Palms from the Seychelles

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

Considering its small size, the Seychelles must surely be considered the number one location when it comes to unusual and beautiful palms. I know, New Caledonia and Madagascar have many more palm species, but New Caledonia is a much larger island, and Madagascar is a much, much larger island! The Seychelles is just a few degrees south of the Equator, so the climate is definitely tropical. The Big Island of Hawaii is located between 19 and 20 degrees north of the Equator so the climate here is (just a little bit) cooler, but certainly close enough for all the palms from the Seychelles to thrive here. There are six palm genera that are endemic to the Seychelles, and all six are monotypic (only one species in the genus) and single-trunked. I'm fortunate to have all six in our garden here in Leilani Estates, south of Hilo.

Deckenia nobilis , alphabetically, is the first one. I acquired a number of these back in 1996. They were all in one gallon pots, because nothing else was available. In the eight years since, they have grown to an overall height of 18-20 feet with about 5-6 feet of trunk. I'd consider this moderately fast, for Hawaii standards. These are tall, stately and fairly slender palms. The most outstanding feature is probably the spines. These are about three inches long, and among the most vicious that can be found on any palm! As with all the other spiny palms from the Seychelles, the spines are most visible on smaller specimens. As the palm grows, it retains it spines on the lower 4-5 feet of the trunk, but above that it's pretty much spineless. A little known fact is that the spathe containing the inflorescence is a perfect fit as a hat! And quite stylish as well....

Lodoicea maldivica : the only one without spines. De Armand Hull from Miami was visiting in July 1999, and as we walked around our garden he commented on the fact that the Lodoicea maldivica was missing from my otherwise complete Seychelles collection. As it turned out, De Armand visited the Seychelles later that year, and had a number of Lodoicea seeds shipped back to the USA. I agreed to buy three, and they arrived on November 20 th . The three seeds weighed 15, 19 and 19 lbs. In the same shipment, De Armand also sent a Lodoicea seed for Ken Foster, who lived a mile away from us. We dug 6 feet deep holes in an open area, and planted them, with about two thirds below the surface, and one third visible and exposed. By November 24 th , all three were in the ground, and all I could do was to wait patiently. De Armand had told me that germination could take up to 18 months. Lodoicea seeds send down a radicle, and then apparently when it can't go any deeper, it heads towards the surface (a.k.a. remote germination). This is why it's important to plant Lodoicea seeds in the permanent location where you want them. During the first week of January of 2001, I was extremely pleased to find that one of the Lodoicea seeds had germinated, and had already pushed up a spike that was about three inches long. Based on its growth after that I estimated that it had probably broken the surface about two weeks before I saw it. This was after "only" 13 months in the ground, so needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. I began to measure its progress, which was between one and two inches every week. I also kept checking the other two seeds, almost on a daily basis. Nothing happened until April 24 th , 2001, when both of the other seeds had a half inch long spike next to them. This was great! Three seeds and all three had successfully germinated. I was thrilled. Incidentally, the seed that Ken Foster received also germinated later that year, the delay possibly because it had been planted in deep shade. This plant, which is doing great, now belongs to Jerry and Cindy Andersen after they bought the property from Ken Foster in late 2001. I kept measuring the progress of my three Lodoicea spikes spring and summer 2001, and was wondering when I was going to see the first frond open up. By August 31st, 2001, #1 had a spike that was just over five feet tall and it began to open up, while still pushing. The other two were just over three feet tall at this point. A few months later, #1 had fully opened up its first frond, which, when held up in a completely vertical position, measured more than six feet from the ground. As far as I know, the Lodoicea has the largest 'first leaf' of any plant, and it's truly amazing to watch its progress on a regular basis. The other two opened up their first fronds in early 2002. As of right now, mid June 2004, all three plants are doing great. Plant #1 has opened up four fronds, and is pushing frond number 5. Plant #2 has opened up three fronds, and is pushing number 4. And plant #3 has opened up two fronds and is pushing number 3. For some reason, plant #3 is also pushing its fronds higher up above the ground than the other two, and this may explain why it's lagging somewhat in the total number of fronds, since this presumably takes a little bit more energy!

Nephrosperma vanhoutteanum is a beautiful and fairly slender palm with fronds that arch gracefully. It's not a particular fast grower. The three specimens I have were planted in 1996 from 35 gallon pots, and they have only added a couple of feet of trunk in the eight years since. I have seen a few inflorescences in the last couple of years, but have not had any viable seeds as of yet.

Phoenicophorium borsigianum is an impressive palm, even when small. Its entire leaves provide such an effective canopy that even during the heaviest of tropical downpours you will remain completely dry if you take cover next to one! This also has a negative side. If you attempt to plant small palms underneath its canopy, chances are they will promptly dry out and die! I know because I've made a few of those mistakes! I planted a number of Phoenicophorium palms in 1996, from one gallon size to 35 gallon specimens with about two feet of trunk. The larger ones came from Palms of Paradise, and they now have about six feet of trunk and have attained an overall height of about 20-22 feet. They have also been producing viable seeds for several years. In comparison, a one gallon plant from 1996 is now about 15 feet tall, but no trunk yet. In other words, 15 feet long and completely undivided leaves! Definitely stunning and very beautiful. The spines on smaller Phoenicophorium palms are quite vicious, and there are many of them! And by smaller, I mean any palm that hasn't begun to form trunk yet. Interestingly, once the palm begins to form trunk, the spines disappear almost completely, and the few that are still there are fairly insignificant.

Roscheria melanochaetes is the smallest of the palms from the Seychelles. Its trunk is only about three inches in diameter, and the palm will eventually grow to an overall height of about 25 feet. It's an elegant little palm, and I have found it to be relatively fast growing. One gallon plants, about 10-12 inches tall, that went in the ground in 1998 are now 10-12 feet tall, with about three feet of trunk, and many of them have already produced viable seeds.

Verschaffeltia splendida is a beautiful, fascinating and very unique palm. I should know. I have 62 of them in the ground, and that's not counting numerous volunteers! It began in 1996 when I acquired nine tall specimens from Palms of Paradise. They were in 35 gallon containers, with about 8-9 feet of trunk and overall height of 20-22 feet. One of the nine had viable seeds, but only three. Yes, three seeds! I successfully germinated all three and planted them in 1997. Now, seven years later these three second-generation palms are about 20-22 feet tall with ten feet of trunk, and I saw the first inflorescence on one of them just last month. Verschaffeltia palms are definitely fast growers, adding about two feet of trunk every year. The nine original Verschaffeltia palms are prolific when it comes to producing seeds, and at any given time all nine of them will typically have three or four infructescences, each with several hundred seeds. The seeds are extremely easy to clean and germinate, which is why I have volunteers popping up all over the place! The fronds are entire when the palm is small, and in my opinion the palm is the most attractive during this period, which typically lasts for the first six years or so. After that, the fronds begin to split, probably for a variety of reasons, one being the wind. One of the most unique features of this palm is its base of stilt roots. These are about five feet long, and an adult specimen probably has 40 or 50 of them, but always seems to be adding more.

Except for the three Lodoicea seeds, all the palms from the Seychelles are planted in the same area, which we have named "Seychelles Court". It is definitely one of my favorite places in our garden. An IPS member, who recently spent the night here, jokingly asked if he could spend the night there! Considering the rainfall, that might not be the best choice. So far this year, we've had 105 inches. And it's only the middle of June! But the palms love it!

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