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

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.

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