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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

From Lord Howe to our bathroom; frond memories

We share our bathroom (there's still just room for us) with a refugee. Other people give homes and new lives to condemned dogs in pounds; we did likewise with a Kentia Palm which was deemed too scruffy and ignoble to go on gracing the office hire-plant circuit. I've not had much to do first-hand with house plants, partly due to what has been a somewhat peripatetic lifestyle in the past, and partly because my own gardening bias has always been towards Australian native plants. Lou brought this one home, but I'd have been happy to welcome it anyway. It's Australian (its home of origin is legally Australian anyway) and we had a very happy week on its ancestral island earlier this year and enjoyed walks in forests of its fellows. 

Kentias live naturally only on Lord Howe Island, that wonderful lump of volcanic rock which burst from the Pacific only 7 million years ago. The thing about such oceanic islands of course is that they started with no land life at all; everything that lives there arrived by air or by sea from somewhere else, and by evolution changed over time to unique forms. I love such islands, in part because I'm fascinated by the origins of their inhabitants and the high degree of endemicism (endemics are species found nowhere else - nearly half the plant species of Lord Howe are endemic). The Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana) is one of just two species of the genus Howea, both of which are restricted to Lord Howe; their closest relatives form a large sub-group of the palm family found throughout the south-western Pacific, including the familiar southern Australian Bangalow Palm. Their ancestors then could have arrived from either Australia or New Zealand, or conceivably further afield, the seeds either being carried by birds or floating. Kentia fruits are now hard, but those of their ancestors need not have been. 

Kentia Palm and Banyan forest, Lord Howe Island
The name is a bit of an anachronism; the genus was originally Kentia, and applied until quite recently to half a dozen species of palm, especially in New Guinea. It was named for William Kent, a gardener and assistant to Caspar Reinwardt, Dutch botanist, Javan expert and general Renaissance Man who kept Napoleon's Amsterdam menagerie, and who collected in the region. That name (Kentia) is now deemed illegitimate, and the name Howea (for the island) became available. I assume that forsteriana was for Johann Forster, fill-in naturalist on Cook's second Pacific expedition after Banks pulled out; he was a competent scientist, but it's not easy to find anyone who had a good word for him apart from that.

But how, beyond the immediate events, did it turn up in our bathroom? The mid-19th century was a time of immense European interest in exotic plants, especially those which would survive indoors. Kentias are surprisingly tolerant of cool temperatures, drying and low light levels, and a thriving Lord Howe industry in Kentia Palm seeds arose. This export industry, now tightly controlled and based solely on nursery-grown seedlings, ranks with tourism as Lord Howe's major economic support base. Kentia Palms are now the most popular decorative palms in the world - there's a good chance you live or work alongside one!

From here I can envisage future articles on Lord Howe, on other oceanic islands (such as the Galรกpagos) and on familiar domestic plants in their original settings. So much that's bloggable, so little time...
Kentia Palm trunk, Lord Howe Island

2 comments:

Flabmeister said...

And when you are under time pressure, people ask you stupid questions via comment. Has anyone calculated how long after Lord Howe emerged before there was enough soil to support plants the size of these palms?

Martin

Ian Fraser said...

What an excellent question! Simple answer - I don't know, but I'm sure someone must have looked at it in general at least. In fact I'm sure I remember studies being done on Krakatoa (later at least) and on a much more recent volcanic islet (off Iceland??). It must be a log-type curve; the more plants establish in crumbled rock (ie 'soil'), the more they break the rock down, and introduce organic material, and so more plants grow, etc. I imagine the hard bit was the establishment. Can anyone help?