Leon Levy Plant Preserve

Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve

25 Acre Plant Sanctuary On Eleuthera

by Perry Joseph

On a Spring visit to Eleuthera, I had the pleasure of attending the grand opening of the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve located on Banks road south of Governor's Harbour. This fascinating Preserve is a “must see” for those visiting the island. Leon Levy Plant Preserve location

The Preserve was conceived and developed by Shelby White, trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation, in honor of her late husband. The park is a true representation of their love and devotion for Eleuthera and the Bahamas. Operated by the Bahamas National Trust, this 25 acre national park is the first of its kind on Eleuthera and represents many years of planning and construction.

The Levy Preserve features 1.25 miles of walking trails where visitors can see medicinal plants, beautiful orchids and hardwood trees that are integral to Eleuthera's botanical history. Attractions include the Epiphyte Trail, the Mangrove Board Walk that leads to a medicinal plant section, the Cacti trail and the Tower Trail that leads to a lookout tower that takes in a fabulous view of the surrounding area and the Atlantic Ocean.

Leon Levy Plant Sanctuary Eleuthera Bahamas
Leon Levy Plant Sanctuary

During my visit, I met with the botanist in charge of bringing the preserve to life, Dr. Ethan Freid. Ethan has a Pd.D. in botany and specializes soil ecology and plant science. Ethan is a well traveled man having spent time working on ecological projects in the Caribbean, Central / South America and Africa. A native Californian, Ethan has taught at the College of the Bahamas and currently serves as an advisor to the Bahamas National Trust.

Dr. Ethan Freid, Botanist
Dr. Ethan Freid, Chief Botanist

Interview with Dr. Ethan Freid

Lead Botanist at Leon Levy Preserve

Q - How long have you been working on the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve, Ethan?

A - I started working on the project in March 2006. It took almost three years to complete the land purchase and get the preliminary budget in place. We then officially broke ground January 2009. Site preparation and construction lasted a little over two years.

Q - You obviously spent a lot of time on building the Preserve and it really shows. Based on what I saw and photographed, it looks like a lot of hard work went into this – couldn’t have been easy. My hat’s off to you. Can you give us some sort of general scope of the project in terms of what it took to physically put it together?

A - We spent over 18 months just prepping the site for construction. We had to remove invasive plant species, rubble, and trash as well as move four large coconuts and dig out our wetland. During that time we also laid out all the trails. All of the prep work was done by hand. No bulldozers were brought in to clear the land. For a project like this one we made a conscious decision about each and every tree or shrub that needed to be trimmed or moved on the site. Additionally we spent a lot of time wandering around the site getting a sense of place; just thinking about how visitors would move around the site and how they would use it. And then of course there was the physical construction and having to bring in large vehicles and equipment without damaging the existing vegetation.

20' tall lookout tower on 55' hill overlooking Eleuthera.
20' tall lookout tower on 55' hill overlooking Eleuthera

Q - What would you say are the “must see” features of the Preserve and which of those features were most difficult to assemble?

A - Oh that is a tough question as there are a lot of things that I myself feel are must see when I come to the Preserve. My two top favorites are the Tower and the mangrove boardwalk. The tower sits up on a 55 foot hill and is 20 feet high. When you are there it feels like being in a tree house but with an awesome 360 degree view of the island. Also the construction guys did an outstanding job of building a truly beautiful structure. This one was also one of the more difficult features to assemble. It is deep in the coppice and that meant it took a lot of effort to get materials to the site and then construct it only using hand tools. No cranes, no trucks and no fork lifts.

At the same time I find the mangrove boardwalk to be really inspiring. The mangroves we have at the Preserve are some of the largest in the Bahamas and the boardwalk path was cut in with the absolute minimal impact to the vegetation and ecosystem. This one was also difficult to construct because of the need to not impact the vegetation, working in a muddy wet environment and of course doing it all by hand.

Now that being said, I also think the entire trail system and the education pavilion are also worth seeing but then again I am a little partial to the entire place.

Plant Preserve Maintained by Bahamas National Trust
Plant Preserve Maintained by Bahamas National Trust

Q - I found the mangrove boardwalk to be most interesting and was able to observe a number of reptiles in it during my visit. It is a very peaceful place. As I walked through the Preserve, I noted the various signs describing the plants and trees and their medicinal benefits. Mr. Levy was obviously keen on bush medicine. Which of these plants and trees do you think have the most promise and are any of them exclusive to Eleuthera?

A - None of the plants we are showcasing are unique to Eleuthera. We are showing off plants that all Bahamians have used regardless of the island they are on. That is typically the way it is. If a plant is not common it is not typically used culturally. We are continuing to upgrade our signage to show off more species and give visitors greater information about the plants at the Preserve. As to the promise of any species, that I cannot answer. It is something medical scientists still need to investigate more thoroughly.

Boardwalk runs through one of the largest mangroves on Eleuthera.
Boardwalk Through One of the Largest Mangroves on Eleuthera

Q - You mentioned the education pavilion. What are some of the highlights for that facility?

A - The Education Pavilion is designed as outdoor classroom for students of all ages. It is large, open air 40 x 40 ft. structure with beautiful stone columns, vaulted cedar ceilings and high powered fans. It is equipped with electricity and water as well as Wi-Fi.

The idea was that students would be able to have lectures (with PowerPoint if desired) and do other “classroom” activities there regardless of weather conditions. What makes it really special is the fantastic access to the things the students are learning about. It is literally a few steps away from primary growth coppice, the mangrove wetland, various native species and the medicinal plant beds. Students can learn about the plants and then go see them directly.

We worried a little bit if the Pavilion would prove to be too distracting to students while they are there with all the trees and birds around them but the truth is that is exactly what we want: students getting distracted by nature.

The Pavilion is also a perfect place for activities other than classes such as lectures, gatherings, meditation, receptions etc. The Preserve has tables and chairs on site that can be set up to accommodate up to 100 people. It was designed and situated so that no direct sun hits inside keeping the area cool all day long.

Education Pavillion at Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve on Eleuthera.
Leon Levy Preserve Education Pavillion

Q - I was most impressed with the Pavilion. Nicely done and no doubt will be appreciated by the students on Eleuthera as well as visitors to the Island. Good reason to make a class field trip to the Preserve and Eleuthera.

On a more personal note, what is your favorite thing to do on Eleuthera when you’re not otherwise working on the Preserve?

A - I am a botanist and a rambler so when I have free time I like to grab a vehicle and go exploring around the island. I really love going up the back roads and looking for interesting species to collect and to take digital imagery of as well as find some remote beach. One never knows what one will find just over the next ridge or around the bend.

Our thanks to Dr. Freid for his time and special thanks to the Levy Foundation and the Bahamas National Trust for providing the Native Plant Preserve on Eleuthera. It is a wonderful addition to the Island and sure to be enjoyed by many who live on or visit Eleuthera.

For more information, visit the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve website.

© 2011 Perry Joseph