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A Glance Through Time

Reprint from "The Palm Enthusiast" (Journal of the South African Palm Society), Vol. 17, No. 2, 2000
Chamaerops No.47 - published online 25-06-2003

The landscape that faced the Coelacanth (1) 400-300 million years ago was a dismal one, with low-growing plants, mosses and lichens. Some 230 million years ago, when palm-like plants started appearing, the earth was already more than 3000 million years old (2).

By the upper Cretaceous period (90-63 million years ago) the first definite palms started appearing, although palm-like fossil imprints date back further to the Triassic era. In North America most of the fossil palms occur in the rocks of the Eocene epoch from 58-36 million years ago. During this period Sabal-like palms grew in England and France. By the time that modern man had gained sufficient brain mass (3) to appreciate, study, classify and amass collections of palms, they had already been in existence for almost 100 million years.

During the carboniferous age our world was a very different place. The polar caps did not occupy their present positions (4) and countries that today are palmless teemed with tropical plants and animal life. Discoveries of petrified palm trunks in Arizona and Texas and fossil leaf imprints in rock formations in Wyoming betray their existence before the breaking-up of the Pangaean continent.

The subsequent ice ages, the last occurring some 12000 years ago, led to their migration and transformation into the palms we recognize in the present day. From Argonne and Aturien de Fuveau, in France, and in the old delta mud and clay under London, fossil evidence of Nipadites heberti indicates that this area was once the home of the present Nypa fruticans now restricted to Asia. It is interesting to note that while the Sabalites retreated west (where they are now found) from Venezuela (represented by S. mauritiiformis) to Lousiana (represented by Sabal minor), Nypa emigrated east (5). Fossil fragments of Chamaerops helvetica in France indicate that they did not have to retreat far to where they presently occur naturally in the Mediterranean and North Africa.

"One important factor for setting the stage for petrification is the rapid submergence of the trunk and roots (including leaves and seeds) in a body of water where oxygen is absent. Another important factor is deposition in the water of finely divided sediments such as clay, mud, sand and volcanic ash."(6)

In modern times, the palm in its diversity has become for millions of people a major source of food. Some varieties have been improved by selection to supply greater yields, better texture and tastes. Its leaves supply thatch, material for baskets, ropes, mats and countless everyday articles. From its fruit, seed(7) and leaves, oils and waxes are obtained. For some it is simply an object of beauty to be admired.

1 Latimeria chalumnae (old four legs) and the Lungfish are regarded as the forefathers of the land animals.
2 No one can correctly establish the age of the earth. It begins with basal sedimentary rock formations 4000-3500 million years ago.
3 1300-1500 ml
4 Coal deposits in Antarctica indicate that it once teemed with plant life during Carboniferous Period. Interestingly, coal is derived from plant matter, while oil is from animal origins.
5 Nypa fruticans also occurs in the estuaries of certain west African rivers (introduced).
6 Tuta J. Fossil Palms Princ. 11(2)
7 The potato crisps you are eating right now have been fried in the oil of Elaeis guineensis. It is also used in the manufacture of ice cream.


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