Botanic Notables: The Palm That Flowers Itself to Death

Botanic Notables: The Palm That Flowers Itself to Death

May 5, 2011
Photo by: RBG Kew, National Geographic

In 2008, a rare and unusual palm was discovered in remote Madagascar. Hailed as the most important new species of its kind, the tree made headline news—not for its notable survival, but for its spectacular demise. If the Tahina spectabilis had an epitaph, it would read "The gigantic palm that flowered itself to death." And, quite literally, it did. After 50 years of unnoticed steady growth, the palm bursts into flower. The hundreds of tiny blossoms drip with nectar, and a pollinating frenzy ensues. A first, final—and fatal—fruiting depletes the palm's remaining nutrient reserves, and the tree collapses. 

Despite its massive size—a 59-foot tall trunk that soars higher than any other palm in Madagascar, and leaves spanning 16-feet in diameter—the palm remained unnoticed among the 170 other species native to island, until its dramatically prolific final flowering. The palm's enormous inflorescences were spotted by a local cashew plantation owner, who just happened to be out for a walk. His photographs soon reached scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who have since collected the 1,000 seeds and begun research on the palm and its bizarre lifecycle. 

The tree's dramatic denouement has also garnered the sensational reputation of 'suicidal' or 'self-destructive.' Perhaps, but it is a reproductive strategy that has evolved for a reason, presumably. Although not well understood, the adaptation is being researched. "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," says a representative of Kew's Seed Bank work in Madagascar. And the Tahina spectabilis' name is certainly fitting— ‘Tahina’ is Malagasy for "to be protected" or "blessed"; ‘Spectabilis’, Latin for spectacular—and also a meaningful epitaph.

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.