will be used to identify the most important routes for "biodiversity corridors" that should be preserved to connect the Reserve's core areas. Protocols developed from the project will inform best practices for conserving and sustainably managing plant diversity throughout the Caribbean.

Building Bridges for Sustainable Forestry in the Selva Maya, Mexico: Phase II. The existence of the Selva Maya—the most extensive tract of tropical moist forest in Central America—can be largely credited to members of the local communities who have been managing and conserving the forests of the region for millennia. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Charles Peters, the project is providing technical assistance to local communities (ejidos) so that they can continue to manage their forests and qualify for certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). A primary focus is the collection of quantitative growth data for over 20 commercial timber species.

Collecting growth data from dendrometer bands in the Selva Maya

Banding trees with stainless-steel dendrometers to measure tree growth in the Selva Maya of Quintana Roo.
In the Selva Maya of Mexico. Local communities have been managing and conserving areas of this vast tropical moist forest for millennia.

Botánica Las 21 Divisiones in the Bronx is one of the many places throughout the city where Latino patients purchase fresh and dry culturally important medicinal plants.

Dominican Ethnomedicine and Culturally Effective Healthcare in New York City. Culturally effective healthcare involves communication and care-giving based on awareness of and respect for health-related beliefs and practices of a patient's cultural group. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Ina Vandebroek in collaboration with New York-based medical schools and community clinics, the project is increasing cultural competence of healthcare providers who serve the Dominican immigrant community in New York City. Accurate information on ethnomedical practices of patients, including the use of herbal remedies, is provided via hands-on training, role-playing exercises and workshops, and through educational, reference, and course materials.

In the Caribbean Garden with Ethnobotanist Ina Vandebroek

Ina in the NOVA ScienceNOW series The Secret Life of Scientists