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
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
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
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
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:
Pritchardia napaliensis : less than 90 individuals
Pritchardia viscosa : only 2 mature individuals
Pritchardia schattaueri : only 12 individuals
Pritchardia affinis : only 60 individuals
Pritchardia munroi : only one single wild individual
Pritchardia aylmer-robinsonii: 2 individuals
Pritchardia remota : 680 individuals
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."
References for Juania, Paschalococos, Pritchardia,
Hyophorbe and almost
all the survey data:
Johnson D. (ed.) and the IUCN/SSC Palm Specialist Group. 1996. Palms:
Conservation and Sustained Utilization. Status Survey and Conservation
Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. 116+viii
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
Zizka G. (1991) Flowering Plants of Eastern Island. Palmergarten
References for Medemia argun:
Täckholm V. and Drar M. (1950). Flora of Egypt 2. Bull.Fac.Sci.
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!.
References for Coccothrinax barbadensis:
Morici C. (1997) Coccothrinax barbadensis in Antigua. Principes
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