New Caledonia palms in Hawaii

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

One of my absolute favorite experiences was in October 2000 when I attended the IPS Biennial in New Caledonia with my wife, Karolyn. We were in a helicopter just above tree top level, flying up to a very primitive landing area on Mt Panié, and I was fortunate to sit up front, next to the pilot. Looking down on thousands of palms, many of them with new emergent red fronds, was overwhelming and incredible. To grow palms in your backyard is of course extremely satisfying, but to then see those same palms in their natural habitat is a truly unique experience.

My fascination with New Caledonia palms goes back to when I first became active within the PSSC. I had just become editor of The Palm Journal , and the March 1993 issue was my very first issue. The front cover had an incredible color photo of a very colorful, triple-headed Basselinia sp., taken by Dan Shook of Kauai. Dan also wrote a very interesting five page article about a trip that he, Maria Boggs (of Australia) and Jeff Marcus undertook to New Caledonia in February 1992. I was definitely hooked!

Now, many years later, I have been fortunate to move to Hawai'i and plant many different palms on our five acres here in Leilani Estates, some 25 miles south of Hilo on the Big Island. I have two areas dedicated to New Caledonia palms. I started out with one area, right next to the driveway, but obviously ran out of space, so had to start a second New Caledonia section! I have found out that our environment, as well as soil conditions, are close to ideal, because the New Caledonia palms all do extremely well. Well, some of them are certainly on the slow side, but we all know that! In The Palms of New Caledonia by Donald R. Hodel and Jean-Christophe Pintaud, 37 different New Caledonia palm species are described. I have 21 of those in our garden, in addition to Chambeyronia hookeri and sp. houailou, that remains somewhat of a mystery. Below are some comments and experiences relating to some of the palms from New Caledonia.

Actinokentia divaricata has a somewhat sparse crown, never holding more than four fronds. I planted a number of one gallon plants in 1996. Now, almost nine years later, these palms are about 10-12 feet tall, and some of them are beginning to form trunk. One of them has even opened up a couple of inflorescences, and I'm hoping to have viable seeds later this year. Ken Foster, who died in December 2002, went on a number of collecting trips in the late 1970s with Don Hodel to the South Pacific. A gentleman here on the Big Island partly sponsored some of those trips, and received seeds in return. I'm sure he prefers to remain anonymous, so I will simply refer to him as Mr. T in this article. Mr. T had received a number of A. divaricata seeds back then, germinated them and planted them on his Big Island property. Many years later, in the mid and late 1990s, Ken Foster, because of his relationship with Mr T, had permission to collect seeds on his property, and I went with him on some of those occasions. The A. divericata palms, which had been in the ground for over 20 years, were 20-25 feet tall and quite stunning.

Alloschmidia glabrata is a slender palm. Unable to find any A. glabrata of size, I acquired a number in 4 inch pots in 1999 and planted them. These are now about ten feet tall and some have formed trunk. I have planted them in a little grove, but these palms would also look nice if clustered close together.

Basselinia gracilis is a very interesting palm, in that it takes on a number of different forms, depending on elevation. I have found it to be relatively fast, at least compared to other New Caledonia palms! Plants from one gallon and 4 inch pots planted in 1996 and 1997 are now about 12 feet tall and producing seeds. They have different leaf forms and some of them have very colorful crownshafts. One interesting experience was in August 1998. Mr. T had informed Ken Foster that he was going to cut down two big B. gracilis , but that Ken was welcome to have them if he would dig them up and remove them. Ken told me I could have one of them if I financed the operation, and I felt this was very reasonable. With the help of a backhoe, a two man crew and a dump-truck, and only minimal damage to the rootsystems, we were able to remove the two B. gracilis from Mr. T's yard, and within a couple of hours they were in the ground again, one at Ken's place, and the other one in our garden. They were about 14-15 feet tall. Initially my specimen was shaded by taller trees, but a few years later we cut down those trees, and the Basselinia was now exposed to full sun. Some of the fronds did burn somewhat initially, but the palm quickly adjusted to its new situation. It is now about 20 feet tall and a beautiful specimen. It has been producing seeds for several years. Ken Foster sold his property to Jerry and Cindy Andersen in late 2001, so the other big Basselinia gracilis now belongs to them. It is also a beautiful specimen, at least 20 feet tall, and is in a fairly shaded location.

Basselinia velutina is definitely a slow grower. I planted a few plants from 4 inch pots in Nov. 1997, and today they are only about two feet tall. However, it's possible that their lack of growth may partly because I planted them close to some Clinostigma samoense . The C. samoense have very aggressive root systems and there is probably a lot of competition below the surface. Based on what I've seen so far, this is a very attractive little palm.

Basselinia vestita - definitely faster than B. velutina . A one gallon plant planted in Nov. 1998 is now about 12 feet tall with fairly large, almost entire, fronds. A somewhat different looking palm. But beautiful!

Burretiokentia hapala is another relatively fast grower. Five gallon plants, about two feet tall, acquired from Floribunda Palms in 1996 now have about 6-7 feet of trunk with an overall height of 15-16 feet. They have been flowering for a couple of years now, and the inflorescence of a B. hapala is probably among the more unusual ones!

Burretiokentia koghiensis is a little bit sturdier than the B. hapala , and, in my opinion probably the most attractive of the Burretiokentia species. Initially I had no idea that I had a B. koghiensis in my collection. First of all, I acquired it in 1996 and it was only described in The Palms of New Caledonia in 1998. However, when I acquired my first two Burretiokentia palms in March 1996, I bought them from Palms of Paradise in Hilo. They sold them to me as one B. hapala and one B. vieillardii , but they had forgotten which was which!! Anyway, several years later, a few Palm Society members from New Caledonia were here and they identified one of them as a B. koghiensis . Presumably many of these were also shipped to California and sold by Rancho Soledad Nurseries in the mid to late 1990s under an incorrect name.

Burretiokentia vieillardii is also relatively fast. I planted a few from one gallon pots in 1997 and these now all have 6-7 feet of trunk and are flowering. Again, the inflorescence is quite unique, but also quite different from B. hapala .

Chambeyronia lepidota must be one of the slower ones! I planted two little seedlings from 4 inch pots in July 1997. Unfortunately, one of them dried out and died, and the other one is only about two feet tall after all these years! But it's alive! I have seen the big specimen at Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that mine will look like that while I can still enjoy it!

Chambeyronia macrocarpa is obviously the best known of the New Caledonia palms, and even though it may be the most common, it is also a spectacular palm. I planted a number of them in 1996, from 5 and 15 gallon containers, and the taller ones are now approaching an overall height of 25 feet with about 12 feet of trunk. They have been flowering and producing seeds for quite some time. One or two actually open up with a green frond but all the rest of course open up with a stunning red frond. One memorable experience was in November 1995. Ken Foster and I had decided to drive over to Kailua-Kona. Ken had heard that a nursery, "Tree Farm", had a few nice Johannesteijsmannia altifrons and this was not a palm that was easily available (at that time), so we set out on the two and a half hour drive. I ended up with a nice 5 gallon "Joey" for $90, and Ken bought one as well. We had a van to fill, and two palms just didn't cut it, so we looked around the nursery to see what else they had in their inventory. Among a number of other palms, there was a group of overgrown C. macrocarpa in 5 gallon pots. We negotiated a price of $22.50 for each palm, and Ken selected one and I bought two. The only way I could get a good sized palm in my Toyota Van was with the crown towards the front. These three C. macrocarpa were about 11-12 feet tall, which meant that the fronds were pressing against the windshield. As a matter of fact, the foliage up front was so dense that I couldn't even see Ken, who, of course was sitting next to me, during the entire two and a half hour drive back on Highway 11 via South Point! My main concern was to avoid getting pulled over by the police! Incidentally, 'Tree Farm' has since gone out of business. The 'hookeri' variety, which is not recognized as a species, is nevertheless quite distinct, with a much lighter colored trunk. I only have three in the ground, but these three produce the most vibrant red new fronds of any palm that I've ever seen. Finally, the 'sp. houailou' variety seems to be an interesting palm. My biggest specimen is only about five feet tall, so it'll be a few more years before I know what it's really going to look like, but as of right now it's a very attractive palm with wide, thick, leaflets.

Cyphophoenix elegans is an attractive, and as the name implies, elegant palm. About half a dozen were all planted in late 1997 from 4 inch and 6 inch pots. They are all now about 6-8 feet tall.

Cyphophoenix nucele is a faster grower, and I think more attractive palm, than C. elegans . A number of plants from 4 inch and one gallon pots planted in 1997 and 1998 now have up to 6-7 feet of trunk, with an overall height approaching 15-17 feet. Each frond has more leaflets than C. elegans , which gives the crown a 'fuller' look.

Cyphosperma balansae is an interesting and attractive palm. Except for the Chambeyronia and Burretiokentia palms, and the one Basselinia gracilis (see above), I had a difficult time finding New Caledonia palms in general here on the Big Island, and when I was fortunate to acquire a few they were inevitably very small, typically in 4 inch or one gallon pots. The C. balansae was no exception, and I planted a number of seedlings in late 1997. Today, a little more than seven years later some of them are beginning to form trunk, with an overall height of about 12 feet. The dark color on the crownshaft reminds me of Neoveitchia storckii , and being that New Caledonia and Fiji are neighbors in the South Pacific I assume there must be a connection here! I'm excited to see my C. balansae making progress because there are a few really stunning photos in The Palms of New Caledonia !

Kentiopsis magnifica seems to be a very slow grower! I've planted a number of them, but the first one in the ground was a small one gallon plant planted in December 1997, and today it's only about five feet tall. But it just opened up with a bright red new frond, so how can you possibly complain..!

Kentiopsis oliviformis - the "original" Kentiopsis ! Certainly faster than K. magnifica , but maybe not quite as magnificient! K. oliviformis is still a very attractive palm and a relatively fast grower. My biggest specimen is now about ten feet tall with beautiful dark green fronds, and is just beginning to form trunk.

Kentiopsis piersoniorum was of course described in The Palms of New Caledonia . It was exciting to see a number of big specimens on Mt. Panié on our visit there in October 2000. Later that same day, all the participants of the Biennial were given a number of palm seeds, including a few K. piersoniorum seeds. I brought them back to Hawaii, and had a fairly high germination rate, about 75% I believe. I have since planted all of these, typically as small seedlings and in a fairly exposed area. I lost a few, probably because they dried out, but the survivors seem to be strong growers, even though they are not particularly fast. When they get taller they will always remind me of our very unique visit to New Caledonia.

Veillonia alba has been extremely difficult to find here in Hawaii. I still only have two in the ground (even though I bought a number of 4 inch seedlings from Floribunda Palms recently). The biggest one was planted in 1998 from a two gallon pot. Today it's about 8-9 feet tall and will probably begin to form trunk later this year. The crownshaft has a coloration and a feel to it that is quite similar to Dypsis lastelliana ! Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden on Oahu had a good sized specimen of V. alba but I've heard that unfortunately it died recently.

In closing, all I can say is that because most New Caledonia palms seem to be available only infrequently, grab the opportunity when it presents itself! Almost all of these palms are very attractive, colorful and with unique features. Almost all of them open up with red new fronds, some of them more red than others!


Published in Issue 180/Spring 2005 of The Palm Journal (Palm Society of Southern California's quarterly journal)