Seychelles - A Noah's Ark for Palms
In marked contrast to the preceding, globe-trotting
Dr. Teege takes us on a trip to the Indian Ocean, where the word
frost isn't even in the dictionary.
Dr. Maria-Jutta Teege, Alwin-Mittaschplatz 12, D67063 Ludwigshafen
Chamaerops No. 19, published online 23-07-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Left: The figure (bottom left) provides scale for
stiltrooted Verschaffeltia splendida. Mahé B.G.
Right: Lodoicea maldivica - biggest seed in the vegetable kingdom
About 100 million years ago, during the Cretaceous
age, the old continent of Gondwana began to break up into several
pieces which separated continuously in the vast ocean and became
the fundamental parts of the now well known continents of South
America, Africa with Madagascar, Antarctica, India and Australia.
It was the age when the dinosaurs diminished while mammals and birds
began their triumphal march of evolution. The land plants having
been dominated by mosses, ferns and conifers, now produced the first
Monocotyledons (today they include the palms) and Dicotyledons (today
they include most of our flowering plants).
When Gondwana broke into pieces it happened that
some small parts of the continental mass got lost in the ocean without
any connection to bigger continents. We can find them now as tiny
granitic islands close to the equator in the Indian Ocean between
Africa and India: the Seychelles. The biggest, Mahè, with
148 km2 and mountains up to more than 900m - the smallest, only
rocks scattered in the sea. No other oceanic archipelago consists
of continental rock (granite) as they do. Usually the substance
of oceanic islands is volcanic material or coral rock. The uninhabited
Seychelles, densely covered with tropical jungle, would remain unspoilt
until 1770 when the settlement by French settlers and their African
The first impression of all travellers and settlers
who arrived was their amazement at the abundance of palms, especially
on Praslin, the second biggest of the islands, with 59 km2 and mountains
about 500m high. Because of this, Praslin was previously known as
'L'isle de Palme' or 'Palm Island'. Later botanists found out that
it was not only the great number of palms that was so striking but
also their special kinds. Quite apart from the abundant Coconut
palms (Cocos nucifera) along the island's shores and some other
palms imported by man, these tiny islands are home to six palm species
none of which can be found anywhere else in the world. These endemic
Seychelles palms differ so much from each other and from all other
palm kinds that each had to be put in its own genus!
The isolation of the Seychelles for an unimaginable
period of time must be the reason for the independent way of evolution
which their original 'Gondwana' palm had taken. Probably no other
undamaged palm seed was able to reach the isolated Seychelles by
wind or water, except Coconuts which do not lose their ability for
germination while floating in the sea.
The most interesting of the endemic Seychelles palms
is the famous "Coco-de-mer" (Lodoicea maldivica). Long
before the Seychelles were discovered by Europeans, a fruit of immense
size, a nut with partly decayed seed, was occasionally brought by
the sea to other shores of the Indian Ocean. Nobody knew where they
came from or on which tree they had grown. So people believed that
there was a tree in the middle of the ocean and the fruits were
thought to be a medicine and an aphrodisiac. High prices were paid
for them. It was in 1768 that the surveyor Barrè discovered
the tall fan palms, which bore these fruits up to 20 kg in weight
on the slopes of Praslin's valleys. Under the smooth skin lies the
biggest and heaviest seed of the whole vegetable kingdom, the double
shaped Coco-de-mer. It is difficult to imagine any advantage for
evolution these heavy fruits can have, for they can be distributed
neither by animals nor by wind or water.
Today these trees are restricted to some places
of Praslin and the small neighbouring island of Curieuse. It is
an impressive experience to enter Praslin's National park 'Vallée
de Mai' and to walk in the moist and gloomy air between hundreds
of Coco-de-mer palms. The rustling and clashing of their huge and
heavy leaves is the only sound in this archaic environment. Ripening
fruits of different sizes can be seen in bunches on the female palms
and long brown catkins with small yellow flowers on the male trees.
They are dioecious (male and female flowers are on separate plants).
But in this National park of about 46 acres in the
midlands of Praslin live more than Cocode-mer palms, giving a general
idea of the natural vegetation of this island.
In contrast to the humid and dark valleys there
are the upper slopes of the hills and mountains which get the full
tropical sun. Here thrive the most beautiful of all Seychelles palms:
Deckenia nobilis. The straight slender stem ends with a crownshaft
and bears regularly feathered pinnate leaves of a light green. Young
individuals have strong yellow spines around the stem, probably
to protect the delicate 'palm heart', the upper shoot, from being
eaten by climbing animals. Nevertheless humans used to collect them
in earlier years and called the palm "palmiste" .
Close to a small watercourse at the most humid spot
of the area we found two other palms in the Valle de Mai: Nephrosperma
van houtteanum with pinnate leaves but without crownshaft, and Verschaffeltia
splendida with irregularly split but pinnately ribbed leaves. A
peculiarity of Verschaffeltia is its stilt roots. The main root
disappears when the stilt roots begin to grow, and ultimately they
carry the heavy (up to 20 m high) palm one or two metres above the
surface of the ground. This seems to be an adaptation to growing
on a swampy ground.
A further endemic palm is Phoenicophorium borsigianum,
well recognizable by its undivided but marginally lobed leaves.
The young individuals are provided with long and thin black spines.
These palms are widely dispersed now over Praslin and other Seychelles
islands. They are planted as ornamentals and the leaves were used
for thatching. Phoenicophorium is probably the mostly cultivated
Seychelles palm, and its scientific name itself is a curiosity.
The translation means 'thief palm', and indeed, a thief stole one
from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England in the 19th century,
when they were a precious rarity in Europe.
The last of the Seychelles palms does not occur
on Praslin but on the higher slopes of Mahé and Silhouette.
The mountain rain forest at 600 to 800 m above sea level is the
place for Roscheria melanochaetes, and it is a challenge for the
palm enthusiast to look for this palm in the steep and impenetrable
mountain area without road or footpath. Not even the Botanic Gardens
in Mahé has one planted.
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