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
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
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
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
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
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