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An Eye on Plants – Tahina palm (Tahina spectabilis)

The Unlikely Discovery of the Tahina Palm

The unlikely discovery of the Tahina palm (Tahina spectabilis) is rooted in the story of Xavier Metz, a Madagascar-born Frenchman working as the manager of a cashew nut plantation in the island’s remote northwest. In 2006, accompanied by his wife and three young daughters, Metz happened upon several gigantic palm trees at the foot of a rugged limestone hill.

It wasn’t the first time they’d seen the enormous palms — on a weekend outing one year earlier they’d noticed the same palms. On their second encounter, however, one of the giant palms was bulging with a pyramid-shaped bunch of flowers.

After Metz shared photos of the mysterious trees with a fellow palm enthusiast, the challenge of identifying the palms grew into a discussion and then all-out investigation which ultimately led to their identification by renowned palm authority Dr. John Dransfield of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

tahina palm

The Discovery of the Decade

Dransfield confirmed that the palms were not only a newly described species but an entirely new genus — a noteworthy event indeed. Dransfield called it “the palm discovery of the decade.”

This gigantic fan palm, the largest in Madagascar, bears a trunk that can soar to 60 feet and has fronds as large as 15 feet in diameter. The structure of the flowers and flower-bearing branches immediately indicated that it belongs to the tribe Chuniophoeniceae which includes palms native to Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Arabia.

The discovery was published in 2008 (Dransfield et al.) and ultimately named Tahina spectabilis after Metz’s middle daughter Anne-Tahina. In Madagascar’s Malagasy language Tahina means “blessed” or “protected.”

With only the one known population, the Tahina palm is listed as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Researchers have confirmed that the solitary Tahina palm is hapaxanthic — meaning it will produce flowers only once and then perish.

When the question arose of how to conserve this rare palm about which so little is known, there was agreement that not only did it need to be protected in its native habitat,  scientists agreed Tahina palm seeds should also be distributed to botanical gardens and arboreta throughout Madagascar and overseas.

A Safe Home on Kauai

In 2008 NTBG’s Conservation and Horticulture Center on Kaua‘i received three accessions (documented collections) of Tahina seeds. After successfully propagating seeds, the Garden planted out eight seedlings between 2011 and 2014 in McBryde Garden and near the entrance to the Garden’s headquarters in Kalāheo, Kaua‘i.

Six of the eight slow-growing palms have survived and are steadily inching skyward. While no one is yet certain how long the Tahina palm can be expected to live, it will likely be many decades before this remarkable new genus erupts with its tremendous display of flowers and seeds before the parent tree expires.

The addition of the Tahina palms to the living collections helps ensure that even if disease or disaster struck the sole known population on Madagascar, their irreplaceable DNA is preserved for the future.

Collectors of NTBG Bulletin back issues will find a photo story on NTBG’s early efforts to propagate the Tahina palm in the Spring 2008 issue (Volume XXV, No. 3, pg. 19).

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