The rediscovery of C. macrospermum

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The rediscovery of C. macrospermum


After one hundred years of botanical obscurity and confusion, the elusive Carpoxylon macrospermum H.A. Wendland and Drude has been sighted. This palm was known only from its description and illustration of its fruit and seed, (Wendland and Drude 1875) and was reported to occur on Anatom (Aneityum), an isolated island in the south of Vanuatu, east of New Caledonia. There have been no recorded sightings or collections since the first instance and in recent years, botanists and palm collectors have searched for this palm but to no avail; some even believing that it does not exist at all, or possibly a misrepresentation of another species, Veitchia spiralis, which does occur on Anatom, or even a botanical practical joke, many of which proliferated during the late 1800s, a time of great botanical exploration, discoveries and deceptions as competing plant collectors regrettably gave misleading localities to confuse their rivals.

Its rediscovery will now allow a thorough study and investigation to commence, determining its relationships within the palm flora of the south-west Pacific.

The Sighting:

On the 18th November 1987, I left for Vanuatu on a two week palm study tour which was in connection with the gathering of material for a future publication upon which I was working. Preliminary study and research had acquainted me with the palms of Vanuatu, comprising of a relatively small number of species, about 14 being presently described. Most have affinities with the palm flora of the Solomens to the north and Fiji to the east, which in the main is an extension of the palm flora of New Guinea and Malesia.

The true purpose of the trip was to locate and photograph as many of the indigenous species as possible. Of course I had read of Carpoxylon in Supplement to Palms of the World, Langlois 1976 and Genera Palmarum 1987, but it was on my list of 'not expected to locate' species as it was reported to occur on the isolated island of Anatom (Aneityum) in the far south which upon making enquiries to my local travel agent revealed that only one flight every two weeks went to the island and that there were no facilities for visitors to speak of. The logistics of visiting Anatom proved too complex so I opted for the more accessible islands of Efate, on which is situated the salubrious capital of Port Vila; Vanua Lava, a relatively isolated but palm rich island in the Banks Group in the far north of the country; and Espiritu Santo, the largest island with a relatively rich palm flora.

Carpoxylon was sighted in the latter days of the trip and accounts detailing the first 12 days in which I visited Efate and Vanua Lava will be forthcoming in future publications On the 28th November, I arrived in Luganville, usually referred to as Santo Town, on the island of Espiritu Santo. My planned itinerary was for me to commence on the following day a tour through the interior of the island along the 'Bush Road' to Matantas in the north, then eastward through Lowerie to Hog Harbour and then to proceed southward back to Santo Town. Reported localities of Cyphophoenix sp., Cyphosperma sp., Licuala grandis and Metroxylon warburgii within the region had interested me. This short tour was accomplished on the 29th November. The following day was to be an excursion in the opposite direction along the south-west road to Tasmalum and from there to hopefully locate a Clinostigma sp. which was reported to have been collected in the hills above the village of Buria.

The 30th November dawned; a sultry day with grey clouds looming. I departed in the morning for Tasmalum along a coral road which for its rough appearance proved to be smooth and comfortable upon which to drive. The coastal areas are mainly taken up by coconut plantations with only remnants of the original vegetation remaining in isolated patches. As I drove westward, the remnant rainforest patches became more predominant and in some areas filled entire valleys. Veitchia macdanielsii, a tall species, rose as isolated specimens above the canopy. The region obviously received a greater rainfall than areas only 20-30 kilometres to the east as tall forested mountains were in the hinterlands Passing through a small settlement, I observed 2 specimens of Veitchia macdanielsii growing very near to the road in a village garden. The farmer was working nearby and as it is the custom in Vanuatu to seek permission to enter anothers property, I approached the farmer requesting that I take some fruits from the ground at the base of the palms. The Ni-Vanuatu being exceedingly obliging people, offered to help me with the task. After collecting a few packets of fruits, the farmer asked if I wished for him to show me another palm "which was different to this one". I had become blase about the many hundreds of Veitchias which I had been originally confused by and thought to myself, "Oh, not another Veitchia".

We proceeded along the road and after quite some time a turn-off was taken in the direction of the seashore. We drove into an undeveloped area adjacent to a disused coconut plantation and as we neared the waters edge mangroves and other moist habitat vegetation prevailed. Soon after we stopped at the edge of a small stream. "Wait here" my farmer friend urged, as he dashed off into the undergrowth. A few minutes later he reemerged holding a single largish green fruit in his hand. To my complete astonishment he displayed in his open palm that fruit as illustrated in the 'Supplement'. "Carpoxylon", I said aloud. "Carpoxylon", even louder.

Within a very short time I stood at the base of a group of four gracefully tall palms, growing in silty alluvium a few metres from the streams edge. Coconut crabs had formed a labyrinth in the vicinity beneath tile palms. Carpoxylon had been rediscovered almost by sheer accident.

Subsequently, a sample was collected including leaf, infructesence and fruits. Interested palm botanists were duely informed of the rediscovery and now plans are at hand to organise a complete collection to include inflorescence and flowers so as to allow a full description of this palm to be made.

Contributed by:

ohn Dowe Reproduced from Palms & Cycads No. 18, Jan-Mar 1988.

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