Conserving Rare and Endangered Palms Through Teamwork

The Tropical Garden, Fall 2014

By Sara Edelman

Fairchild’s horticulture and conservation ecology departments have teamed up with other botanic gardens to collect, plant and cultivate seeds of many endangered palms. Much of the palm conservation work at the Garden has been done on our native Pseudophoenix sargentii, but other palm conservation projects involving Attalea crassispatha and Corypha taliera are important to the Garden as well.

The Florida native Sargent’s cherry palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii) grows throughout the Caribbean; in the U.S. it is only found on Elliott Key (Biscayne Bay). Although the species is widespread throughout the Caribbean region, its numbers have been decreasing in many of its habitats, and this palm is listed as an endangered species in Florida.

Sargent’s cherry palm was discovered to be growing on Elliott Key in 1886, and since then the population has suffered from a wide range of threats. In theearly 1900s, many individuals were removed from the wild for use in Miami landscapes. Habitat degradation and fragmentation from development has further decreased the island’s population. While hurricanes and storms are a natural part of this tree’s life history, with so much stress on the population, these events have had an immense negative impact. On top of all of these things, the palms have a very low rate of reproduction. Growth to reproductive maturation is slow and germination is difficult.

Conservation work conducted by Biscayne National Park, Fairchild and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has helped increase the Sargent’s cherry palm population. Reintroduction of the palm into Elliott Key began in 1991; since then, the population has increased from 50 individuals to 270. Seeds were collected from Elliott Key and grown at Fairchild’s nursery, and then the young plants were replanted back into the wild.

Many of those young palms survived and are now growing slowly toward maturity. Some of the young palms were also planted at Fairchild, where they are monitored closely, fertilized appropriately and give every opportunity to survive and reproduce.

Since they are cared for more closely, they grow faster and reach reproductive maturity sooner than those in the wild. The seeds from the individuals grown at Fairchild are also used for reestablishment.

The critically endangered Attalea crassispatha palm may become another Fairchild conservation and horticulture success story. Native only to the southwest peninsula of Haiti, the population of this palm is plummeting due to exploitation of edible seeds and habitat loss to agricultural use. In 1996, fewer than 30 individuals remained in the wild. Fairchild has 38 individuals growing— 26 in the Palmetum and another 12 throughout the Garden. These palms will reach reproductive maturity within the next 10 years, seeds will germinate and young plants will be planted out in the wild. By cultivating this palm, Fairchild may be able to help this population, which is currently teetering on the brink of extinction.

The Corypha taliera palm is extinct in the wild, and Fairchild is one of only two gardens in the world to have it in its collection. This palm is monocarpic (it flowers once and then dies), making conservation is very difficult. Without non- natural environmental pressures, such as habitat loss and degradation, a monocarpic habit is beneficial. Monocarpic palms have a very long generation time, ensuring their survival throughout the centuries. But, with habitat loss, many palms are cut down before they reproduce. In 1979, the last C. taliera growing in the wild was cut down in a village near Shantiniketan, India. The individual was in an early fruiting stage and the villagers cut down the tree and its six- meter-tall pyramidal inflorescence because they feared what was known as a “ghost palmyra tree.” Fortunately, an individual later flowered and reproduced successfully in a botanic garden, and Fairchild obtained some seedlings. The palms from these seedlings are growing in the Garden. Although they are very small right now and it will be many years before they reproduce, we hope to use them as part of reintroduction and reestablishment efforts.

While cultivating young plants in the nursery and in the Garden is necessary in order to reestablish populations in the wild, it is only part of the solution. Most of these palm populations face grave problems such as habitat loss, human exploitation and in the rare case of C. taliera, fear. In order to reestablish these populations, local communities must want to conserve the palms as well. As we have observed, teamwork among Fairchild, other botanical gardens and local communities is essential in order to restore populations of endangered palms to their historic grandeur.