The Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve: A Showcase of Eleuthera’s History, Native Plants, and their Medicinal Uses
Eleuthera, The Bahamas
Raymond Jungles, Inc.
Client: The Leon Levy Foundation
Among the most at-risk ecosystems in the world are low-lying places such as the archipelago of the Bahamas, whose Eleuthera Island is home a 30-acre nature preserve intended to nurture both the island’s native species and a deeper appreciation for them. The site transforms an illegal dump into a procession from visitor center to ancient dune, repurposing an agricultural cistern as a freshwater wetland demonstration garden, allowing the foundation that supports the preserve to fulfill its educational mission.
- 2021 Awards Jury
Ethan H. Freid Ph.D, Botanist
Plan It Bahamas, Architect
Sagoma Construction International, General Contractor
The Bahamas National Trust, Client
Stephen Dunn, Professional Photographer
The Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve is the fulfillment of the vision of longtime residents Leon Levy and Shelby White, who loved the natural environment and way of life on Eleuthera. The 30-acre preserve, recognized as the island’s first national park, was jointly created by the Bahamas National Trust and the Leon Levy Foundation. It is focused on promoting education, interdisciplinary conservation, preservation, and research, for future generations of Bahamians to understand and appreciate their rich ethnobotanical heritage.
The project aligns with one of the six areas of the Leon Levy Foundation’s philanthropic legacy: Preservation of Nature and Gardens. Children interact with native Bahamian turtles and leap across floating flagstone paths in the pre-existent agricultural cistern, turned freshwater wetlands garden. Visitors pass through an agricultural exhibition garden, located on the site’s most fertile soils, made rich from eons of rainwater erosion from higher ground.
The design laid the foundation for the visitor experience, utilizing existing saltwater marsh with a mature stand of red mangroves, secondary dune, and the native coppice, as highlighted ecosystems.
The Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve was conceived in a culture of cooperation, collaboration, and enthusiasm. The Preserve is the fulfillment of the vision of longtime residents Leon Levy and Shelby White, who loved the natural environment and way of life on Eleuthera. After Leon Levy’s passing in 2003, Shelby White wanted to celebrate her husband’s devotion to the island while contributing to a better future for all Eleutherans. Mr. Levy loved the island and was concerned that the knowledge and use of the medicinal value of the island’s native plants were rapidly diminishing.
This 30-acre preserve was jointly created by the Bahamas National Trust and the Leon Levy Foundation. The Bahamas National Trust is a science-based organization dedicated to effectively managing national parks to conserve and protect Bahamian natural resources. The Leon Levy Foundation is a private, not-for-profit foundation created from Leon Levy’s estate. These two organizations have now formed the first National Park on Eleuthera, a designated research center for traditional bush medicine, a facility for the propagation of indigenous plants and trees, and an educational center focusing on the importance of native vegetation to the biodiversity of the Bahamas.
The project’s primary focus was to raise awareness of Bahamian plant diversity and bush medicine, aligning with one of the six broad areas for the Leon Levy Foundation’s philanthropic legacy: Preservation of Nature and Gardens. The founders hope that the diversity of the Preserve’s plant and animal life will inspire subsequent generations to preserve native species and habitat and address the pernicious effects of years of deforestation, invasive species importation, and monoculture agricultural practices.
The site is comprised mostly of elevated, rocky, dry forest, called coppice, and lower degraded areas that had been cultivated. The native ecology was being impacted by flourishing invasive, exotic trees and rubbish from an illegal, on-site dump.
Throughout Phase I, the landscape architect orchestrated the Preserve’s design and siting of main facility structures including a visitor center, educational pavilion, back of house operations center, and restrooms. The landscape architect also designed all vehicular and pedestrian circulation and associated parking. There were extensive coppice restoration and the creation of ecosystem-driven gardens including bush medicine exhibition gardens. Phase I also laid the foundation for the visitor experience throughout the preserve, utilizing existing saltwater marsh with a mature stand of red mangroves, secondary dune, and the native coppice, as highlighted ecosystems.
The arrival experience is richly defined by limestone border walls, built by local masons, and an overhead pergola. Visitors pass over an ancient dune, down to the lowlands to a parking area, planted to feel like it was etched out of an existing coppice. The procession to the visitor center is mysterious, as one must wind through a seemingly pre-existent coppice. The visitor center structure was conceived by the landscape architect to be a portal to the preserve gardens. This visitor’s center was located in the vicinity of the illegal dump. The dump was excavated to remove all of the rubbish, revealing the textured surface of an ancient reef cap. The existing coconut palms, which had sprouted from dumped yard waste, were silent witnesses of the past, but now have a voice in the Preserve’s regeneration.
As one passes through the visitor’s center building, from garden to garden, the space is enlivened by a cascade of recirculating water down the face of the ancient dune. The water cascade splashes into a lagoon created through the excavation of the dump, below the water table. Soon after its creation, the lagoon was happily inhabited by birds and dragonflies.
After circumnavigating the lagoon and crossing the watercourse, the path descends to a boardwalk that passes through a red mangrove stand. Across the boardwalks are a series of bush medicine exhibitions. The Education Pavilion, the departure point for nature trails, is a flexible structure that provides shelter for outdoor classroom lessons, weddings, and other group gatherings. More bush medicine exhibitions occur along open space trails past the education pavilion if one prefers to return to the visitor center. All trail systems lead to the visitor center as well as a dramatic viewing tower sited by the Bahamas National Trust’s botanist. Great vistas from the viewing tower across the immense Bahamian coppice are celebrated.
Phase II aspired to feature other Bahamian ecosystems and make additional educational opportunities available to the Preserve’s visitors. Major new additions included a native plant propagation center, designed by the landscape architect, a freshwater wetland created from a pre-existent agricultural cistern, and a historical agricultural exhibition garden located on the site’s most fertile soils, made rich from eons of rainwater erosion from higher ground. Phase II also incorporated the careful excavation of underground formations of limestone oxidized through rainwater erosion, exposing hidden site geology to visitors.
By the end of Phase II, twenty percent of the Preserve had been restored to native vegetation and converted into accessible gardens. It has become a sanctuary for humans, animals, and insects. The landscape architect was selected for this project due to his extensive knowledge of USDA zone 11B plants and ecologies, being very similar to South Florida’s Zone 11A, and the Florida Keys Zone 11B. He worked extensively with the Preserve's botanist and Bahamas National Trust staff in refining the site's planting plans.
The Preserve now features over 171 species of indigenous plants and more than 34 species of birds, including the Antillean Bullfinch. Over 100 varieties of medicinal plants and more than 25 different economic plants are among the 2,000 native trees, shrubs and herbs recently added to the site.
The public has embraced the Preserve, and record numbers of visitors are propagating awareness of this native oasis. The landscape architect found the project rewarding, collaborating with a variety of public and private stakeholders, including the local community, to unearth the best solutions to the project’s challenges. In fact, the Preserve is the #1 rated activity on Trip Advisor’s “39 Things to do in Eleuthera.”
The landscape architect is now designing Phase III, an additional 5-acres of land, which will include an expanded visitor center, sleeping facilities for students and scientists, faculty lodging, maintenance and administrative facilities, an event pavilion, an event lawn a water garden, and many new trail systems.
In April 2019, the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve became the first institution in The Bahamas to be designated a BGCI accredited botanic garden. Issued by Botanic Gardens Conservation International, this tier of accreditation recognizes institutions for their achievements in plant conservation.
- Ernodea littoralis
- Tabebuia bahamensis
- Guaiacum sanctum
- Coccoloba diversifolia
- Phyla nodiflora
- Coccothrinax argentata
- Bursera simaruba
- Eugenia foetida
- Bucida spinosa
- Sabal palmetto
- Rhizophora mangle
- Swietenia mahagoni
- Cassia chapmanii
- Eugenia axillaris
- Myrcianthes fragrans
- Mastichodendron foetidissimum
- Stachytarpheta fruticosa
- Plumeria obtusa
- Wedellia bahamensis
- Thrinax morrisii
- Coccoloba uvifera