The History of Howeia

The most popular palm in the world has an interesting history. In this first of two parts, Ian Hutton explores its origins and the early days of 'the palm business'.
Ian Hutton, P.O. Box 6367, Coffs Harbour Plaza, N.S.W. 2450, Australia
Chamaerops No. 13, published online 23-08-2002

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Above: Job for Life: Potting up Lord Howe Island Kentia seedlings in a Dutch hothouse.
Below: Wall to Wall Palms: Young Kentia palms fill this large greenhouse.

The temperature around me must have been close to l00°F (3O°C), there was not a breath of wind, and beads of sweat were rolling down my face, the occasional drop splashing off the end of my nose onto an open clipboard file. I was 12,000 miles from my Australian home carrying out research into Kentia palms. However, this was not the steamy tropics, but the city of Gent in Belgium on a hot summer's afternoon. I was in the attic office at the de Clercq family nursery, one of the earliest Belgian nurseries to import Kentia palms to the Old World. I had been invited to visit Europe to research the Kentia palm industry by Henk van Staalduinen of Holland, the largest European importer of Kentia palm seedlings today.

The home of the Kentia palm is a tiny speck of land in the Pacific Ocean halfway between Australia and New Zealand - named Lord Howe Island in 1788, the year of its discovery. Just 7 miles long by one mile wide (13km X 2km), it is often described as the most beautiful island in the world. In the Island's largely untouched forests, grow four indigenous palms, one of which is the world-renowned Kentia palm. Its correct botanical name is actually Howea forsteriana, but Kentia was its original name when the first palm exports left the Island in the 1870s and 80s. The earlier anachronistic name has remained with it to the present day, at least in the nursery trade.

Henk van Staalduuinen has been involved in the Kentia industry for over 10 years, and he visits Lord Howe Island every year, often with his family or a group of Dutch nurserymen. The island is now like a second home to him, and it is through his genuine interest in the Kentia palm that I have been invited to Europe to research the palm industry there. When enough material has been gathered, I plan to write a book to tell the story of this unique palm. And what a fascinating history it has. Between 1870 and 1940, the entire economic and social fabric of Lord Howe Island revolved around this one species of palm. There are tales of fortune and intrigue, government enquiries (including two Royal Commissions) and an amazing export success story that saw the Kentia palm travel to every country in the western world.

Since World War II, tourism has become an increasingly important form of employment for island residents, but the Kentia palm still remains Lord Howe's only significant export, providing most of the income needed by the island administration. Early records of palm exports are extremely rare on Lord Howe Island itself as there was no official administration on the Island until 1913, and no real records maintained until then. To delve back into the beginnings of the industry, it was necessary to leave the Island and travel to Europe where Kentias had been imported as early as the 1870s.

The late 19th century was the heyday of botanical interest in England and Europe. Horticultural companies employed collectors to travel to exotic locations around the world, scouring recently colonised lands for anything botanically new. Tons of live plants were forwarded back to Europe, enclosed in specially constructed Wardian cases strapped to the decks of sailing vessels. It was a status symbol for wealthy Europeans to maintain hothouses on their estates and homes. Prices for exotica were high - even so, these hothouses were crammed with the latest overseas botanical curiosities. Palms found favour fairly late in the day, but when they did they were in high demand. Perhaps in the cool temperate European environment, palms evoked an attractive image of tropical luxuriance.

The first horticultural catalogues to list Kentias appeared in 1871. These were probably live specimens sent across from Lord Howe Island. Within just a few years, the Kentia became established as the doyen of indoor potted palms. Glowing descriptions of its qualities appeared in horticultural journals all over Europe. In a book of greenhouse plants of the time (l 876) we read, 'Kentias are handsome, robust plants with pinnate leaves, which, together with petiole & stem, are quite destitute of spines. They are splendid objects for the decoration of the greenhouse or conservatory, and succeed admirably during the Sumner months in the subtropical garden, and in addition may be used with splendid effect as table decorators, when in a young state. Native of Lord Howe's island'

By the 1880's, a well-organised industry had developed on the island with the residents harvesting the seeds and sending them to Europe directly or via agents in Sydney, Australia.

The seeds were in such high demand however, and in such short supply, that one Belgian horticulturist decided to travel to Lord Howe Island personally to try to secure a supply for his family nursery. He was August de Clercq, from Gent (see photo next page), the great grandfather of the present nursery owner. He left Antwerp on 25th Sept. 1898 for the eight-week sea voyage and soon became the first European nurseryman to base his business solely on these palms.

His grandson Phillip, the present nursery owner, had visited Lord Howe Island in 1984 bringing an album of family photographs showing his grandfather and the early nursery. These were taken almost a century ago. When Henk invited me to Holland, I remembered these photographs, and arranged a visit to the de Clercq home to research early records and (with Phillip's permission) to copy the old photographs.

I found much of interest relating to the early days of the industry and spent several hours sifting through it. Coming from Australia, I had no idea the European summers could be so hot, and I had brought only warm clothes. Thus, I found myself on this summer's afternoon sweltering in the attic office in long trousers and thick shirt - it was hot work! Downstairs, while cooling off, I talked with Phillip's father, who had many interesting stories to repeat, handed down from his father who had travelled to Lord Howe island so many years ago.

The Kentia palm industry was interrupted by the two great world wars, but apart from these setbacks, the palm from Lord Howe Island maintained its status position as the best indoor palm of all. Its long stems, elegantly arched fronds and dark green leaflets made it extremely attractive. Also, because Lord Howe Island is situated at a latitude of 302S, it has a mild, temperate climate, and the palms thrive in conditions of low light, temperature and humidity. They are better suited to indoor European conditions than other palms with more tropical origins.

The main European centre for the growing of the Kentias shifted in the late 19th century from England to Belgium but in recent years Holland has emerged as one of the principal European suppliers. Henk van Staalduinen became involved in the early 1980s, and developed the industry in the Westland area of Holland, though associated growers are now established suppliers of Kentias in other parts of the country. Henk works closely with a dedicated group of nurserymen who have pioneered many new techniques to produce some of the best quality Kentias in the world. I spent two weeks travelling around the nurseries, meeting the owners and looking at their operations.

The view in each greenhouse is impressive wall-to-wall Kentias, row after row of palms in all stages of production, all plants in each stage being identical in size and colour. With their long experience in greenhouse production of vegetables and cut flowers, the Dutch nurserymen have quickly established the methods and techniques to produce outstanding Kentia palms. Moreover, they have formed an association, which regularly meets to discuss problems, and new techniques. This cooperation has fast-tracked their success, and ensures that all the output from the region is of top quality.

Conditions of growing medium, temperature, light, humidity, pH, fertiliser and carbon dioxide levels are optimised and strictly monitored to produce healthy, vigorous plants. The Dutch product not only looks the best when it leaves the greenhouse, but has a long life with minimal care after it is sold into the market.

Marketing of the wholesale palms is carried out with the same Dutch efficiency. Kentia palms are sold in lots through the famous. Dutch auction houses. Here the palms are given a quality assurance grading and then offered at auction where bidders sit in front of a large 'clock'. The price on a lot starts at the highest possible point, then the clock hand falls until a bidder snaps them up. Trolley after trolley of palms moves under the clock, bidders silently press their buttons to purchase, operators record bids, all at a speed that dazzles the first time visitor.

The Dutch growers use only the best quality seedlings as 'starters'. Prior to 1980, all of the seed from Lord Howe Island was sold by tender. However in 1980 the Lord Howe Island Board established a nursery on the island to germinate the seed locally. Additionally, the New South Wales government based a horticulturalist, Chris Weale, there to manage the nursery and to perfect the process of producing top quality Kentia seedlings. Henk works closely with the Board nursery and only imports their product, now recognised as one of the best in the world.

In the next issue I will describe a visit to beautiful Lord Howe Island where seed collectors still climb the trees to harvest seed in the same way as they did over 100 years ago. If any reader has any information or photographs that throw light on the history of the Kentia industry, I would appreciate hearing from them.

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