Island-Hopping in Micronesia

A palm-holiday of a lifetime. Ulli's wonderful travelogue of these tiny and beautiful islands, almost lost in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
Ulrich Gramm, Gellert Str. 42, D-76185 Karlsruhe 21, Germany
Chamaerops No. 14, published online 23-08-2002

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Above: Nypa fruticans, the Mangrove Palm, growing in a swamp on the island of Pohnpei. Note the fruiting head, the size ofa football, covered by up to 40 large seeds.
Below: The Sago Palm Metroxylon salomonense on Chuuk Island. This one is in ripe fruit, each covered in scales like snake skin.

Geography & History

In March 1993 my wife and I made a trip to the Caroline Islands. These islands lie in the north-west Pacific and belong geographically to Micronesia. They are between the Philippines, the Marianes and Guam, and the Marshall Islands to the west of Hawaii.

Most of the Caroline Islands were occupied in World War II by the Japanese in 1941 and reoccupied by the U.S. two or three years later. These years had a strong influence on the way of life of the islands. Even now one can see a lot of tanks, heavy guns etc. rusting memories of that cruel time.

At the end the war the islands were declared areas of trust' by the United Nations under the administration of the United States. Between 1979 and 1983 there have been some efforts made by the islanders to become independent.

Now there are five "Mini-States" within the Caroline Islands: Belau or Palau, Yap, Chuuk or Truk, Pohnpei or Ponape, and Kosrae. The last four comprise the 'Federated States of Micronesia' (FSM).

The islands have a year-round average temperature of about 27 degrees Celsius and there is much rain. So it is an absolutely tropical climate and there are many palms, which was one of the reasons to go there. Another reason was that Palau and Chuuk have some of the best and most interesting diving in the world.

The Trip

It is not so easy to get to the Carolines and we had to fly via Singapore, Taipei in Taiwan and the U.S. island of Guam, to Chuuk.

Of course we stayed some days in Singapore where we visited the Botanic Garden. The Botanic Garden of Singapore can be recommended to every palm enthusiast as one of most beautiful gardens in the world showing a great variety of palms from all parts of the globe.

When we arrived in Chuuk, the whole island was very wet because of 36 hours non-stop rain. Thousands of frogs were jumping on the muddy streets. And we saw many of one wonderful species of palm growing on the wet banks of the lagoon and rivers.

They had big pinnate leaves and many also carried 1-2 m long fruitstalks with about 20 to 50 fruits. The fruits were the size of a tennis ball and their surface was scaly like a snakeskin. The seed inside was dark brown to black, hard, and kidney-shaped. Inside the seed there was white fruit flesh like that of the coconut. The identity of the palm was revealed as the Sago Palm - Metroxylon salomonense (it can be also found on the Solomon Islands in Melanesia).

It was very difficult to collect seeds but with the friendly help of some Chuukese we were able to get about 15. One reason for not collecting more was the enormous weight of the fruits. Unfortunately none of them has germinated so far.

After some days of walking and diving we had seen the whole main island of Chuuk and so we flew to the next island.

Pohnpei

Pohnpei has an even more tropical climate with even more rain. (A Pohnpeian was asked when the last dry period was on Pohnpei. He answered that he could remember exactly that it was a Tuesday three years ago!). It is often called the "Garden Island of Micronesia". The reason for this large amount of rain is Pohnpei's high volcanic mountains.

The vegetation on the island is fresh green and Pohnpei lagoon is surrounded by mangroves. At some places there are many Mangrove Palms - Nypa fruticans and I had the opportunity collecting one of the fruits after wading through a deep swamp. A whole fruiting head is the size of a football with 30 to 40 individual fruits packed onto its surface, wedge-shaped to fit, not unlike Pandanus. A single fruit is the size of a fist, and the seed within contains edible flesh.

When we toured the island by car we needed a whole day for the 60 km because outside the capital there are only wet and muddy roads. The people live much more traditionally in comparison to those on Chuuk. They are all very friendly, maybe because there are only very few tourists each year.

At one stop I studied the large numbers of Metroxylon salomonense of all ages and sizes beside a river in the jungle. Suddenly a Pohnpeian man with two kids came up to me asking what I was doing there. He told me that the area has belonged for a long time to his family and he was curious when I told him about my interest in palms. Immediately he offered me one of about two meters in height. Because it was impossible to take it to Germany by plane I decided to take instead a germinated seed with two leaves (50 cm) and with very few roots. The first leaves of Metroxylon salomonense grow from the seed before any roots sprout. We talked a long time about palms on Pohnpei and he was very interested in the way of living in Germany.He had never been out of Micronesia, so he could not imagine how the different seasons appear, snow he knew only from film or television and he could not understand that one could grow palms indoors, or indeed why one would want to!

Before we flew to the last islands, again by "island hopping" (stops in Chuuk and Guam) I bought a plastic bowl in which to plant my newly-acquired Sago Palm.

Palau

In the archipelago of Palau we visited three of the bigger islands, which were all very different. Koror which is the capital of the State of Palau is very developed. One can see in every garden and in the city itself different cultivated palms such as Veitchia, Roystonea, Cocos nucifera and Arecas. Arecas are very important on Koror for chewing betel nut. A "good chewer" told me that while there are different Arecas, A. catechu is the best for chewing, especially with lime and a leaf of pepper. On Koror there is no jungle any more.

The next island was Pelileu, which is the second most southerly island of the Palau group with only a few inhabitants in three small villages. During the flight to Pelileu one has a great view of the Rock Islands (small green islands like heads of button mushrooms between different blues of the corals and the lagoon). The Rock Islands are surely one of the most impressive and beautiful parts of the world. Nothing but swimming and diving is allowed in this marine nature reserve. (See cover picture).

The vegetation here is made up of Pandanus, different Arecas and other trees which cling on to the naked rock on these very small islands.

Pelileu seems to be very dry and hot. Almost no palms apart from Coconuts could be found here. Pelileu is a coral island so there are no mountains to cause much rain. However, because of the fresh water underground there is jungle on it, which we walked through. We found wonderful, totally deserted beaches lapped by the clear waters of the west Pacific Ocean, without meeting anybody the whole day.

The third and the biggest island is Babeldaob in the North of Palau. There are only some short bad roads on it, even so we rented a jeep to ride to and into this island. The inhabitants of the different villages of Babeldaob are separated by some serious jungle and the only connection between them is provided by the boats within the lagoon.

On Babeldaob one finds valleys, mountains, rivers and wonderful waterfalls. In the south there are large areas with mangroves and Nypa fruticans. In the inner island we found a palm, which we could not identify. It looked like Areca and the fruits were bright to dark red, oval and 1,5 to 2 cm long. We could not find it in any book.

Among the different seeds and palms which I brought back to Germany from that trip the most interesting is the Metroxylon salomonense. So far it has grown three new leaves but the winter in Europe has caused some problems with the light, the temperature and the humidity. Even so, it is a wonderful, living souvenir of that happy holiday in distant Micronesia.

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