Palms in Mauritius

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Palms in Mauritius

Latitude 20 15 South, longitude 57 35 East, off the coast of Madagascar lies the island of Mauritius. Forming part of the Mascarene ridge in the Indian Ocean and of volcanic origin, Mauritius elevates itself up to 2,644 feet above the sea level. With temperatures reaching maximum highs of 36 degree centigrade on the coastal regions in summer the minimum lows are of 7 degree centigrade over the central regions in winter. Although such temperatures and a rich volcanic soil represent the ideal conditions for a vast variety of palm trees to grow and propagate on the island, severe cyclonic conditions remain however detrimental to nature in this region.

According to the information found in the book of Guy Rouillard and Joseph Gueho, 'Les plantes et leur histoire a l'ile Maurice', there are seven different endemic palm species from the Mascarene Islands which are of Mauritian origin. The indigenous species which are proper to the island of Mauritius are:

Acanthophoenix rubra H. Wendl. called here the 'Palmiste Piquant" growing mostly on the central plateau of the island above 1 300 feet. With a trunk which can be as large as 25 cms in diameter, this palm has a beautiful orange brown crownshaft with fine black spines on it. Its leaves are of a tender green colour making it one of the most colourful and graceful palm that we have here. It can reach a height of 30 metres, being hence higher than the most of the vegetal in the Mauritian forests. The tree can easily be recognized here since the trunk is usually covered by an orange moss growing only on this palm.

Dictyosperma(Bory) H. Wendl. and Drude ex Scheff is represented by three varieties within the same species, out of which two originally grew on the Mauritian soil:

Dictyosperma album, the White Palm, is an indigenous species which has the characteristic of being edible. Nowadays cultivated on a commercial basis for that purpose by some Sugar Estates, the heart of this palm is a delicacy proposed in the local gastronomy. There are various recipes where the palm heart can be cooked or served as a salad. And if the salad is given the pompous name of 'salade du millionaire', it is understandable why: the tree needs to be cultivated for six or seven years before the heart can be consumed. The palm can unfortunately give this delicious heart only once, after having been chopped off its head cannot grow back as Milbert, a French settler regrettably puts it in his writings in an attempt to explain the extreme rarity of the edible palms a century after their arrival on the island. It is difficult to know about what palm Milbert was exactly talking about at this time. As for the White Palm it has now fortunately been vastly propagated.

Dictyosperma conjugatum H. E. Moore and J. Gueho. The Round Island Palm was first discovered in its natural surroundings on Round Island; 15 kilometres north of Mauritius where there are today only two left. With a relatively short trunk and greyish blue leaves which are for long linked to one another at the extreme end, the tree has white seeds. It was propagated and there are now some at the Pamplemouses Botanical Garden.

Hyophorbe amaricaulis is a palm which has for long been mistaken for the H. lagenicaulis. This endangered endemic kind has a uniform trunk of about 15 cms of diameter and very thin leaves. There is only one survival of this type in the garden of Curepipe, a residential town on the central plateau of the island. Much efforts have been done and attempts to propagate H. amaricaulis by embryos culture was done in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The program 1985 however still required work. In 1990 another attempt was unsuccessful, but in 1998 a report indicated that a group of H. amaricaulis could have possibly been indentified in Cuba.

Hyophorbe lagenicaulis (L.H. Bailey) H.E. Moore commonly called the 'Palmiste gargoulette" or the Bottle Palm is swollen at the bottom, particularly in its early age and as it grows older can be distorted. This species is present at the Pamplemouses Botanical Garden and has successfully been propagated.

Latania loddigesii, the Blue Latan Palm is the tree which attracted the attention of the Dutch when they first arrived on the island in 1598. Being the first official settlers, they reported to have been impressed on their arrival by a particular shape of palms growing on the sides of the mountains in the South. According to the Dutch settlers it had "leaves so large that a man could easily hide himself from the rain by using one leaf, and when one drills a hole in the palm comes out a dry wine, gentle and sweet." The first settlers largely contributed to the destruction of the Blue Latan forests on the main island of Mauritius. A free colon had even installed a distillery were he produced palm wine. The 'female" version of the Blue Latan produces a kind of dates. The 'male" has inflorescence with several tiny flowers. An important population of this tree grows naturally on Round Island which is a natural reserved and is closed to the public. Round Island is managed by the Mauritian Wild Life Foundation, a non governmental organization concerned with the preservation of the endemic species. This palm has also been successfully propagated in numerous tropical parts of the world.

Tectiphiala ferox was not known until 1965 when this new species of the Mascarene palm was dicovered near Grand Bassin by Marc d"Unienville. Samples were sent at the L.H. Bailey Hortorium to H.E. Moore Jr. who named this palm Tectiphiala from the Latin tectus (concealed) and phiala (a flatbottomed drinking vessel, saucer, bowl) due to saucer shape that the flower has from the side, which are first hidden by the overlapping buds.

Hyophorbe vaughanii grows in the forests of the Gorges de la Riviere Noire at an altitude of around 500m. According to J. Gueho and G. Rouillard there are approximately thirty of these trees left. The Forestry Service is working on the propagation of this species.

Apart from the endemic species, there has been over 200 exotic palm species introduced in the island over the last two centuries. Among these, only 72 survived and are all in the Pamplemouses Botanical Garden. J. Gueho and G. Rouillard mention that around fifteen different exotic palm species are currently cultivated in Mauritius. Cyclonic conditions have indeed played a major role in limiting the amount of exotic species here. Historical writings however do not only show us how important the endemic palms have been to the firsts settlers of the island, but these writings unfortunately also transpose the irreversible degree of destruction humans have caused to palms in this region of the world. According to the Mauritian Wild Life Foundation, there is very little of the endemic forests which have been saved. They are now under preservation programs. When we focus on what happened to the endemic palms in Mauritius, it brings us to think that the existence of certain species may have indeed been entirely and irreversibly destroyed here.

Contributed by:

Louis Goupille in Mont Choisy, Mauritius

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