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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 January 2008, 03:24 GMT
Giant palm tree puzzles botanists
By Jonny Hogg
BBC News, Antananarivo

The plant is said to be so big it can be seen on Google Earth

Botanists have discovered a new species of giant self-destructing palm on the island of Madagascar.

The tree, described as the nation's largest palm species, is unlike anything else ever found on the island before, say scientists.

Although villagers knew of its existence, none had witnessed the tree in flower.

When this finally happened last year, botanists found that the tree spent so much energy flowering that it died.

'Spectacular'

The palm is 20m (60ft) high with leaves 5m (16ft) long, the tallest tree of its type in the country; but for most of its life - around 100 years - it appears fairly unremarkable apart from its size.

It was only when botanists from Kew Gardens in London, UK, were told of its extraordinary flowering pattern that they began to be interested.

Leaves of the Madagascar palm (Kew)
Madagascar is home to more than 10,000 plant species

"It's spectacular," says Mijoro Rakotoarinivo, who works with Kew and has seen the tree.

"At first there's only a very long shoot like asparagus from the top of the tree and then, a few weeks later, this unique shoot starts to spread.

"At the end of this process you can have something like a Christmas tree."

'To be protected'

The branches then become covered with hundreds of tiny flowers, which are pollinated and turn into fruit; but the tree expends so much energy on flowering that it eventually collapses and dies.

The tree has been named Tahina spectabilis, which is Malagasy for "blessed" or "to be protected".

It is also one of the given names of Anne-Tahina Metz, the daughter of Xavier Metz, who discovered the palm two years ago.

Map of Madagascar
Scientists have identified 92 individual trees, all confined to the same remote area.

Dr John Dransfield, who announced the name of the tree in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, is baffled as to how it came to be in the country.

It bears a resemblance to a species of palm found in regions of Asia, 6,000km away.

It is possible that the palm has quietly gone through a remarkable evolution since Madagascar split with India some 80 million years ago.

It is now hoped that the plant will be conserved and that selling seeds can generate revenue for people living nearby, as well as allowing gardeners across the world to own their very own self-destructing Malagasy palm tree.

Madagascar is home to more than 10,000 plant species, 90% of which occur nowhere else in the world. These include 170 known species of palm.



SEE ALSO
Country profile: Madagascar
25 Sep 07 |  Country profiles

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