The History of Howeia

The most popular palm in the world has an interesting history. In this first of two parts, Ian Hutton explores its origins and the early days of 'the palm business'.
by Ian Hutton, P.O. Box 6367, Coffs Harbour Plaza, N.S.W. 2450, Australia
Chamaerops No. 13, published online 23-08-2002

Above: Job for Life: Potting up Lord Ho we Island Kentia seedlings in a Dutch hothouse.
Below: Wall to Wall Palms: Young Kentia palms fill this large greenhouse.

The temperature around me must have been close to l00°F (3O°C), there was not a breath of wind, and beads of sweat were rolling down my face, the occasional drop splashing off the end of my nose onto an open clipboard file. I was 12,000 miles from my Australian home carrying out research into Kentia palms. However, this was not the steamy tropics, but the city of Gent in Belgium on a hot summer's afternoon. I was in the attic office at the de Clercq family nursery, one of the earliest Belgian nurseries to import Kentia palms to the Old World. I had been invited to visit Europe to research the Kentia palm industry by Henk van Staalduinen of Holland, the largest European importer of Kentia palm seedlings today.

The home of the Kentia palm is a tiny speck of land in the Pacific Ocean halfway between Australia and New Zealand - named Lord Howe Island in 1788, the year of its discovery. Just 7 miles long by one mile wide (13km X 2km), it is often described as the most beautiful island in the world. In the Island's largely untouched forests, grow four indigenous palms, one of which is the world-renowned Kentia palm. Its correct botanical name is actually Howea forsteriana, but Kentia was its original name when the first palm exports left the Island in the 1870s and 80s. The earlier anachronistic name has remained with it to the present day, at least in the nursery trade.

Henk van Staalduuinen has been involved in the Kentia industry for over 10 years, and he visits Lord Howe Island every year, often with his family or a group of Dutch nurserymen. The island is now like a second home to him, and it is through his genuine interest in the Kentia palm that I have been invited to Europe to research the palm industry there. When enough material has been gathered, I plan to write a book to tell the story of this unique palm. And what a fascinating history it has. Between 1870 and 1940, the entire economic and social fabric of Lord Howe Island revolved around this one species of palm. There are tales of fortune and intrigue, government enquiries (including two Royal Commissions) and an amazing export success story that saw the Kentia palm travel to every country in the western world.

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