The Tallest of Palms

High up in a mountain valley in Colombia grows one of the most remarkable palms in the world. Known scientifically as Ceroxylon quindiuense, the Quindío wax palm towers like a lanky monolith above the surrounding vegetation. Not only is this the tallest species of palm in the world, it is, by extension, the tallest monocot as well.

Standing at heights of over 160 feet, the Quindío wax palm looks all the stranger with its narrow trunk and tuft of fronds all the way at the top. It is called a wax palm because members of this genus produce a waxy substance from their trunk. In the past, this wax was harvested for its use in making torches. Until electricity became widely available, these palms were felled en masse for this purpose.

Quindío wax palms are slow to mature. For at least 15 years they focus much of their energy on radial or outward growth of the trunk. For 15 years, all the tree puts out are three pinnate leaves. Things change once the tree hits 15. It will begin its climb into the sky. Every year it sheds leaves, which creates a dark ring around the trunk. Because of this, it is easy to estimate the approximate age of any given wax palm. Count the rings and add 15 years for stem development plus another 5 for a full crown. It is believed that these palms can take upwards of 80 years to reach sexual maturity!

Because of its limited geographic range, Quindío wax palms are at risk of extinction. The young fronds are favorites among Catholics of the region for their use in Palm Sunday ceremonies. Stands that exhibit heavy harvesting have a hard time of recovering. At the same time, their native range is quickly being converted to pasture land as well as other forms of agriculture. Even if trees are left standing, their seeds find it difficult to germinate and survive under the altered microclimates of these human environments.

Luckily for Ceroxylon quindiuense, the government of Colombia recognizes how special this species is. Not only is it now the national tree and emblem of Colombia, its is now a protected species. All logging of Quindío wax palms is illegal. Still, major portions of their remaining populations are located within pasture lands.

Photo Credit: nuria mpascual (http://bit.ly/1CImC7T)

Further Reading:
http://bit.ly/1CImCEP

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/38467/0

The Largest Seed in the World

Coco_de_mer.jpg

For Lodoicea maldivica, better known as coco de mer, producing the largest seeds in the world may seem like a cool fact for the record books but it certainly has its drawbacks. However, as with anything in nature, selection would not allow for wasteful traits to be passed on. Costs must be offset by a reproductive advantage on some level. A recent study looked at what these tradeoffs might be for L. maldivica and what they found is pretty incredible.

With seeds clocking in at upwards of 30 kg (66 lbs.) one has to wonder what L. maldivica is up to. It was long thought that, like the coconut, seeds of this palm must be dispersed by water. However, they are simply too dense to float. Instead, seed dispersal for this peculiar species of palm is actually quite limited. They simply fall from the tree and germinate below the canopy.

This may explain why L. maldivica is endemic only to the islands of Praslin and Curieuse in the Seychelles. It's not just the seeds that are huge either. The female flowers, which are borne on separate trees than the males, are the largest female flowers of any species of palm. At 10 m (32 ft.) in diameter, the leaves are also massive, fanning outwards on petioles that can reach 2 m to 4 m (6.5 - 13 ft) in length. It goes without saying that L. maldivica is a palm full of superlatives.

Counterintuitively, the habitats in which they grow are notoriously low in nutrients. Why then would this palm invest so much energy into growing these gigantic structures? Because they tend to germinate and grow beneath their parents, the offspring of L. maldivica would appear to be at a disadvantage from the start. A recent study suggests that the answer lies in those massive leaves.

Researchers found that the areas directly beneath the adult trees were wetter and had more soil nutrients compared to the surroundings. As it turns out, L. maldivica modifies its own habitat. Those massive leaves do more than just collect sun, they also act as giant funnels. In fact, most of the water that rains down onto the canopy is collected by the leaves. In this way, everything from water, debris, and even excess pollen is funneled down to the base of each tree.

Not only is this good for the parent tree, it is also a boon for the dispersal-limited offspring. Coupled with the considerable endosperm in those massive seeds, all of this additional water and fertilizer means that seedling L. maldivica enter into the world at a distinct advantage over many other plants on the islands. All of that endosperm serves to help fuel seedling growth while it is still shaded by its parent.

Sadly, over-harvesting of the seeds has crippled natural reproduction for L. maldivica. This coupled with habitat destruction paints a bleak picture for this record-holding palm. It has already been lost from three other Seychelles islands. Luckily there are many conservation efforts underway that are aimed at saving L. maldivica. The Seychelles are now considered a World Heritage Site and many of the wild populations of this palm lie within national parks.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2]