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Cuba Expedition: Interacting with Horticulturists

Punta de Maisí–Cuba's easternmost town–is just under 80 kilometers away from Haiti, its neighboring country across the Caribbean Sea. Maisí's distinctive, white lighthouse built on the shores of the island marked the end of the road to the town. While the area was previously known to have been off-limits to foreigners due to a lack of infrastructure, Maisi was famous among botanists for being the type locality of Rhytidophyllum acunae–where the rare plant was first and last collected by botanist Conrad Morton 50 years ago right before the Cuban Revolution. 
It was the seventh day of our Eastern Cuba expedition and we were more than halfway through our journey around the island's eastern circuit on the day our bus pulled up to a stop in front of the Punta de Maisi lighthouse. I was honored to have had the privilege of travelling to Cuba with plant enthusiasts from the Gesneriad Society in mid-August, a horticultural organization dedicated to studying the Gesneriaceae plant family, and over the 10-day expedition, we hiked extensively to remote areas to observe Gesneriaceae species native to Cuba–the hike to find Rhytidophyllum acunae being one of the trip's highlights.
We began our hike in the early hours of the morning at 5am with a ride on the back of a 1954 brown Chevrolet truck, which had been arranged in advance by our guide to take us to where we may find the Rhytidophyllum. It was dark and quiet outside as our hybrid, modified truck chugged along, zipping through the little towns nearby to get to our destination. The truck stopped on the side of the road after an hour and we disembarked the vehicle, where our guide began to build our trail with his machete. We took safety precautions by dressing appropriately for the hike, having been warned that there would be cacti and other plants with spines and hispid trichomes along the trail and hiked down off the side of the road onto a steep slope carefully. Within minutes, our plant taxonomist and trip leader, Dr. John L. Clark, had found the plant. Known for its white hairy tomentose flowers, Rhytidophyllum acunae was the size of a small shrub. We waited for sunrise before continuing on the trail in search for a flower of the plant.
The hike and trip in general was filled with "firsts". First time riding an antique open-top vehicle. First time seeing a trail built right before my eyes with a machete. And most important of all, first time interacting with some of the most knowledgeable scientists and horticulturists on the Gesneriad plant family–both from all over the States and from Cuba. I was astounded by the dedication of all the horticulturists in our group. One of the board members of the Gesneriad Society had just returned from China, having started a Gesneriad conservation project in Kunming and most of them have been traveling around South America for years as a group for similar expeditions. Interacting with our local guides on the hike and our horticulturalist meet up with the Santiago de Cuba plant community was eye-opening and it was an honor to be able to speak with them about their expertise in growing and studying Gesneriads.
I was inspired by all the members of the Gesneriad Society who traveled on the trip for their passion and love for botany and looked up to every one of them as a budding botanist and biologist who hopes to pursue this as a potential career path in the future. Traveling on this trip with scientists and horticulturalists has expanded my horizons significantly and I am very appreciative of having the opportunity to do so. 

Moderated by Jake Cornelius.

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