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Lord Howe Island was discovered by Lt. Henry Lidgbird Ball in 1788 en route from Sydney to Norfolk Island in the HMS Supply. Situated 480 miles north-east of Sydney, Lord Howe is some 11 kilometres long and 2.8 kilometres wide, forming a boomerang-like shape. It was not until the late 1830's to 1840's that the first settlers inhabited the Island to service the passing American whaling ships with fresh fruit and vegetables. These whalers, already replenishing their water supplies on the Island, formed the basis of a small but flourishing clientele and thus the population slowly grew to take advantage of the new enterprise.
Seeds of Howea forsteriana were first collected in 1870 by eminent Victorian botanist Baron Ferdinand von Mueller who mistakenly placed the new species in the genus Kentia, a name which has stuck as a common name throughout the years. In 1877 however, Odoardo Beccari, a leading palm authority of that time, re-classified it within Howea as a distinct genus endemic to Lord Howe Island.
Lord Howe Islanders paid little attention to the Kentia for many years other than to utilise its strong fibrous leaves as thatching for their homes. Not until the decline in the whaling industry in the 1880's and the Islanders' subsequent loss of livelihood in providing services to the whalers did the seed industry evolve.
Originally, seed was collected under a cooperative share arrangement whereby each Islander was granted a number of shares determined by age, sex and marital status This resulted in a reasonably equitable distribution of profits amongst the Islanders, and for many years formed the basis of Lord Howe Island economy. However, with the advent of World War I and a decline in world market demand, the seed trade plummeted. Further disaster struck the Island with the escape of rats from a grounded vessel on Ned's Beach. Consequently, the share system disintegrated, and instead, seed collectors were paid by the bushel for seed now in limited demand. All other profits from seed sales thereafter were applied to Island administration.
Figure 1. H. forsteriana, Lord Howe Island.
Access to Lord Howe Island was initially by trading vessel at five-weekly intervals, followed by the introduction of a flying boat service based in Rosebay which departed Sydney Harbour. This service proved to be the last scheduled flying boat service in the world until the opening of the current airstrip in 1974 introduced a conventional aircraft service. Interestingly, it was around this time that renewed interest was shown in the Kentia Palm seed industry. The Lord Howe Island Board, now controls the exports of Kentia and it consists of three Islanders and two National Parks representatives. It was quick to establish its own nursery to promote island economy. In the early 1980's, the Board ceased the export of seed and set up its own germination unit guaranteeing quality seedlings and sprouts. Further, the Board was quick to protect its major source of income by banning the import of any palm or palm product onto the Island, effectively protecting the colony from alien pathogens and pests. The Kentia Palm needs full sunlight to produce flowers and can attain seeding maturity in as little as ten years when grown under such conditions. However, shade grown or understorey plants may take up to 40 years to reach the flowering stage, only producing inflorescences when they reach the top of the canopy and full sunlight. If plants are removed from a full sun situation and replaced in a shady position, further flowering ceases until favourable light conditions are once again reinstated. Flowering occurs each year, usually during November and December. Inflorescences are initiated at the leaf bases producing both male and female flowers. Male flowers, which are a creamy brown colour, outnumber the green female flowers two to one. During the first year of flowering, make flowers only are produced and consequently no pollination taken place. Female flowers appear on this inflorescence during the second year and are fertilised by the new flower spike above it, bearing, once again, male flowers only. This cycle continues during the life of the Kentia. Seeds take three to four years to ripen and the Kentia carries two or three crops at various stages of maturity. Collection of the seeds is still carried out by hand. Using a strap which is looped through the feet, the seed collector bunny-hops his way to the top of the palm to disengage the seed bunches which can weigh up to six to seven kilos each. Figure 2. H. forsteriana with seeds.
Jane Walkley (Text and Figure 1&2).
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