CR File: Suicide Palm

By John Oliver

Common Name: Suicide Palm

Species: Tahina spectabilis

Range: Analalava Region, North West Madagascar

Threats:

  • Fire
  • Grazing
  • Collection
  • Human intervention

On the gently rolling hills of the Analalava Regions of North West Madagascar survives the last stand of a palm on the verge of extinction. The aptly named ‘Suicide Palm’ (Tahina spectabilis) has less than 30 adult plants remaining over a range of less than 4km2.

It was first discovered in 2006 when local cashew farmer Xavier Metz photographed one of these spectacular palms in full bloom whilst on a picnic with his family. The photo later caught the eye of palm expert Dr John Dransfield at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the plant was formally identified in 2008.

Tahina spectabilis is the largest of over 170 palms native to Madagascar with a trunk up to 18 meters tall and leaves of 5 meters in diameter; it is so large that it is easily distinguishable from surrounding vegetation on Google Earth. Interestingly, DNA testing revealed it was not related to other Madagascan palms but was more closely related to palm species from Asia and Afghanistan. Not only that, but it was from a previously unknown species and genus, forming a new branch on the palm family tree, and making it an even more amazing discovery!

The rarity of this palm comes from the fact that it only flowers once in its lifetime at between 30 and 50 years of age. At this time the stem tip grows into hundreds of branches covered in flowers. The volume of flowers produced is countless and it is believed that this burst of floral life followed by fruit development depletes so much energy from the palm that it collapses and dies. Historically, no Suicide Palm is known to have survived flowering.

The manner in which the plant flowers then dies indicates that there may have once been huge stands of these plants and that they had been undisturbed for thousands of years. There are no known uses for Tahina spectabilis, and sadly its decline is solely related to loss of habitat as a consequence of human agricultural expansion, grazing by livestock and increased incidence of fire.

The Suicide Palm is particularly vulnerable due to its small population and restricted habitat range, combined with its unusual and long reproduction cycle. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, have been working with local communities to undertake conservation efforts including protecting the vulnerable plants from grazing animals, seed collection, and propagation to try to preserve this fascinating and unusual species.

This window of opportunity is small, and unfortunately this may be the only time that we discuss Tahina spectabilis as chances are it may already be lost.

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