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Old May 17th, 2009, 04:32 PM
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Default Self destructing palm tree found in Madagascar

By Paul Eccleston
Last Updated: 12:07PM GMT 20 Nov 2008

A new species of palm tree which flowers spectacularly once in its long life and then dies has been discovered in Madagascar.

The chance finding of the mystery palm which towers more than 60-feet high has astonished botanists.

The exact location of the small cluster of trees is being kept a secret and seeds are being carefully harvested so the palm can be grown at botanic gardens around the world to ensure its survival.

The tree has a strange lifecycle when after growing for as long as 50 years and to an immense height, the stem tip develops a giant inflorescence and bursts into branches of hundreds of tiny flowers.

Each flower is capable of being pollinated and developing into fruit and drips with nectar attracting swarms of insects and birds. But the effort of the colourful display and the production of fruit is so taxing that the nutrient reserves of the palm run dry as soon as it fruits and the entire tree collapses and dies.

The tree was found by accident by Xavier Metz, a Frenchman who manages a cashew plantation in Madagascar. He and his family were walking in a remote area in the north-west of the island when they stumbled across the giant palm and the huge pyramidal bunch of flowers sprouting out of the tip.

They had never seen anything like it before and took photographs which eventually reached Dr John Dransfield in Britain.

Dr Dransfield, one of the world's leading authorities on palms, said: "I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the images posted on the web.

"Seeing it was one of the most exciting moments in my entire career. This tree is a new genus and a new species - an evolutionary line not seen in Madagascar before. "

Dr Dransfield, co-author of The Palms of Madagascar and an Honorary Research Fellow of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, added: "There are 2,500 species of palm and only a handful flower and die. It is certainly the first self destruct palm we have found on Madagscar."

"Ever since we started work on the palms of Madagascar in the 1980s, we have made discovery after discovery - new species and new genera - but to me this is probably the most exciting of them all."

The palm will be called Tahina spectabilis which is Malagasy for blessed or to be protected. Tahina is the name of one of Xavier Metz's daughters.

Madagascar's native palms are of enormous economic and biological importance used for food, house building, crafts and medicines, and most are found in no other part of the world

When material from the palm finally reached the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, the details of the flowers and inflorescence suggested it was a new, undescribed species.

Leaf fragments were sent to the Jodrell laboratory at Kew for DNA analysis, where it was confirmed, that the palm was not just a new species but an entirely new genus within the palm tribe Chuniophoeniceae.

There are only three other known genera in the tribe, scattered across Arabia, Thailand and China and the palm is from an evolutionary line not previously known to exist in Madagascar and mystery surrounds how it got there.

Details of the find are published today in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, the world's oldest biological society where the tree was officially named for the first time.

The tree flowered and fruited before botanists had a chance to react but miraculously a second tree in the same area flowered last September and the fruits are due to fall this month.

Although there are known to be bigger palms the Madagascar find is believed to be the most massive with a huge trunk which towers over 60-feet high (60 feet) and fan leaves which are 16-feet in diameter - making it among the largest known in flowering plants. The palm is so massive that it can even be seen in Google Earth.

When Dr Dransfield travelled out to meet the tree's discoverers, Xavier and Nathalie Metz, it took three days travel in a 4x4 vehicle to reach the remote area where it grows.

It was concealed at the foot of a limestone outcrop in the rolling hills and flatlands of the Analalava district which is dry for eight months a year and has a mean annual temperature of 27C. But when the rains come in January the area of deep fertile soil is flooded.

Dr Dransfield couldn't believe that the enormous palm had never been discovered before and concluded that its life-cycle must lengthy for the extremely rare flowering and death sequence to have never been detected.

He estimates the palm was between 35-50 years old when it burst into flower for the first and only time.

"We are hoping to harvest seed from the palm that will be ripened slowly in dozens of botanic gardens. They will also be sent to arboretums and schools in Madagscar. Some seeds will be sold through an agency and the profits funnelled back to the villagers," he said.

"If we are successful we can persuade the villagers that the trees have value and they will help conserve it.

"There are thousands of seeds but only a small portion will be harvested the rest will be left to fend for themselves."
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