Isle Of Palms
In 'The History of Howeia' part 2 we learn
more about the nuts and bolts of the Kentia palm industry. The second
and concluding part of this fascinating story.
Ian Hutton, PO Box 6367 , Coffs Harbour Plaza N.S.W., 2450 Australia
Chamaerops No. 15, published online 23-08-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Left, above left: Seeder Ray Shick gathering Kentia
Left, above right: Under Greyface; Kentia Palm forest
Left below: The picture postcard island of Lord Howe, with Kentia
palms growing along the seashore
Right, above and below: Lord Howe Island in two views, an incredibly
beautiful island whichever way you look at it.
Lord Howe Island is a thin crescent shaped sliver
of land less than 13km long at its widest point, yet condensed into
this miniature world are towering mountains, gently rolling hills
and valleys, verdant rainforests, secluded beaches and bays, an
opalescent lagoon with fringing coral reef and last, though certainly
not least, extensive forests of seductively swaying palm trees.
The island is a biologists' paradise. The high proportion
of rare and endemic plant species, the huge colonies of tame sea
birds, the unusual volcanic geology and the teeming marine life
all helped to make the island a perfect laboratory for biological
research and study. It was small wonder that the island had been
inscribed on the United Nations World Heritage List in 1982 as being
a singular environment "of outstanding universal value"
Among the nearly 200 species of indigenous flowering
plants found on Lord Howe, there are four endemic palm species.
One of these - Howea forsteriana, known as the Thatch or Kentia
Palm - has the distinction of dominating much of the physical environment
of the island, and the historical life of its inhabitants.
The island was first settled in 1834, and supported
a small population of English and American settlers, who relied
on growing vegetables to barter with passing whaling ships. When
whaling declined in the 1870's the island faced a bleak economic
outlook. Remarkably, however, within a decade the Kentia palm had
become the doyen of the indoor palm market in Europe and provided
a great source of income for the islanders.
Much of my knowledge about the Kentia palm industry
has developed through contact and conversation with the Lord Howe
islanders, many of whom have been involved with the Kentia palm
for their entire lives. My first seed collecting expedition occurred
several years ago with Islander Ray Shick. Ray had been involved
in seed collecting and other traditional island activities since
he was a child, and still looked athletically fit at 60 years of
Visiting his property at the remote south end of
the island, under the shadow of the 866m high Mt. Lidgbird, was
like a step back into the quiet days of the island's agricultural
past. Rural sounds were everywhere - the barking of the farm dogs,
the lowing of cattle, ad even the hum of carefully tended bees.
Today Ray intended to climb some 400 metres up the north flank of
Mt. Lidgbird, where a high pocket of Kentia palms spread beneath
a towering cliff called "The Greyface".
When Ray appeared, he was dressed, in a comfortable
flannel shirt, a pair of khaki workshorts, heavy leather boots and
a woollen cap. He carefully loaded his gear into a large rucksack,
including the vital seeding strap used for climbing palms, and a
locally made device called a 'cubby' - a simple rucksack-type harness
that could be used to carry heavy loads of seed.
With the rucksack now securely on his back, and
two farm dogs racing ahead, we set out across a grassy paddock.
Within a few minutes we were climbing upward through a thicket of
trees toward our final destination - the Greyface. As we plodded
steadily upward, Ray explained that the Kentia seed on Lord Howe
Island is harvested every year beginning in March, with the collecting
season lasting many months. Palm forests on the island are divided
into harvesting areas depending on the maturity of the seed. The
warmer lowland areas are the earliest maturing, and so are obviously
harvester first. The Greyface, where we were heading, is a much
cooler mountain habitat and so the slower maturing seed is not collected
Ray explained further that the Lord Howe Island
Board (the island's local government authority is responsible for
determining the harvesting dates for various areas and for setting
the fees for collection of seed. Collection rates are based on the
degree of difficulty in gaining access to each area. Thus a remote
and rugged place like The Big Slope behind Mt. Gower, accessible
only by boat in good weather, attracts a higher rate than seed collected
around the settlement area.
All plants and seed are considered the property
of the Island Board, which has powers derived from a special Act
of Parliament, the Lord Howe Island Act. The revenue derived from
the seedling industry is returned to the island in the form of local
government services and public works. Unlike most other Australian
communities, Lord Howe islanders do not have to shoulder the burden
of local government expenditure through the payment of high rates
My conversation with Ray was interrupted after an
hour, when we arrived in a thick stand of Kentia palms beneath a
craggy grey cliff on the north-western flank of the mountain. It
is unusual to find these palms growing at a height of 400 metres
because they usually favour the lowlands. Here, however, they look
exceptionally healthy, and regularly bear heavy crops of seeds.
Without rushing, Ray methodically emptied the contents
of his rucksack. Then he put on his special climbing boots - stout
leather shoes, each having a wide strip of tyre-tread fastened across
the sole. These tyre treads help the seed collector grip the palm
trunk, and are assisted by a circular jute or canvass strap that
loops around both boots. In earlier days, seed collectors wore spiky
hobnail boots and, consequently, one can still see deep vertical
scars gouged by the hobnails on older palm trunks.
Ray walked up to the nearest palm and looped h is
seeding strap around both boots. Reaching up, he grasped the palm
with two hands, then jumped off the ground, locking his boots and
strap against the palm trunk to prevent himself from slipping back
down. Again and again Ray repeated this movement as he shinnied
up the tree, like the proverbial monkey on a stick. Having reached
the top, he began to grapple with the mass of seed [spikes beneath
the crown of leaves.
On the Kentia palm, seed spikes of about half a
metre in length grow from the trunk in clusters or "hands"
of five. Each spike bears up to 70 individual seeds, which go from
dark to light green and finally red as they ripen. The "hands"
of five are firmly anchored to the palm trunk, and require a powerful,
wrenching tug to free them. Working systematically, Ray tugged away
at the seed spikes with one arm, but transferred them immediately
to the other as soon as the spikes had been dislodged. Once all
had been [picked, he slipped back down the palm trunk, this time
assisted by gravity. Using his boots and strap to allow the slow
descent he came to a gentle halt at the base of the palm.
This particular tree yielded about 10 kilos of seed
(a third of a bushel) worth about $60 to Ray. Most trees yield less
than this but the occasional tree will yield 40 kilos or so. Ray
is paid about $200 per bushel to collect the seed from the Greyface,
the island Board could sell the seed for four to five times that
amount. These days, however, the seed is never sold outright. Instead
it is germinated at the Board's Island Nursery, and then wholesaled
as shot seed or small seedlings, thus increasing its value over
Ray knew instinctively which trees would yield the
most seeds, and he climbed them one by one in the same effortless
manner. After climbing about eight trees, he had accumulated sufficient
seed to commence the task of "shelling" or stripping the
individual palm seeds from their long seed spikes; Ray simply thrust
the seed spikes into a sack and trampled on them. Within a few minutes,
the loud crunching sounds had ceased and the now bare seed spikes
were withdrawn from the sack, leaving the individual seeds in the
Repeating the process, Ray managed to fill three
large jute sacks with palm seed, a quantity weighing some 200 kilos.
By midday, he felt he had collected enough seed for the day, so
we gathered up our gear for the return journey. Ray bundled one
of his three sacks of seed into the 'cubby", a rucksack-like
harness with shoulder straps and a cradle supporting a full bag
of seed. The other two remaining sacks were to be left for another
Once back at the house, Ray took this bag of seed
straight to the island palm nursery. The nursery had its origins
in 1979 when an island businessman and Board member, Alan Williams,
offered to establish a local nursery to increase the revenue for
local administration. Until this time, all palm seed had been shipped
away to mainland and overseas nurserymen. Alan hoped that a local
nursery would return to the island a much higher percentage of the
profits being made from the palm trade. His foresight was complemented
by the technical expertise of an officer from the Department of
Agriculture, Chris Weale, who arrived in June 1984 to improve the
nursery operating efficiency.
Ray left me with islander Larry Wilson (who trained
under Chris Weale) and now manages the operation. On the first stage
of the tour Larry took me to the shed where palm seed is air dried
in special boxes. The drying process takes from two to three weeks,
and helps to break down the tough outer husk that would otherwise
retard germination. The seed is then fumigated against diseases
and transferred into special plastic germination boxes about 50cm
by 34 cm in size, about 18cm deep. There it is mixed with peat moss
and perlite, an inert substance that helps aerate the mix. This
composite brew of seeds, peat moss and perlite is thoroughly moistened,
and then sealed in a large plastic bag to prevent dehydration.
Once the boxes have been prepared in this way, they
are stacked on three tiered racks in tunnel shaped igloos, each
igloo has a whitewashed plastic cover to keep the seeds warm at
night and cool during the heat of the day. Larry explained that
germination can take from six months to three years, though most
seeds sprout within eighteen months. Annual seed harvest vary from
about 700 to 1500 bushels, and with each bushel of seed requiring
14 germination boxes, I could see clearly why 19 large igloos were
required for germination space at the nursery.
Walking into one of the igloos, Larry thrust his
hands into a germination box and extracted a handful of healthy
palm sprouts. These, he told me, are usually harvested when a single
leaf shoot is about 25mm long, by which time the seedling also has
a strong root system. The harvesting of these small sprouts is the
most labour task at the nursery, and so some eight casual workers
are employed to carry out this task. The casuals can always be located
in the nursery by their blaring transistor radios, which help ease
the monotony of an extremely tedious and repetitive operation.
After inspection of the igloos, Larry took me to
the packing shed where the young palm sprouts are prepared for shipment.
There, a nursery assistant was busy washing seedlings in clean water
to remove all traces of peat moss and perlite. The seedlings were
then dipped into large tubs containing fungicide solution, intended
to maintain them disease free for their journey to Australia or
overseas. In the final stages of the operation, the seedlings were
packed into large Styrofoam boxes in lots of 2000. These containers
provide good insulation for their live cargo, and are light enough
to bear the cost of air transport to customers anywhere in the world
- such as Henk and Robert van Staalduinen in Holland.
Today, although palm seeding is still important,
a small tourist industry supports most of the islanders. Just a
two-hour flight from Sydney or Brisbane, the island is increasingly
visited by those wanting to experience unspoilt nature. The island
rainforests are crisscrossed by walking trails that take visitors
to many points of scenic interest, thronging bird colonies, remote
rocky coves and secluded beaches. Swimming and snorkelling in the
lagoon are popular and scuba facilities are available. Roads are
minimal and bicycles are the main form of tourist transport. To
maintain the integrity of the environment, the Island Board limits
tourist beds to 400, so visitors can be assured of an uncrowded
Travel arrangements can be made via Fastbook Holidays
in Sydney at Level 1, 163 Eastern Valley Way, Middle Cove, NSW 22068,
Australia. Additionally, the author escorts personalised nature
tours to the island.
Anyone who has old photographs or information relating
to the Kentia palm industry, please write to Ian Hutton, P.O. Box
6367, Coffs Harbour, NSW 2450, Australia .
For those interested in Kentia palms in Europe, contact Henk van
Staalduinen, Fazantstraat 35, 3145 CA Maassluis, Holland.
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