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In from the cold?
A promising palm from the New Guinea highlands.
Figure 2. A group of Ptychococcus lepidotus cultivated for the trunks for timber, bows and spears at Mini, Western Highlands Province P.N.G. Ptychococcus lepidotus was only formally described in 1965 by one of the foremost students of palm taxonomy in recent history, Harold E Moore Jr. He had collected material in an earlier expedition to Eastern Papua New Guinea in 1964. Then, as now, he had scant Ptychococcus specimens to refer to from the major Herbaria, but he recognised it as separate, after having checked through the list of described species. The specific epithet 'lepidotus' refers to the prominent brown scales that coat both the male and female flower petals, a trait which he believed particular to the species. Rest assured though, there are a lot of other features that can easily distinguish it with the other species like P. paradoxus or P. elatus (which is a synonym) in common cultivation. The fruits of P. lepidotus are ovoid, 3-5 cms long and 3cms in diameter, when ripe the skin is a bright orange, and the succulent/fibrous yellow mesocarp exudes a strong spicy/musty odour, which I think is a particular character of this species. The endocarp is ornate, winged and lignified and tapers to a point. It is a unique palm seed form only known in Ptychococcus spp. from New Guinea and Solomon Islands. The surface of the endocarp is quite smooth, tawny/tan in colour with many strong black fibres that adhere to and are embedded throughout it. The wall of the endocarp appears very thick and woody, deeply intruding and folding into the endosperm, this aspect can be really appreciated when seeing the seed in cross section. There are 7-8 raised edges or 'wings', one of which is prominent and can be likened to a keel. They are however not clearly distinguishable from a glance because of the shallow grooves between them. Compare this to P. paradoxus with an endocarp surface that is dark chocolate in colour, and as many black fibres adhering tO it, but importantly the 5-6 edges of the endocarp are very sharp and they are divided by deep grooves, giving a much more defined shape. Usually the wall of the endocarp is not thick and does not intrude or fold into the endosperm to the degree of the former species. The seed of Ptychococcus lepidotus has a 'winged' shape that matches the endocarp, the endosperm is ruminate. All of these seed features are particularly useful to know, as I have seen many instances where P. paradoxus seed is regularly passed off as P. lepidotus, by unscrupulous merchants. Fresh seed only takes a few weeks to germinate. Fruits are born on infrafoliar (below the crownshaft) infiorescences branched to 3 orders. There are usually 5-6 or more inflorescences in varying stages of development, i.e. flowering and fruiting on any one mature palm! So there is never a real shortage of seeds at any time during the year. The first leaf (eophyll) is bifid, with jagged apices. The leaf surface is shiny, almost polished dark green, quite unlike the matt green of P. paradoxus. A white/cream line surrounds the mid rib and is prominent on seedling leaves, later the colour fades once mature leaves are produced.
Figure 3. Seedling
Figure 4. General habit of P. lepidotus crown (cultivated)
in situ, Mt Hagen, Westyern Highlands Province, P.N.G.
The palms appearance is of a standard form, the stem base is
approximately 30 cm diameter, usually smaller, the trunk is
smooth without prominent leaf base scars (cicatrices). The
outer layer of the stem is very hard, and there are strong
black fibres tightly immeshed within. The core of the stem
base also is profoundly layered with coarse wiry black fibres,
making it an exceptionally durable palm and hence is much
utilised by native New Guineans. Usually the stem of the palm
is cut 2 to 3 metres above the base, the outer layer of stem
is then hewn off the core and is then cut into 2 metre strips
which are then painstakingly carved to make bows, other
off-cuts are used for arrow heads. The stems may reach up to
10 metres. This palm generally grows in an exposed situation,
and is obviously tolerant to cultivation. It grows best in
free draining soil and seedlings will establish in full sun.
The crown of the palm is profuse with fronds, usually
numbering 12 or more. They are held in an erect plane,
although the rachis twists the fronds in a peculiar fashion
such that they appear dishevelled! The pinnae are 50-65 cms
long, and 2-4 cms wide, they are arranged in alternate order
along the rachis. They have praemorse tips, as if tom or
bitten off and are a dark glossy green with coriaceous
texture. The fronds are about 2.5- 3 metres long and are not
retained by the palm. There are concentrations of thick brown
scales that cover the leaf base, petiole and rachis. This is
a distinctive character and useful when observing it in the
field. P. paradoxus by comparison, lacks this kind of
Frequently large tussocks of moss cling to the palm's stem
and crown at higher altitudes, providing an ideal perch for
orchids, which only are noticeable when in flower.
Here at Flecker Botanic Gardens in Cairns we cultivate both
species and P. lepidotus seedlings are not robust in
our climate as our coastal conditions are not to the palm's
liking. However if you are from the southem parts of
Australia the story from here gets much better. I have seen
specimens in cultivation in private collections in Brisbane
and in Mt. Coot-tha Botanic Gardens and they are fantastic.
The subtropical climate, I feel, is perfect for them, and I
would guess that temperate climates further south would still
be able to accommodate them, however frosty to freezing
conditions could be fatal. I am not aware of any large
specimens growing in Sydney, and would like to find out.
In the Highlands of New Guinea, night temperatures regularly
fall to 10 degrees during the dry season, and consistently
throughout the rest of the year there is always a distinct
drop in temperature from the daytime to night-time.
This palm species has adapted to live with such vicissitudes
of temperature thus from a horticultural perspective I would
say there is a good chance this species will thrive in all
zones where subtropical palms are cultivated. I have reports
that this species is doing very well in places like Israel
and in North America, at the seedling stage (C. York -
pers. comm.). Beyond this I cannot predict how well it may
grow outdoors. Sufficient interest has been shown around the
globe to trial Ptychococcus lepidotus, and in years to
come we all will know a lot more as to its horticultural
requirements. I see it as a realistic alternative to the much
publicised Foxtail Palm,
especially for palm enthusiasts in cooler climates.
M. D Ferrero.
David Tanswell (Figure 1 & 2)
Reproduced from Palms & Cycads No 52-53, Jul-Dec 1996. /table