January 17, 2008

New Palm Tree Species Discovered in Madagascar

On Thursday, botanists revealed that a self-destructing palm tree that flowers once every 100 years and then dies has been discovered on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar. An article by Kew Gardens scientists published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society details the name of the giant palm and its remarkable life cycle.

Mijoro Rakotoarinivo, who works for the London botanical gardens in Madagascar, told AP, "It's spectacular. It does not flower for maybe 100 years and when it's like this it can be mistaken for other types of palm. But then a large shoot, a bit like an asparagus, grows out of the top of the tree and starts to spread. You get something that looks a bit like a Christmas tree growing out of the top of the palm," he said.

Botanist Dr. John Dransfield, author of the study explains that the branches of this shoot then become covered in hundreds of tiny white flowers that ooze with nectar, attracting insects and birds. But the effort of flowering and fruiting depletes the tree so much that within a few months it collapses and dies.

Dransfield continues "even for Madagascar this is a stupendous palm and an astonishing discovery."

According to the study, the palm tree, which grows to 66 feet in height and has about 16-foot leaves, is only found in an extremely remote region in the northwest of the country, four days travel by road from the capital. AP suggests that local villagers have known about it for years although none had seen it in flower until last year.

Frenchman Xavier Metz, who runs a cashew plantation nearby first noticed the bizarre flowering ritual and notified Kew Gardens.

Dransfield is puzzled by the fact that botanists had missed this "whopping palm" until now. He explained that it is the largest palm species in the country but there appear to be only about 100 in existence and questions how the palm got to Madagascar. He stated that the tree has similarities to Chuniophoeniceae palms, found only in Asia, some 3,700 miles away.

In the article, Dransfield suggests the plant has "been quietly living and dramatically dying" in Madagascar since the island split with mainland India 80 million years ago.

Madagascar, the world's fourth largest island, is renowned for its unusual flora and fauna. This includes 12,000 species of plant found nowhere else in the world. Indeed 90 percent of its plant species are endemic. It is hoped that the plant will be conserved and that selling seeds can generate revenue for people living nearby, as well as allowing gardeners across the world to own their very own self-destructing Malagasy palm tree.


Photo Credit: Royal Botanic Gardens, John Dransfield


On the Net:

Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society