Paschalococos and the Disappearing Palms

Extinct is Forever' as the posters say. Carlo ponders this, and explores and explains about other vulnerable species of palm in this well-researched article.
Carlo Morici, Palmetum de Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Parque Maritimo, 38001 Canarias, Spain
Chamaerops No.40, Autumn Edition 2000

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Above: 'Last refuge' - Cocco thrinax barbadensis survives only in one or two locations on Antigua.

Paschalococos disperta would be a great introduction for the Canary Islands. I am sure that this feather palm from Easter Island would do wonderfully in other subtropical and Mediterranean areas. Its native island is located at about 28 degrees southern latitude, making this palm resistant enough to cold to even grow in Southern France. Sadly, nobody will ever grow Paschalococos because it is extinct.
For a plant lover, a plant in its pot is just a part of a dream which includes memoirs of an exotic locality with plenty of animal life, mysterious people, a curious climate, and a taste for adventure. I love to read about palms in their original environments. The habitat tells a lot about the plant and the palm tells a lot about its home. I definitely think that some palms have an Asiatic look, while some others look Australian. Some "smell" like savanna and some grow in a "Cloud Forest Style." Take a look at the palms in your dining room: the tall Dypsis lutescens (Areca or Bamboo palm) close to the window is perfectly adapted to the white sand beaches of Madagascar; that small clump of Chamaedorea elegans (Parlour palm) evolved in the understorey of humid forests of inland Mexico. There, the poor soils contain a lot of limestone and it can be quite cold at night. Howea forsteriana (Kentia) could tell long stories about its native habitat: a windy and humid island in the South West Pacific.

The ecological problems known to all of us are deeply affecting palms. The general public talks continuously about the disappearing tropical rain forests, but seem to be less concerned about the loss of other palm habitats such as dry forests, scrubs, savannas, semi-deserts and coastal bushlands. These ecosystems are home to most of the palm species suited for cultivation.

I have been stimulated to write this paper by a book published in late 1996. It is the first "Status Survey and Action Plan" for the palm family produced by the I.U.C.N. (International Union for Conservation of Nature). The editor, Dennis Johnson, gathered the efforts of 30 palm specialists from many countries; these specialists are the same people who produced most of the prolific palm literature of the last decade.

According to the survey, the situation is apparently going toward a disastrous collapse. About 80% of the palm species of the globe are threatened to some extent, or, even worse, we are ignoring their conservation status. A dramatic datum is that 21 species are classified as "Probably Extinct." This means that there are no more wild stands of those species and, if a rediscovery will ever occur, only a few old isolated specimens are likely to be found.

Nevertheless, a "Probably Extinct" species can, in some cases, be rescued.. It recently happened to an African desert fan palm called Medemia argun. I remember that, when I was 17 years old, Pietro Puccio, a friend of mine from Palermo, Sicily, told me about an enigmatic palm named Medemia, which was originally distributed throughout Egypt, getting close to the Mediterranean coast. Seeds of Medemia had been found in Egyptian tombs, among offering gifts, almost as frequently as those of the date palm. This legendary plant would have doubtlessly done well in Sicily but disappeared from Egypt between the 6th and the 7th century. In the XX century, isolated trees were reported by Boulos in 1968 and by Issawy in 1964, but the Medemia track was soon lost again. Nowadays my friend Pietro is growing small Medemia seedlings in his Sicilian garden, as the palm has recently (in late 1995) been rediscovered in Northern Sudan by two European nurserymen, Martin Gibbons and Tobias Spanner. The next step, which would need an international cooperation plan, would be to reintroduce Medemia seedlings in Egypt, where it may be extinct.

Not all cases are so lucky: a feather palm from Juan Fernandez Island (Chile) is threatened by introduced domestic animals that eat its seedlings. Seeds have been collected and distributed on several occasions, but Juania australis has won the name of "The Un-growable Palm." Only one mature specimen survives away from its island (in Santiago de Chile), because the cultural needs of the palm seem to be quite peculiar. A few small plants survive here and there in warm temperate climates. However, I think that the island of Madeira (Portugal) would perfectly match the climatic requirements of Juania.

As Juania and Paschalococos show, the conservation status is critical on most islands. These environments are in most cases more fragile than their mainland counterparts. Life forms from continental areas are usually more competitive and less specialized than the island dwellers; islands host evolutionary deliriums, exceedingly curious species which would make no sense on the mainland. Islander palms reflect this trend and "absurd" freaks are found amongst them; weirdness seems to be the rule: Bottle palms from the Mascarenes (Hyophorbe), the Caribbean belly palms (Gastrococos, Pseudophoenix, Colpothrinax and some Coccothrinax spp.), the triangle palm from Southern Madagascar (Dypsis decaryi), and the overwhelmingly interesting double coconut of the Seychelles (Lodoicea), which produces the biggest and heaviest (up to 18 kg) seeds of the plant kingdom. The major threat on islands, after habitat destruction, are the free-roaming introduced domestic animals. Pigs, goats, chickens, and cattle have been selected by man to forage on whatever is edible and they will never be finicky about a good palm leaf.

One of the many dramatic examples comes from the Caribbean. The wild stands of the tall Thatch Palm Coccothrinax barbadensis in Antigua (Lesser Antilles) have been destroyed by cattle, which ate the leaves of most seedlings and saplings. The only reproducing population on that island is found in the old cemetery of the island and the adjoining garden of the small cathedral. These two plots were the only sacred territories of the island and therefore prohibited to cattle. In this case a small and inexpensive fence would be enough to shelter a wider area and allow the population to expand.

Some painstaking cases of threatened palms are happening in Hawaii. The genus Pritchardia is represented in the Hawaiian Archipelago by 23 species.. A few of them are abundant in the wild and cultivated in gardens but most are severely endangered, mostly threatened by feral pigs. Some cases are extreme, such as the one of P. munroi, which has only one single wild individual left. Here are some of the statistics:

  • Kaua'i
    Pritchardia napaliensis : less than 90 individuals
    Pritchardia viscosa : only 2 mature individuals
  • Hawai'i
    Pritchardia schattaueri : only 12 individuals
    Pritchardia affinis : only 60 individuals
  • Moloka'i
    Pritchardia munroi : only one single wild individual
  • Niihau
    Pritchardia aylmer-robinsonii: 2 individuals
  • Nihoa
    Pritchardia remota : 680 individuals
  • O'ahu
    Pritchardia kaalae : two populations
    (Data from Johnson, 1996)

Seeds of Pritchradia munroi were distributed to many botanic gardens in the early 70's. Nowadays many of the palms grown from those seeds have died due to Lethal Yellowing or other factors, and the few survivors are planted together with other species of Pritchardia, giving rise to hybrid seeds. Thankfully, two adult specimens of P. munroi are now growing and fruiting in the Jardin Botánico Viera y Clavijo, in Gran Canaria. No other species of Pritchardia are growing in this garden, so the hundreds of seedlings produced are pure.

The Mascarene islands have lost the greater part of their original vegetation. They are (or were) home to many commonly grown palm species, such as Hyophorbe spp. (Bottle and Spindle Palms), the Dictyosperma (Hurricane Palm), and the different species of Latania. Hyophorbe amaricaulis is extinct in the wild but one old specimen is growing at the Curepipe Botanic Garden in Mauritius. This sole surviving specimen is very decrepit and could die very soon, and nobody is able to propagate it. The "Conservation Action Plan" reports: "The situation of the last remaining Hyophorbe amaricaulis is desperate. The palm is on the brink of extinction; it regularly flowers but only produces sterile fruits....

Plants have on several occasions been cloned by embryo culture at Wye, Edinburgh, and Kew, and tissue culture of anthers was initially a success at Paris. Unfortunately each time the plants were removed from aseptic media they died."

Bibliography:

References for Juania, Paschalococos, Pritchardia, Hyophorbe and almost
all the survey data:
Johnson D. (ed.) and the IUCN/SSC Palm Specialist Group. 1996. Palms: Their
Conservation and Sustained Utilization. Status Survey and Conservation
Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. 116+viii pp.
Available from: IUCN Publication Service
219c Huntingdon Rd, Cambridge CB2 0DL, UK
Tel.+44.1223.277894 - Fax +44.1223.277175 - www: http://www.iucn.org

The extinct palm Paschalococos has been described in:
Zizka G. (1991) Flowering Plants of Eastern Island. Palmergarten 3

References for Medemia argun:
Täckholm V. and Drar M. (1950). Flora of Egypt 2. Bull.Fac.Sci. Cairo Univ.
28: 99-146 and 296-302

Boulos L. in: C.Gómez-Campo (1985). Plant Conservation in the Mediterranean
Area. Geobotany 7 Dr.W.Junk Publishers, Dordrecht, The Nederlands.

Gibbons M., T.Spanner (1996) Medemia argun Lives!. Principes 40(2),
pp.65-74

References for Coccothrinax barbadensis:
Morici C. (1997) Coccothrinax barbadensis in Antigua. Principes 41(2),
pp.84-86

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