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Death by flowers: giant, suicidal palm has botanists stumped

Jan. 16, 2008
World Science staff

A bi­zarre dis­cov­ery has bot­a­nists puz­zled: a new spe­cies of enor­mous palm tree that flow­ers it­self to death.

Al­though it’s not the first type of plant or tree known to do this, it’s mys­ti­fy­ing re­search­ers for sev­er­al rea­sons. One ques­tion is how such huge trees went un­no­ticed be­fore; an­oth­er is how they evolved and got to Mad­a­gas­car, where they grow.

T. spectabilis collapses, leaving only a thin skeletal structure at the top. (Courtesy J. Dransfield)


Not closely re­lat­ed to oth­er known palms, es­pe­cially there, the tree grows some six sto­ries tall be­fore sprout­ing hun­dreds of suc­cu­lent flow­ers, re­search­ers said in an an­nounce­ment of the find. These drain its nu­tri­ents, they added, lead­ing it to col­lapse in a “macabre” de­mise. 

But the ti­ny flow­ers, which can al­so de­vel­op in­to fruit, at­tract swarms of pol­li­nat­ing in­sects and birds that help en­sure a next genera­t­ion can live. 

The self-im­mo­lat­ing plant, giv­en the sci­en­ti­fic name Ta­hi­na spec­ta­bi­lis, is de­scribed in a pa­per pub­lished Jan. 17 in the Bo­tan­i­cal Jour­nal of the Lin­ne­an So­ci­e­ty. The big­gest palm known in Mad­a­gas­car, re­search­ers said, its fan-leaves alone are as broad as more than half the width of a ten­nis court. 

As the sci­en­tists told it, Xa­vi­er Metz, a French­man who man­ages a cash­ew planta­t­ion in re­mote north­west­ern Mad­a­gas­car, and his family were stroll­ing near­by when they stum­bled across the palm with its mas­sive, py­ram­i­dal bunch of flow­ers at the tip. Their pho­tos soon reached bot­a­nist John Drans­field, hon­or­ary re­search fel­low of Roy­al Bo­tan­ic Gar­dens, Kew, U.K.

“I could hardly be­lieve my eyes,” Drans­field said. It looked “su­per­fi­cially like the­tal­i­pot palm of Sri Lanka, but that had nev­er been recorded for Mad­a­gas­car. Clearly this was go­ing to be an ex­tremely ex­cit­ing dis­cov­ery.” 

He de­ter­mined the im­mense plant was not only a new spe­cies but a new ge­nus, the broad­er cat­e­go­ry that can con­tain one or more spe­cies. The palm does have an “af­fin­ity” with palms of an even wid­er cat­e­go­ry, a “tribe” known as Chu­nio­phoe­ni­ceae, Drans­field added.

This tribe “has an ex­tra­or­di­nary dis­tri­bu­tion,” and it’s hard “to ex­plain how it could ev­er have reached Mad­a­gas­car,” said Drans­field. Oth­er mem­bers of the tribe grow in Ara­bia, Thai­land and Chi­na.

Flowers of T. spectabilis (courtesy Xavier Metz)


The palm, said Drans­field, was hid­den at the foot of a lime­stone out­crop in the roll­ing hills and flat­lands of Mad­a­gas­car’s Analalava dis­trict. It grows in deep fer­tile soil at the foot of the lime­stone hill in sea­son­ally flood­ed ground, he con­tin­ued, and is so huge it can be seen in Google Earth. 

But it’s still no­where near as high as the the tallest trees, red­woods, which reach 300 feet (91 me­ters) or more, com­pared to some 59 feet (18 me­ters) for the palm.

If the plant es­caped no­tice be­fore, it may be thanks to a very long life­span, Drans­field sug­gested; this could make its flow­er­ing-and-death act an ex­tremely rare event, par­tic­u­larly as sci­en­tists es­ti­mate less than 100 of the palms stand. 

“Ever since we started work on [a book] The Palms of Mad­a­gas­car in the 1980s, we have made dis­cov­ery af­ter dis­cov­ery,” said Drans­field, a co-author of that book. “But to me this is probably the most ex­cit­ing.”

The palm’s scar­city pre­s­ents chal­lenges to con­serva­t­ion­ists, es­pe­cially as the hab­i­tat seems so lim­it­ed and flow­er­ing and fruit­ing so rare, he added. “In a way the palm high­lights the con­serva­t­ion chal­lenges for all palms in Mad­a­gas­car, many of which are se­ri­ously threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion mostly through hab­i­tat loss.”

Mad­a­gas­car is a ma­jor hotspot for bio­divers­ity and un­ique spe­cies, in­clud­ing 170 types of palms that are mostly found only there, Drans­field said; but this her­it­age is threat­ened, with only 18 per­cent of its na­tive vegeta­t­ion left in­tact.

Drans­field said he dis­cussed ideas for con­serving the palm with the dis­cov­er­ers and peo­ple from a near­by vil­lage. They set up a vil­lage com­mit­tee to man­age the proj­ect and a pa­trol the palm’s ar­ea, he added. The group is work­ing with Kew and the Mil­len­ni­um Seed Bank in West Sus­sex, U.K., sci­en­tists said, to de­vel­op ways for vil­lagers to sell seed to raise cash and dis­trib­ute the palm to bo­tan­ic gar­dens and grow­ers world­wide.


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A bizarre discovery has botanists puzzled: a new species of enormous palm tree that flowers itself to death. Although it’s not the first type of plant or tree known to do this, it’s mystifying researchers for several reasons. One question is how such huge trees went unnoticed before; another is how they evolved and got to Madagascar, where they grow. Not closely related to other known palms, especially there, the tree grows some six stories tall before sprouting hundreds of succulent flowers, researchers said in an announcement of the find. These drain its nutrients, they added, leading it to collapse in a “macabre” demise. But the tiny flowers, which can also develop into fruit, attract swarms of pollinating insects and birds that help ensure a next generation can live. The self-immolating plant, dubbed Tahina spectabilis, is described in a paper published Jan. 17 in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. The biggest palm known in Madagascar, researchers said, its fan-leaves alone are more than half the width of a tennis court. As the scientists told it, Xavier Metz, a Frenchman who manages a cashew plantation in remote northwestern Madagascar, and his family were strolling nearby when they stumbled across the palm with its massive, pyramidal bunch of flowers at the tip. Their photos soon reached botanist John Dransfield, honorary research fellow of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, U.K. “I could hardly believe my eyes,” Dransfield said. It looked “superficially like the Talipot palm of Sri Lanka, but that had never been recorded for Madagascar. Clearly this was going to be an extremely exciting discovery.” He determined the immense plant was not only a new species but a new genus, the more overarching category that can contain one or more species. The palm does have an “affinity” with palms of an even wider category, the tribe Chuniophoeniceae, Dransfield added. This tribe “has an extraordinary distribution,” and it’s hard “to explain how it could ever have reached Madagascar,” said Dransfield. Other members of the tribe grow in Arabia, Thailand and China. The palm, said Dransfield, was hidden at the foot of a limestone outcrop in the rolling hills and flatlands of Madagascar’s Analalava district. It grows in deep fertile soil at the foot of the limestone hill in seasonally flooded ground, he continued, and is so huge it can be seen in Google Earth. But it’s still nowhere near as high as the the tallest trees, redwoods, which reach 300 feet (91 meters) or more, compared to some 59 feet (18 meters) for the palm. If the plant escaped notice before, it may be thanks to a very long lifespan, Dransfield suggested; this could make its flowering-and-death act an extremely rare event, particularly as scientists estimate less than 100 of the palms stand. “Ever since we started work on [a book] The Palms of Madagascar in the 1980s, we have made discovery after discovery,” said Dransfield, a co-author of that book. “But to me this is probably the most exciting of them all.” The palm’s scarcity presents challenges to conservationists, especially as the habitat seems so limited and flowering and fruiting so rare, he added. “In a way the palm highlights the conservation challenges for all palms in Madagascar, many of which are seriously threatened with extinction mostly through habitat loss.” Madagascar is a major hotspot for biodiversity and unique species, including 170 types of palms that are mostly found only there, Dransfield said; but this heritage is threatened, with only 18 percent of its native vegetation left intact. Dransfield said he discussed ideas for conserving the palm with the discoverers and people from a nearby village. They set up a village committee to manage the project and a patrol the palm’s area, he added. The group is currently working with Kew and the Millennium Seed Bank, scientists said, to develop a way that villagers can sell seed to raise income and distribute the palm to botanic gardens and growers worldwide.