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Seeds from ‘Self-destructive' Palm Arrive

at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank
by KEW
August 31, 2008

Seeds from a rare new genus and species of palm tree have arrived at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. Botanists at RBG Kew announced the discovery of Tahina spectabilis, made in Madagascar, in January this year.

Around 1000 grape-sized seeds, harvested by local villagers in collaboration with the Kew team, arrived at the Millennium Seed Bank earlier this week. And the bizarre lifecycle of Tahina spectabilis – it is thought it grows for up to 50 years, flowers spectacularly once in its lifetime, then dies – means there may not be an opportunity to harvest more seeds from the 100 or so individuals that exist on the island for many years to come.

The seeds are undergoing testing by Kew's Millennium Seed Bank scientists to determine whether they can be stored alongside seeds from the almost 22,000 wild flowering plant species already conserved at the Seed Bank.

Scientists are testing the seeds for their tolerance to extreme cold and desiccation – seeds are dried out before they are placed in the Seed Bank's storage vaults at -20°C. They will also be studied to learn how long it takes the seeds to germinate and last in these storage conditions.

As Tahina spectabilis is entirely new to science, this biological information is vital to increasing knowledge of the palm and understanding of how best to conserve it.

Dr Moctar Sacande, who heads up Kew 's Seed Bank work in Madagascar, said: “We are thrilled the Tahina spectabilis seeds have arrived safe and sound at Kew 's Millennium Seed Bank. With less than a hundred of these palms in the wild, and the fact that they flower so rarely, the race is on to learn as much as possible, and as quickly as possible, about this spectacular new species.

“Not only is our science team at the Seed Bank studying the seeds to assess whether or not we can bank them, but we have also sent seeds to 11 botanical gardens around the world, where we hope the palm will thrive. Ensuring that seeds aren't kept under lock and key and conserved in living collections is an essential part of the Millennium Seed Bank's conservation approach.”

Seeds have been sent to gardens in countries including the USA, Spain, Australia, South Afric , Singapore and Indonesia. Palm experts at RBG, Kew are also propagating the seeds for research and public display in the Gardens.

Tahina spectabilis is Madagascar's most massive palm tree and can even be spotted on Google Earth. It stands fifty feet above the ground and has fan-shaped leaves that, at fifteen feet in diameter, rank among the largest of any flowering plant.

More than 90 per cent of Madagascar's 10,000 plant species occur nowhere else in the world. But less than a fifth of the island's native vegetation remains intact.

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