About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

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


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?


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?