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Palm trees of the Mascareignes archipelago

By Jean-Jacques Segalen (jjacquesSeptember 7, 2008
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Palm trees have a quite special look and immediately make people think of the tropics even if some species grow in temperate areas. The Mascareignes archipelago has its share, including a few endemic species.

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ImagePalm trees number some 2700 species worldwide and are often enjoyed for the delicacy of their leaves, the palms. Many are also grown for food, and the apex (also known as palm heart) of several species is edible. But the best known and most widely eaten is the fruit of Coco nucifera, the coconut tree, used either out of hand after breaking the wooden shell or grating it and extracting the milk. Commercial coconuts orchards also produce copra, which will be turned into oil. We could rave on for a long time about the numerous uses of coconut trees but though it is found on the shores of all island of the archipelago we will here concentrate more on species particular to the area.

An endemic species is a plant that can be found growing naturally in a specific area where it has evolved over time. Reunion, Mauritius and Rodriguez islands which all three make the Mascareignes archipelago have several endemic palm trees. So although several of them are now grown in various tropical locations because of prized aesthetic features they would be found growing wild only on those islands. As a matter of fact the ones you may encounter while roaming the islands are very few and have all in common the fact that they are not edible...Two species (Dictyosperma album and Acanthophoenix rubra) were massively growing on both Reunion and Mauritius before men settled there in the 18th century and soon discovered that both species produced a delicious palm heart locally known as ‘chou palmiste' (palm cabbage). Of course all the available trees have been felled for food and are nowadays to be found only in private gardens and orchards, Acanthophoenix rubra being especially prized if even victim to poachers who enter plantations. Image

So let us get back to our endemic palms trees. The archipelago numbers eleven different species in six different genera, belonging to the groups Borassoid and Arecoid. We will start with one we already mentioned, Acanthophoenix rubra (synonyms: Areca rubra, Areca crinita, Acanthophoenix crinita, Calamus verschaffeltii) called ‘palmiste rouge' on Reunion and ‘palmiste épineux' or ‘barbel palm' on Mauritius. It grows a solitary trunk up to twelve meters (thirty-six feet) high with an enlarged basis. The leaves sheaths are very spiny, the spikes can reach eleven cm and one must be very careful when handling them, those sheaths are reddish hence the name on Reunion. Palms are of the ‘classical' kind, with an extended rachis and pinnas (or leaflets) regularly attached on both sides at horizontal level. Fruits come in large bunch and are quite tiny and black. It is endemic to both Reunion and Mauritius. Dictyosperma album (=Areca alba, Areca borbonica, Linoma alba, Dictyosperma furfuraceum, Dictyosperma album var. furfuraceum, Dictyosperma rubrum)Image is the ‘palmiste blanc' or ‘princess palm', ‘hurricane palm'. This one will reach twenty meters high and though having a rather thin trunk about sixteen cm in diameter it will nonetheless withstand cyclones hence its colloquial name, it is endemic to all three islands but again not found in the wild as the heart is appreciated. As it is also quite handsome and void of spines it is also used as ornamental. Latania lontaroides (= Cleophora lontaroides, Latania borbonica, L. commersonii, L. rubra, L. plagaecoma), the ‘latanier rouge' or ‘latanier de la Réunion' is endemic to Reunion island, it used to be very much spread but has been cut down by the first settlers who used the trunks for houses and the leaves as tiles .Image It will grow to twelve meters and displays larges leaves are palmate and reddish when young while the petioles are bright red. It is a dioecious which means that there are male trees and female trees, the later bear cluster of spherical fruits the size of a small apple, bright green, with an edible though tasteless flesh. The seeds are rather big and when old the albumen becomes very hard and has the colour and aspect of ivory, it can therefore be used for jewellery or other workmanship. There are tow other species of Latania on the archipelago, L. loddigesii (= L. glaucophylla, Chamaerops excelsior, Cleophora dendroformis), endemic to Mauritius, quite rare. The ‘latanier bleu, latanier de Maurice or latanier de l'île ronde' grows to fifteen meters and has glaucous leaves which base is covered with thick white wool. The last and third is L. verschaffeltii (= L. aurea) which is endemic to the tiny island of Rodriguez. The ‘latanier jaune or latanier de Rodrigue' is now very rare in its natural setting. It grows to twelve meters and the young leaves are yellowish green and petioles are bright orange. Now, some real treat for the connoisseurs, Tectiphiala ferox, the ‘palmiste bouclé' is a rarity, it grows only on Mauritius, at altitudes between 500 and 650 m, in humid and acid areas and numbered about thirty trees in 1984. It has such specific growing requirements that it probably is not found much outside of Mauritius. It grows to some two to nine meters (depending the source) and has long black spines that can be curled (hence the name, ‘frisé' means curled). And now some better known ones, the Hyophorbe which genus numbers five species only, all endemics to the area. We will start with Hyophorbe verschaffeltii (= Areca verschaffeltii, Mascarena verschaffeltii), the ‘palmiste marron' comes from Rodriguez Island where it grows at low elevations on calcareous soils. It is grown on Reunion, Mauritius and other places as ornamental. It has a grey trunk up to five or six meters with a strange shape as it gets thinner in the upper part just like if is was upside down. Hyophorbe indica (= Areca lutescens, H. commersoniana) is endemic to the sole island of Reunion and is still found in the wild, its local name of ‘palmiste poison' should explain why...It grows to eight meters and may develop stilt roots at the basis, it does not have any special feature except the bright orange or red beaked fruits the size of a prune. Next comes Hyophorbe lagenicaulis (= Mascarena lagenicaulis, M. revaughanii) that is better known because it is grown as ornamental in many countries worldwide. This ‘palmiste bouteille, palmiste gargoulette or bottle palm' indeed develops a funny shaped trunk up to five meters which looks like a bottle, more or less round depending on the age of the plant. It also has intriguing twisted fronds (leaves). It comes from Round Island which is off the shores of Mauritius and has been prized since a long time. Hyophorbe amaricaulis is an other very rare species from Mauritius, a single plant remaining in a botanical garden at Curepipe. The fifth and last one is Hyophorbe vaughanii also native to Mauritius is almost extinct in the wild but grown for ornamental purposes as it displays orange flowering and red fruits on a trunk up to ten meters high.Image

Image I am not a palm tree specialist so there may be a few mistakes or missing data but this will anyway give an overview of some handsome plants of the Mascareignes. And remember that if you come and visit you will be able to enjoy fresh palm cabbage either raw as salad or turned in a variety of recipes. For more information on Mascareignes archipelago, see this article.


  About Jean-Jacques Segalen  
Jean-Jacques SegalenI am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) for 22 years . I spend a lot of time gathering seeds in the wild, the ones I do not grow that is. Also a dedicated Tai-Chi practitioner and fully certified arborist-tree surgeon Just released my first book on tropical plants and fruits, check it out at barbardine.com

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Bactris gasipaes girikaduru 3 9 Oct 25, 2008 5:21 AM
Enjoyed reading your article..Thanks ! stemar 1 6 Sep 19, 2008 3:54 AM
our artical on Palm trees hettibot 1 7 Sep 15, 2008 11:40 AM
Are the fruits edible? gloria125 19 31 Sep 11, 2008 5:53 PM
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