A few South Pacific palms

by Bo-Göran Lundkvist
Leilani Estates, Big Island of Hawai’i

When people think of the tropics, chances are many of them will think of an island in the South Pacific with swaying palms trees. Those palms are of course likely to be Cocos nucifera , the quintessential tropical palm. I'm not going to write about C. nucifera , but rather about a few other very beautiful, and definitely much more unique palms that also can be found on some of the islands in the South Pacific: Carpoxylon macrospermum , Neoveitchia storckii and Metroxylon palms.

Carpoxylon macrospermum was apparently thought to be extinct until John Dowe, an Australian botanist, fortunately re-discovered it in Vanuatu in 1987. It's a tall, majestic and very elegant palms with dark green, recurving fronds. My wife, Karolyn, and I visited Vanuatu in October 2000, after the IPS Biennial in New Caledonia. We flew on Air Vanuatu from Noumea, New Caledonia, to Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital (with about 16,000 inhabitants!). I was pleasantly surprised to find an article in Air Vanuatu's on-board magazine, Island Spirit , about Nong Nooch Botanical Garden in Thailand and a photo of Kampon Tansacha standing next to a C. macrospermum ! As we were heading in to Port Vila from the airport, it was nice to see that hundreds of C. macrospermum had been planted along the road. They were all about five to six feet tall, and had presumably been planted fairly recently. My own relationship with this unusual palm began in February 1996 when I purchased three seedlings in 4 inch pots from Jeff Marcus of Floribunda Palms. I immediately potted them up in 3 gallon pots and left them for a year and a half until I felt they were ready to be planted out. At this point I knew very little about this palm, but quickly began to appreciate its beauty and uniqueness. As a result, I began to buy more and more of them on my frequent visits to Floribunda Palms. Jeff wasn't always in a selling mode when it came to his Carpoxylon palms, and when he did agree to sell some it was always a limited number. Despite this, I was able to build up quite a Carpoxylon collection. Except for two of the very first ones, which are planted along our driveway, all the others were planted in a special area, and eventually I had a nice little grove of Carpoxylon palms in my attempt to create a mini-version of a rain forest in Vanuatu! However, disaster struck on April 10, 1999, when a massive, 80 foot tall, oh'ia tree ( Metrosideros polymorpha ) fell right on top of my Carpoxylon grove and covered most of the palms. The tree had always been leaning, and we probably disturbed its roots six months earlier when we built a small road right next to it. I got busy with my chainsaw, and to my amazement found that I had only lost three Carpoxylon palms. All the ones that survived did so for two reasons: they were still fairly small (about two feet tall) and they managed to avoid a direct hit by the trunk of the tree. After I cut off all the branches of the crown I left the main trunk of the tree in place, and it is now a permanent fixture in my little Vanuatu rain forest! I have since added a few more Carpoxylon palms, and currently I have 79 of them, 77 of them in this area. They are strong, but not particularly fast, growers. I believe all these palms came from two separate seed batches; one that was germinated in 1995 and a second batch that was germinated in early 1998. The initial ones are now all about 20 feet tall, but only with about two feet of trunk. The palms from the second batch are about 12 feet tall, and are just now beginning to form trunk. They are very attractive with bulging trunks and very long green crownshafts.

Neoveitchia storckii is an equally attractive and unusual palm. Apparently, there are only a few populations left in some remote valleys on the main island of Viti Levu in Fiji. Karolyn and I visited Fiji in April 2000, and even though I was fortunate to see quite a few palms in the wild, we never made it to the Neoveitchia valleys. Before this, back in April 1996, I was looking for a special palm to plant along our driveway, and the Neoveitchia seemed to be the perfect choice. I acquired seven specimens from Kapoho Kai Nursery. They were in 15 gallon containers and about 6-7 feet tall and had not started to form trunk yet. They were planted the next month, and have done very well in the seven years since. In June 2001 we purchased one more acre of land (for a total of five) and I was looking for a few beautiful and unusual palms to plant in groups on this "new" acre. I ended up dividing the land more or less 50-50, between some select palms from the South Pacific on one half and some Dypsis palms on the other half. Ever since I visited Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden on O'ahu for the first time I had been impressed by the large group of Neoveitchia palms they have there, so given the chance to plant a grove of these wonderful palms on our property, there was no hesitation! I bought a number of good size specimens from Hawaii Palm Company, and have since added a few smaller ones. Incidentally, those of you who visited Ho'omaluhia last month during the IPS Biennial (or on some previous visit to Hawaii) may be interested to know that the name means "to give peace" or "to create peace". The Neoveitchia grove fits that name perfectly, with the Pacific Ocean visible in the distance. The N. storckii based on my experience is a moderately fast grower. The seven initial palms that were planted along our driveway now all have between 7 and 10 feet of trunk. It's a spectacular palm with its light brown trunk, contrasted against its very dark brown (almost black) pseudo crownshaft and dark green fronds. The leaflets are fairly wide, somewhat similar to many of the palms from New Caledonia, an island neighbor of Fiji. Eventually, the trunk will attain a height of about 50 feet.

Metroxylon palms are not quite as unique as the two previous palms, since they can be found on many of the islands in the South Pacific, and they are definitely not threatened. But, nonetheless, Metroxylon palms are spectacular and incredible. I have a number of M. amicarum , M. salomonense , M. vitiense and M. warburgii in the ground. Most were planted from either one or five gallon containers in 1996 and 1997. Once established, they are strong growers, but it takes them a long time to form trunk, and none of my Metroxylon palms have reached this stage yet, even though some of them are probably very close. All of them have fronds that are currently 20-25 feet long, and without a trunk this gives them a unique and primitive look. All, except the M. amicarum , are monocarpic. I.e. they will die after they have flowered and produced fruits. A few years ago in Fiji I saw a number of M. vitiense , including some that were in the process of dying, and this is not a pretty sight! The largest in the genus is M. amicarum , presumably because instead of dying, it keeps on getting taller and more impressive. "Awesome" would be a good word to describe it when it has 50-60 feet of trunk!

There are, of course, many other unique, beautiful and incredible palms in the South Pacific, and I already covered some of them in my article about fast growing palms in the March 2004 issue. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity soon again to cover some of the others!

Published in Issue 177/Summer 2004 of The Palm Journal (Palm Society of Southern California's quarterly journal)