The Red Crownshaft Palm in New Zealand

Time has passed and the plants from the original collection are now eight years old and looking quite wonderful.
Dick Endt, Landsendt, 108 Parker Road, Oratia, Auckland, N.Z.
Chamaerops No.31 Summer 1998

Coming -of-age: The famous Red Crownshaft palm, now flourishing in New Zealand

Going back some ten years ago I became confronted with this most unusual and spectacular palm while travelling in the remote southern part of Ecuador. Ecuador is a paradise of plants, a paradise lost in a way as more and more of the accessible areas are stripped of vegetation to make way for cattle farming and various forms of subsistence agriculture. Fortunate for me perhaps that in recent years new roads have been constructed opening up new areas of forests inaccessible before. This allowed us to venture into regions little explored and to enjoy the splendour of nature perhaps unparalleled in other parts of the world.

In recent times a new road has been constructed from Vilcabamba to Valledolid in the very South of Ecuador. The highlight of our visit to this region were the many palms which grow in the moist, high altitude forest. One place known as the Inca trail refers to the ancient Inca highway which until recently was still used by the inhabitants of Valledolid to find their way to Vilcabamba. Now disused and much overgrown, it still inspires awe when one considers that this road, constructed using boulders, now largely gouged out by deep ruts and water channels, was made so many hundreds of years ago as a main source of communication during the Inca empire.

At the point where the new road crosses the old Inca trail we stopped to have a closer look at all the new (to us) palms around us. The most unmistakable was the Red Crownshaft palm (Geonoma undata). The palm itself is rather slender trunked, fairly tall growing topped by a splendid, dense, deep green canopy. Projected over the top of the canopy are the newly developing leaves bronze green in colour opening out into a spiky looking feather.

The leaves are rather odd, often the leaflets are broad at the base and pointed at the apex, the tips often bent down, the appearance of the crown rather ruffled-looking. Even more unusual is the brilliant red crownshaft supporting the base of the leaf stems. These palms catch the eye and suggest that such a splendour of colour is associated with more tropical palms. We were fortunate enough to collect ripe seeds of these palms which now, ten years later, have become very much admired and talked about in New Zealand. The tallest growing so far are about 3m in height while most others are a little less than that. I can now afford the luxury of observing the Red Crownshaft palm through my bedroom window, growing outside, open to the elements and just thriving.

We are fortunate in our part of New Zealand in that our climate here is very similar to the high altitude regions of the Andes, never really cold yet not very hot either. I am watching this palm outside my window very closely. The red crownshaft does not become visible until the palm reaches the age of eight years by which time the palm starts to accelerate in growth, shown on the trunk as widening spacing of leaf scars.

During the warmest months of Summer the palm stops growing. New leaf spears develop but will not open out. As many as four or five leaf spears of variable length can be observed at one time. As soon as the cooler Autumn weather starts these spears will open out in rapid succession. New leaves appear throughout the year, one or two a month.

One phenomenon which I hadn’t observed in Ecuador is the fact that newly developing roots emerging from the periphery around the base of the trunk are bright red also. Why should new vegetative growth be red in colour? One suggestion is that perhaps the red new shoots are unattractive to chewing insects. As soon as the new growth hardens off will the colour green develop, essential for the plant in the photosynthesis process?

The hardiness of the red crownshaft palm is about the same as the Kentia palm, Howea fosteriana. -4 deg.C will kill young palms growing outside without protection. Older palms are likely to be more resistant to cold. The leaves of this palm are rather susceptible to thrips, particularly when grown indoors.
Hopefully it will become more widely available in the future so that more enthusiasts will be able to try this fabulous palm in their own gardens.


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