Thursday, 15 January 2009

Archontophoenix cunninghamiana

Archontophoenix cunninghamiana H. Wendl. & Drude
Linnaea 39: 214. 1875.

This palm is referred to in modern garden books as the bungalow (bangalow) or piccabeen palm. However it is known by gardeners, in common parlance, as "the elegant palm". Authors avoid the use of this common name because it is an inheritance from the rather tortured nomenclatural progress of this species. Hooker in the Botanical Magazine of 1857 described a palm (Nº 4961) with the name Seaforthia elegans. Allan Cunningham (1791-1839) had sent seed to Kew from Australia in 1825 and a palm that had reached twenty-eight feet in height flowered in 1856. It was this plant that was figured in the Botanical Magazine together with an inflorescence and details male and female flowers. The flowers were described as "pale, dull, lilac colour" produced from "the side of the dark green, graceful trunk." Unfortunately no fruits were produced at this time and Hooker used fruits from another source to complete the plate. The problem began here for these fruits did not belong to the same species as that produced from Cunningham's seed.

These fruits came from Robert Brown's genus Seaforthia - indeed from the type species Seaforthia elegans. Hooker was clearly under the mistaken impression that Cunningham's plants were the same. He should have realised from the flower colour (Seaforthia elegans has white flowers). Had fruit been produced he would have seen spherical red fruits instead of the oblong globular fruits that he had drawn for this plate. The drawing of the entire plant is very slender for this (Cunningham's) species, but this was likely a consequence of glasshouse cultivation in a Northern climate.

This taxonomic mess was sorted out by Hermann Wendland who "clarified the situation with his description of Ptychosperma cunninghamiana in Botanische Zeitung. Subsequently Wendland and Drude renamed it Archontophoenix cunninghamiana in 1875 in Linnaea when they created Archontophoenix as a new genus. (PALMS & CYCADS No. 39, Apr-Jun 1993.)

But the damage was done, not Hooker's finest hour, and this palm passed into the nursery trade as Seaforthia elegans, the elegant palm. Walter Oates was still using this name in 1929, seventy-two years later. What is more we are still calling it the "Elegant palm", which denomination it certainly deserves !

Cunningham found the palm at Illawarra (or as he referred to it the "Five Island District"), a portion of Australia remarkable for the almost tropical character and luxurience of its vegetation. During his month-long stay he made a very rich collection of both specimens and seeds. (W. J. Hooker)

Cunningham made the voyage aboard the cutter Mermaid, under Captain Philip Parker King, R.N., between 29 December 1817 and 29 July 1818, surveying the north-west coast of Australia, during which he made the discovery. He described the palm and associated vegetation in his journal, quoted in his obitiary in the Journal of Botany:

"I returned from a late excursion to the country southerly, with a collection of interesting plants and some seeds found during my stay there, in the diversified country in that vicinity, particularly under the mountain-belt bounding the fine cattle-runs to the westward, whose shaded damp woods afforded me a considerable scope for botanical investigation, although I was in several instances, too early in the season for expanded flowering specimens. I was nevertheless fortunate in the detection of many fine plants, either in fruit or in a partially flowering condition, that I have never examined before. They are, however, for the most part, plants known to that eminent botanist, Mr Brown, a circumstance that tempts me to conclude the vegetable productions of those shaded close forests, full of volubilous and scandent species, to be of the same description as those of the Cedar woods of the Coal River, (Hunter's River,) whence that gentleman, in 1804, could have alone obtained those plants he has described, and which I have again detected two degrees to the southward of it, viz., at the Red Point of the charts, a district wholly unknown to any botanist at that period of time. Among the plants to which I allude, the following are remarkable:— Cargillia australis, Achra sp., Cryptocarya and Tetranthera, genera of Laurineae, a Podocarpus, in habit like Taxus elongatus, Marsdenia rostrata, and Tylophora sp., a singular cork-barked tree, Duboisia?, a Palm, which I suspect is the tropical Seaforthia, and many others, not clearly ascertained."

Habitat and cultivation

From Southern and East Central rainforests of Australia. Requires full sun and moderate water. Piccabeen palms may also be found in the wetter sclerophyll forests of the same region.
My favourite palm web-site PACSOA has some good habitat photos including this forest of Bangalows at Mt. Mee, south-east Queensland (Photo Michael Grey). This is exactly how I have seen this palm growing in semi-naturalised conditions at São Miguel (Azores). Which inspired me to plant this grove at Hotel Miramar (Funchal, Madeira).

This palm is not at all cold tolerant, there are very few locations in Europe where it may be found growing outdoors. It is also poorly adapted to wind and salt. Monserrate provides good growing conditions but the plants would benefit from additional watering.

The name Seaforthia elegans is therefore NOT a synonym of Archontophoenix cunninghamiana as is sometimes stated. Not cultivated (to my knowledge) on Mainland Portugal. Old Plants are occasionally seen in Madeira.

Seaforthia elegans R. Br.
Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae 1: 267. 1810.

Ptychosperma elegans (R. Br.) Blume
Rumphia 2: 118. 1843

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the best places to see this palm in its natural range is in the valley below Minyon Falls, perhaps 30km by winding road inland from Byron Bay, Australia's easternmost town. The falls drop 100m into a rainforested cupola ringed by immense rhyolite cliffs. Seen from above, the symmetrical crowns of Archontophoenix cluster along the streambed and form monocultures in permanently saturated sites.

I lived for a while in a remote valley near Minyon. The land had been partly cleared, but was largely rainforest dominated by regrowth. At the end of the property was an ancient rainforest of many hectares that had been selectively logged for the Australian Cedar,Toona ciliata,in the 1930s. That was the only time in history that the hand of man had touched that forest. Below and between emergent rainforest Figs 40-50m high was an even-aged stand of Archontophoenix cunninghamiana 25-30m tall, growing on a basaltic shelf covered with a stone mulch made of disintegrated rhyolite from enormous boulders tumbling now and then from the cliffs above. Occasional ancient Black Bean trees grew amongst the palms,and in season, their striking orange and yellow flowers would carpet the neatly sorted stone surface, as old palm fronds fell here and there,to rot away remarkably quickly; despite the hundreds of palms the mulch was never overwhelmed by frond-fall.

Below the shelf the land fell away to a stream and on these steeper slopes the dominance of the palms gave way to many other fascinating Australian warm-temperate and subtropical rainforest trees.

In one part of the forest where the drainage was better was a community of the shrub Triunia youngiana, known as Spice Bush, growing in the deep shade beneath the canopy. This ancient Proteaceous plant is of inconspicuous form but I was fortunate enough to enjoy mass-flowering event that filled the the air with a scent like a blend of nutmeg and gardenia.

Ptychosperma elegans is very slow growing south of Queensland, which explains its lack of use in gardens in Sydney, though I know of some excellent plants. Very slender and shorter than Piccabeens and Alexandra palms and the tips of the pinnae are raggedly truncate. Needs a lot of warmth and humidity, but winter dormancy requires drier root zones than would be typical in its natural range.