Basselinia in Hawai’i

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

All the palms from New Caledonia thrive in the volcanic soil and rainforest conditions of Leilani Estates, and the genus Basselinia is no exception. On several occasions we’ve had Palm Society visitors from New Caledonia, and they’ve all been amazed that New Caledonia palms seem to do better here than in New Caledonia. Of course, they’re comparing with their own location and they generally live in and around Noumea, which is quite different, both when it comes to soil and climate, than for instance Mount Panié, home to many of the New Caledonia palms and more than a hundred miles to the northwest of Noumea.

But, this is a good news-bad news scenario. The good news being that the palms thrive here and the bad news being that many of the palms from New Caledonia have been, at best, only occasionally available. And this is certainly true of Basselinia palms. Only a few species have traditionally been available on a regular basis, and a few additional species only once in a while. With the name changes announced on page 48 in Issue 188 of The Palm Journal, there are now 13 species in the genus Basselinia; deplanchei, favieri, eriostachys, glabrata, gracilis, humboldtiana, iterata, pancheri, porphyrea, sordida, tomentosa, velutina and vestita. Of these 13, I have “only” been able to acquire six species over these last 13 years; favieri, glabrata, gracilis, pancheri, velutina and vestita. B. glabrata of course was known as Alloschmidia glabrata up until just over a year ago.

As is the case with many of the palms from New Caledonia, a number of Basselinia palms are slow growers. The exceptions in my experience have been B. gracilis and glabrata. B. gracilis, in fact, has been reasonably fast, probably about a 4.5 or so on a scale of 1-10. B. gracilis that I planted in 1996 and 1997 from 1G pots are now 15-18 ft tall, and have been producing viable seed for several years. One interesting story dates back ten years. Ken Foster, palm legend and longtime Palm Society member, and a former IPS President, lived a mile away from us, and would typically stop by a few times every week to “talk palms”. One day in July 1998 he stopped by, and I could tell right away that he was very excited about something. Ken ran a little business of collecting seeds locally, and selling them to customers in Hawai’i and on the U.S. mainland. One palm garden that he had access to was owned by someone I will simply refer to as Mr. T. Mr. T was elderly already ten years ago, and to Ken’s great disappointment and frustration Mr. T simply chopped down many of this tall and mature – and very unusual – palms. The daily job of picking up fronds from several hundred mature palms can be both time consuming and hard work. To make a long story short, Mr. T had informed Ken that he intended to cut down his only two mature B. gracilis, but Ken could have them both if he could arrange to have them dug up and removed. So, Ken’s offer to me was simple: “pay for a backhoe and dumptruck to remove them both and you can keep one of them.” That sounded like a good deal to me, so we headed up to Mr. T’s place in the morning of 12 August, 1998, dug up the two palms, headed back to Leilani Estates, and that same afternoon one of them had been planted at Ken’s place and the other one in our garden. If I recall correctly, the palms were about 12 ft tall at the time. Today, ten years later, ours is about 22 ft tall. Initially, it was in fairly deep shade, but several years ago we decided to remove a handful of tall Metrosideros polymorpha (Ohi’a) trees, and that exposed the palm to full sun, which it handled very well and never showed any damage. I have found B. gracilis to have quite a bit of variability with both leaflet shape and crownshaft color. Incidentally, as many of you know, Ken Foster sold his Leilani property to Jerry and Cindy Andersen in late 2001, and unfortunately, Ken died a year later.

Of the other species in the genus, I bought a number of Alloschmidia glabrata, now Basselinia glabrata, in 1999. They were in 4 inch pots and fairly small. These palms are now about 10-12 ft tall, and most of them have been producing inflorescences for a couple of years, but I have yet to find any viable seeds. I would not call that fast but it’s certainly faster than some of the other palms in the genus. I bought some B. favieri in 1997, also in 4 inch pots. Back then I promptly planted everything, no matter how small. After a number of years, and after having lost many of the palms that I planted from 4 inch and 1G pots, I realized that small palms, with their tiny root systems, can easily dry out, even in our high rainfall environment, and I lost quite a few of them as a result. And that included all but one of the B. favieri. The one surviving palm is now about 5 ft tall. And that’s after more than ten years in the ground! Another palm, and just as slow: B. pancheri. I planted four of these in 1997, also from 4 inch pots. All of them actually survived, and are doing quite well, but they are only about 3-4 ft tall. Another slow one: B. velutina. I acquired three of these in 1997, again in 4 inch pots. However, part of the reason for them being so slow may be my own fault. Thinking they needed some shade I planted them only feet away from a few Clinostigma palms, which I had acquired as C. harlandii. They turned out to be the so called “Hawaiian hybrid” which is the most vigorous of the Clinostigma palms, and with a very aggressive root system. As a result, the three B. velutina are having an extremely hard time with the root competition from the Clinostigma palms, and will probably never grow up they would have under different circumstances. All three are only about 3-4 ft tall. At this point it would be impossible to move them successfully to a different location.

All the Basselinia palms that I’m familiar with are extremely attractive palms, and I would love for the remaining species to become available. Ideally, I believe they should be planted in groups of at least three or five, and with their small to medium size they can easily be integrated into most gardens. In retrospect, I wish I had acquired more of the unusual ones when I had the chance!