Pigafetta cultivation

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Pigafetta filaris (Giseke) Beccari, is known to many palm collectors and botanists from accounts and photographs published in many sources, notably in Principes, but as a cultivated plant knowledge of it is scarce indeed. This situation may have been different because this species has been introduced into cultivation in various countries, including Australia, a number of times, however it seems that most if not all attempts to grow this palm to maturity outside its native area have not been highly successful. There are a few notable exceptions, in Indonesia for example the species has been successfully cultivated at Bogor, however conditions at Bogor are probably not very different to those under which Pigafetta grows naturally.

In north Queensland, plants of Pigafetta filaris were available nearly ten years ago, and since then there have been numerous batches of seed imported, but still there are no mature trees in evidence. What is the reason for the lack of success? Probably the most significant single factor involved is lack of understanding, a state which can only be overcome through experience, either direct or indirect.

To look at the results of direct experience, gained from having received seeds or small plants, two features of this species become obvious; firstly, the seeds germinate and grow very rapidly, and secondly, the seedlings and more advanced plants are very soft, compared to most other palms. The rapidity of germination poses certain problems, one accustomed to slower germmation is less liable to maintain constant observation of the seeds and perhaps less liable to maintain moisture levels sufficient to accomodate such rapid growth. It is very likely that in many cases the seeds germinate before the groweer has noticed and may nave dried out. Dryness is almost always fatal to young Pigafetta plants and in the case of seedlings they needonly a few hours of dryness to spell doom. If the initial seedlings are kept moist and survive the initial germination period, they may grow so rapidly that they become quite entangled before they can be repotted individually, and the softness of the plants requires that they are disturbed as little as possible when being moved. If the roots become entangled, which can happen if the seeds are sown too densely, the seedlings can be grossly retarded or killed if transplanted carelessly.

As the germination period is very short, often taking two weeks, it is probably advisable to plant the seeds individually into tubes, so they can be potted on later without root disturbance. A tube of 50 mm diameter with a depth of at least 100 mm would be quite suitable as the seedlings grow fast enough to fill them in five weeks or so. The plants should be kept moist at all times, as mentioned above a very brief period of dryness can be disastrous.

Having successfully raised the seedling to a size capable of being planted out, one has to rely on whatever experience he or she has in selecting a site. This is where indirect experience enters into consideration, and may be totally useless. We read that this palm grows in high rainfall equatorial closed forests (or tropical rainforest in simple terms), so we probably assume that the seedlings and juveniles need shade. If the plants have been shaded so far, they wili have very elongated petioles and very soft leaflets. and they are now ready for their second great trial. Such shadegrown plants have little resistance to wind and can be fatally damaged by sudden gusts or slowly dehydrated by constant breezes. My own experience with a single plant of Pigafetta obtained some years ago was to watch it grow at an astonishing rate only to have its growing point torn out by a gust of wind from a passing and rather modest cyclone. The leafbases of this plant do not form sturdy shroud around the soft young tissues at the bases of forming leaves and without this support a sudden violent movement can break the soft parts.

Very probably this palm does grows in shade when young, but if it does it also has the protection of the surrounding vegatation, something which is often lacking in cultivated situations. There is some indication in the literature that Pigafetta is an opportunistic palm, taking advantage of disturbed sites in the forest where a greater amount of sunlight penetrates to the sub-layer. The rapid growth of the plants would indicate they do act as canopy gap-closers in favourable sites. If this supposition is valid then one needs only to look at other plants with similar niches to gain some idea of how to treat Pigafetta. A number of plants can be compared, some of which are familiar to many people, such as treeferns, wild bananas and gingers. Anyone who has had experience growing such plants will know that heavy shade has a stunting effect on them whilst wind exposure often damages their foliage. Such plants require high humidity and moist soil, plenty of light and shelter from wind. Perhaps this is what Pigafetta needs.

One answer to the problem is to raise the seedlings as outlined above (sown individually) in strong light to reduce the petiole in proportion to the leaf. The plants will be less vulnerable to wind damage and the extra light assists with growth rates. The plants should be potted on and fed regularly, with each potting they could be placed in more light until they take nearly full sun. When the plants are about 2m high they can be planted out into a suitable site which should be sunny and sheltered as much as possible. If one is given a plant which is lanky and root-bound it can be quickly brought to a sturdy condition by potting it up or planting it out in the type of site mentioned above. The older leaves may need to be trimmed to avoid damage from wind and the leaflets will slowly burn in the brighter light, but new growth comes so quickly that a healthy new crown of leaves wilI result in two or three months. It seems that the plant should never be allowed to dry out, even when mature, and if past experience with the drought intolerance of this palm is anything to go by, finding out just how much dryness adults will tolerate could be very risky.

Having worked out a method for raising this species, some attention should be given here to its limitations, both environmental and aesthetic. The palm range, which at a guess may be something like 5-10C between extremes. Minimum temperatures are possibly in the order of 25C at low elevations or 18C at higher elevations. There are not many populated areas in Australia and certainly none in southern Australia or the United States that have temperature changes like this (excepting Hawaii, which is geographically not part of the United States), however it is mostly true to say that plants show a tolerance of conditions considerably more variable than those found in their native habitats. Hence one can grow plants which are confined to tropical regions in subtropical or warm temperate areas, depending on the adaptability of the plant and the nature of its habitat. It is not always correct to assume that a plant species natural distribution is limited by temperature as more often there are geographical, biological and climatic barriers, such as oceans, pollen and seed vector limitations and areas of unsuitable rainfall regimens to prevent it from spreading.

Perhaps the only way to find out if Pigafetta is suited to any particular area is to try it there. North Queensland looks to be climatically capable of accomodating Pigafetta and indeed there are already some advanced juvenile plants growing impressively in certain collections. Probably this palm will also grow in lowland south-eastern Queensland providing it is sheltered from cold winds during the winter months. This species should also succeed in Darwin where the temperature range should be suitable if not perhaps a little too warm. As it is vulnerable to wind damage as a juvenile and probably as an adult as well, Pigafetta will never be a street tree or landscape element in parks unless well sheltered.

Aesthetically, Pigafetta is something that will not please everyone, becaue personal tastes will always influence the plantings people undertake, and Pigafetta has a compliment of spines which make it somewhat difficult to handle. The plant is both robust and elegant. if such a combination can be visualised, rather like some species of Caryota or Metroxylon. David Fairchild once said that this species was his favourite palm, personally I find it very hard to be definate on this subject which is really only a matter of opinion. It is important not to form artificial stereotypes when weighing up the merits of a plant species, such is not the case unfortunately amongst orchid growers who would prefer every flower to be quite circular and therefore of little distinction. Anyone who has been to an orchid show will probably notice how the large, round-bloomed multigeneric hybrids, which tend to vary mostly only in colour, have all the tickets hanging off them whilst some small and shapely species is neglected. Let us not fall into this dead-end trap with palms; each species has its own merits and each grower has his own values. If David Fairchild likes Pigafetta there is no reason to follow suit unless one is genuinely fond of it. I could imagine a perfect specimen, it would be very handsome indeed, however I could also imagine a wind-blown and depauperate specimen, which would be something of an eye-sore. This concept of ugliness in palms is something that many people are ignorant of, to them a palm is automatically beautiful simply because it is a palm. Beauty is all relative; to a Malay or New Guinean who is familiar with tropical rainforest palms something like a Washingtonia, Butia, Sabel and their ilk may seem at best curious, at worst a grotesque monster. To someone who is familiar with the three genera mentioned above, a tropical rainforest palm is quite different.

Pigafetta therefore will probably please people who have not seen it before or who are attracted to large vigorous palms. Growers may be dissappointed in it if it fails to grow properly for them or may find that the spines are unpleasant. If one is not concerned with details of appearances and manages to grow this palm well, they will be rewarded with its rapid growth. Just how fast does it grow? Some estimates suggest that it is capable of growing to something like 20m in under ten years, perhaps only eight years. This might sound fantastic, but once the growth of this species is seen on a daily basis, such figures are not so hard to believe. One of my plants is pushing out leaves at the rate of 10-15cm each day, the plant is presently less than 2m high and the stem base is seen to grow visibly wider each week.

Hopefully these notes will encourage other people to grow Pigafetta or help them succeed where they have not done so in the past.


Contributed by:

Robert Tucker, (from Palms & Cycads No. 3, July 1984).

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