Friday, 28 August 2009

The Rastafarian Palm from New Caledonia


Quite a few of our palms are in flower or fruit at the moment. If you take the walk behind the Tropical Centre you'll see just a few of our extensive palm collection - in total some 2000 individuals representing 140 different kinds of palm.

If you arrive from the Morshead Fountain Gate opposite the State Library, one of the more curious flowering structures can be found in a group of three palms just at the fork in the path that leads one way towards the Pyramid and the other around the Expressway side of the route around the Arc.

These palms are called Burretiokentia hapala. Their flowers are borne on velvety tentacles or fingers that protrude out from the stem of the palm. The look and texture of this inflorescence is hard to describe but in the pictures above, taken by Simon Goodwin, you see they are a little spider- or octopus-like, perhaps like the hairdo of The Simpson's Sideshow Bob, or more closely, Rastafarian dreadlocks.

The palm is know only from forests in northern New Caledonia, where it is listed as a species 'vulnerable' to extinction, although it flourishes locally after selective logging. Fire and the trampling of seedlings by hunters and climbers are the biggest threat to its survival.

There are 37 species of palm in New Caledonia, but that number is expected to at least double once the results of current taxonomic research are published (Burretiokentia hapala was only discovered in 1964). As with the palms on Lord Howe Island, every one of these species grows here and no where else.

Palms are just part of the botanical appeal of New Caledonia. It's chock full of fascinating plants, many with evolutionary links to the Australian flora. The country is about three-quarters the area of the Sydney region, but supports at least 3,500 species of vascular plants (flowering plants, conifers, ferns etc.). Around Sydney we have about 2,000 species of vascular plants and we quite rightly recognize it as one of the great wildflower regions in Australia!

Like Australia, New Caledonia has 80% of its species that occur no where else in the world.
New Caledonia separated from Australia 65 million years ago (part of the Gondwanic split), and many of the plant groups are related to those of Australia, but with different species.

Again like on Lord Howe Island, this palm species doesn't have any close Australian relatives. However unlike the Kentia Palm from Lord Howe, New Caledonian palms are generally not easy to grow, and the collections in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney are important for conservation and science.

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