Calyptrocalyx polyphyllus

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Figure 1. C. polyphyllus with the red new leaf.

Calyptrocalyx polyphyllus Becc. owes its discovery to an early European explorer of the island of New Guinea. A Swiss expeditionary, Karl Lederman mapped the Sepik River (then known as Kaiser fluss) in Eastern New Guinea (now known as the nation, Papua New Guinea) and its many tributaries. Whilst surveying one such river, which was later named April River (to commemorate the month of this particular expedition in 1912-13 ) he traversed a section of the Hunstein Mountain Range, and presumably came across this palm species and added it to his botanical collections. All of his plant specimens were sent back to Europe where Odoardo Beecari was instrumental in eventually describing this particular palm species as being "polyphyllus" which in Latin means many leaved, and indeed on first impression it is certainly an accurate summation of this palm.


I have been doubly fortunate to have traversed a section of the Hunstein Mountain Range and down the April River in 1993 and recently in 1995. I have seen C. polyphyllus enough times now to advise that it also occurs in neighbouring ranges, especially Waskuk Hills and an isolated population (in respect to its distance from Hunstein Ranges) in the Torricelli Mountain Range on the far interior side of West Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. I would venture to say that I will probably see it again in some other part of New Guinea, maybe even in Irian Jaya on the western side of the island. Calyptrocalyx polyphyllus is a gregarious palm species, like most in the genus, and occurs most abundantly in colonies perched high on hilltops and mountain ridges. It favours growing on rich volcanic, well drained, red laterite soil. It seems particularly tolerant of dry weather and hardly any leaf scald results when the canopy overhead is disturbed. The altitudinal range varies from 120 metres to 700 metres and probably over. I suspect it to be on higher slopes but it definitely gives way to a sympatric species, Calyptrocalyx pauciflorus which becomes more abundant as one goes higher. However in other localities, away from the Hunstein Mountain Range, it doesn't seem as particular as to soil type, terrain or altitude, so it only proves how adaptable this species can be in nature and more importantly, for horticulture. The Baihinimo people of Hunstein Range refer to it as Giagiau (pronounced ghee-aghee-ow) in their language and the Brrinimo people of April River refer to it as Peliah (pronounced pel-lee-ah) in their language. I have not recorded any notable uses for this species, occasionally stems may be used for spears, if they are convenient to where the action is, but they aren't preferred. Seed of this species has been made available to palm enthusiasts over the last 2 years under the name, Calyptrocalyx species 'Giagiau' so it may pay to check back on your records to see whether you have acquired it. Nowadays it is sold under its botanic name. It is really the appearance of the palm that makes it instantly recognizable and appreciated by all who cultivate it, with features such as caespitose habit, broad lanceolate pinnae and newly emerging fronds that are maroon/red in colour which literally advertises its presence in the lush understory. My wantoks advise me a new leaf will retain its colour for one week minimum, generally fading by the end of the second week! Furthermore, this species retains the habit of producing maroon/red new fronds right through its adult life, unlike some Calyptrocalyx species. There are approximately 25-30 pinnae per frond and they are alternately arranged in a single plane along the rachis. The total length of the frond, generally 1 metre or so. The pinnae are lanceolate to broadly or oblong-lanceolate and have a conspicuous midrib which holds the pinnae perpendicular to the rachis. The apices of the pinnae are accuminate and contract into a sharp point that can be likened to a 'drip-tip' most familiar to palm enthusiasts in Madagascar dwarf, understory Dypsis spp. and South America Chamaedorea spp. The pinnae are convex in cross section, and are cupped downward, as a result of not having rigid longitudinal nerves, and sometimes the leaf can take on a 'pouch-like' almost contorted appearance. The pinnae themselves make this palm distinctive, but their design is by no means exclusive to this species of Calyptrocalyx alone! I know of at least 3 others. Figure 2. The distinctive pouch-shape of the pinnae with 'drip-tip' on an emerging leaf. Mature specimens I saw had flowering stems 3-4 metres tall, and they tended to dominate the plant, the smaller suckering stems were less than one third in size, and tended to be obscured by the undergrowth. This is a bonus for horticulturalists, as any offending stems can be pruned out, rest assured there will be plenty of replacement stems lying in wait. The inflorescence is a simple spike, that emerges above a leaf axil, inside a leaf base. It has a well concealed prophyl, which is retained, and a peduncular bract that tears into two halves and hangs from the peduncle. The rachillae (the portion of the spike with the flowers) appears like a thick rod and occupies the last third of the total length (about 60-100 cm) of the peduncle. Flowers are arranged in triads, sunken in triangular pits on the rachillae, 2 males subtend a central female flower. A single male flower (of the pair) opens first, and is easily noticed because of its mass of white Stamens and subtle fragrance. After this the second male flower (of the pair) will repeat the process. The entire sequence takes around a month. The female flower, being so rarely visible, is not so well known about and I think it is many weeks later before they come into flower. One thing is for certain, the male flowers have to finish their cycle first and drop off, so as to expose the female flower, which actually sits wedged between the two males. Fruits are ovate about 1 cm across, with succulent mesocarp, the surface of which is slightly grainy to feel, the endosperm is covered by a paper thin shell, which has some ~bres adhered to the surface, botanically it would'be recognised as a berry. The fruits take approximately 3 months to develop to maturity and undergo 3 colour changes; green, yellow and scarlet, mostly they are congested, all interlocking on the rachillae. Seeds usually germinate in a few weeks. The eophyll is bifid, and at least 7-8 juvenile leaves are produced before the first pinnate leaf emerges. At this time red colour should be showing in this leaf, and it will continue this habit for all subsequent pinnate leaves produced right through the palm's life. As far as this palm's introduction to horticulture in Australia (at least), the earliest records I can trace is via Glen Dawes, who in collaboration with the Coutts brothers established Glen Idle Nursery south of Cairns in the early 1980's and imported palm seed from all over the globe. During sometime in between 1983-1985, seeds o this palm and other New Guinea species were sent to Glen via a geologist contact working in Papua New Guinea at the time He was said to have been travelling up the April River when he allegedly saw a grove of this palm species on a bank of the river The long spicate infructescences were dangling conveniently within arm's reach and were grabbed from the canoe! It was speculated that this would probably be the last time this species would ever be collected because of the precarious locality of this grove (M. Daish- pers. comm.) and owing to the river's propensity to tear away it own banks during the wet season, it was feared this species would become lost. Exciting stuff ! and convincing PR to entice even the most conservative palm enthusiast into buying seedlings. And buy them they did!

Figure 3.

Many local palm collectors have their specimens still and it is largely through their growing accounts, that so much is known about its nature in cultivation. Already specimens from Glen Idle Nursery are producing viable fruit. (M. Daish- pers comm) in various enthusiasts's collection: At the Flecker Botanic Gardens in Cairn: we have 3 specimens, 2 are approaching maturity of which one has commenced flowering for the first time. Growing records are not well known outside of Australia, although it has been alleged to be in cultivation in U.S.A., but proof has not been forthcoming yet. Seedlings that have been raised in U.S.A. from recent shipments over the last 2 years, appear to be doing well. (C. York- pers. comm.) Plants growing in the southern parts of Australia are able to grow fine, but cannot tolerate frost, and demand protection over winter, generally a drop in temperature has not been found to be detrimental once plants are established in the ground. Temperatures as low as 10 degrees have been recorded in this instance! Presumably under protection in a heated nursery or shadehouse situation, temperature can be regulated anyway. Already this palm species is being trialled in large quantity as a potential indoor or patio palm for the tropics, however the results are not yet available. This year should see the first large-scale, commercial debut of this species in north Queensland at least. (M. Spina- pers. comm.) To my mind Calyptrocalyx polyphyllus will become a paragon by which all other New Guinea Calyptrocalyx species will be measured, and from the other 15 or so species I've seen and recorded, it will definitely be a hard act to follow. Of course there maybe one or two species worth mentioning, but that is unfortunately for now, another story.

Contributed by:

Michael D. Ferrero (Text)
I. Tortike (Figures 1 & 2)
David Warmington (Figure 3)
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Reproduced from Palms&Cycads No 51, Apr-Jun 1996

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