Can human selection of ethnobotanical plants enhance phenotypic variation? The case of the calabash tree (Crescentia cujete) in Cuba & Dominican Republic


Plants provide us with raw materials to sustain human life. Over time, contingent on how plants are used they could be selected for particular traits that are both desirable to people and favorable for its success, thus promoting variation within a species. Hence, examining the evolution of ethnobotanical plants where humans could act as selective pressures is a promising research topic. My previous research training has included both local and international experiences that have been highly interdisciplinary. As a scholar, I have had the opportunity to work in a variety of places including the United States, Chile, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Through my academic development, I have learned the importance of a holistic approach in research within my disciplines of interest: Botany, Ecology, Evolution, and Anthropology. As part of the beginning of my dissertation research, the purpose of this first scouting trip to the Caribbean was to focus on: 1) identifying potential areas for my work and the distribution patterns of my plants of interests, 2) see if there is any distinct and observable variation within calabash trees, and 3) network extensively with local scientists that could provide me support or might be interested in collaborating for my project. Under the Tinker field research grant, I was able to travel to two potential sites for my research, Cuba & the Dominican Republic. The model plants explored for my study are the Crescentias (calabash tree, güira, higüero), a genus of six species of flowering plants in the family Bignoniaceae. Of the five species found in the Caribbean, four are present in Cuba and Dominican Republic. Crescentia cujete is the most widely spread, found in both islands, all the Caribbean, Central, and South America. My activities on each island consisted of visiting local herbariums and botanical gardens to learn more about the distribution and potential uses of the plant, visiting local “yerberos” and “botanicas” to learn more about its traditional uses, and in some cases was able to travel around the islands extensively looking for places where these plants are found. The results of this preliminary study will be used to further develop my dissertation proposal and potentially expand my research into other Caribbean islands. Also, my findings will be presented in several symposiums and meetings I will attend throughout the year.

Betsabe Castro Escobar
Publication date: 
August 27, 2016
Publication type: 
Student Research