Enigmatic Honolulu Palm Tree

Tucked amongst the other massive palm trees at Foster Botanical Garden is this little unassuming guy. Yet, as you can see above, this palm has a fence built just for it. This native loulu (Pritchardia lowreyana) has an interesting backstory with some potentially large genetic ramifications.

For the longest time, it was thought that there was only one species of Pritchardia extant in the Ko’olaus: the highly variable *Pritchardia martii. In Beccari’s monograph on the

Green leaf underside

Hawaiian Pritchardia, he stated that there was another type of loulu (P. macrocarpa) found in the hills behind Honolulu. This species was fairly distinctive from other Ko’olau loulu because it had a green abaxial blade surface. Other loulu in the Ko’olaus have a silvery-whitish underside of the leaf.

*Recently (Hodel, 2007 & 2009) it was shown that there are distinct enough populations that warranted a split for the Ko’olau loulu: P. martiiP. kahukuensis & P. bakeri.

For all its distinctiveness compared to other Ko’olau populations, it was never seen in the wild. Perhaps because of it’s proximity to urban Honolulu, P. macrocarpa was thought to be an early casualty by human hands. The legendary Joseph Rock searched without finding a single individual in the wild; the only specimens he ever id’ed as P. macrocarpa were in cultivation. This fenced tree at Foster Garden happens to be one of those individuals that Rock himself checked.

To complicate matters even further, there is a loulu that looks like this macrocarpa type. It’s Pritchardia lowreyana. The issue concerning the Honolulu macrocarpa was that P. lowreyana was not found on O’ahu… it was only found on the island of Moloka’i. This led people to believe that these supposed P. macrocarpa weren’t even from O’ahu… they were actually P. lowreyana that were taken from Moloka’i. And P. macrocarpa isn’t a valid name; it falls into synonymy. (cue ominous segue music!)

This all changed when, in 2008, Joel and Kenji discovered a colony of P. lowreyana on Pu’u Ohulehule on the windward side of O’ahu. It was a small group of tall, older plants that were growing on a steep hillside. That species wasn’t only found on Moloka’i after all.

Which leads us back to a little tree in a little park in the middle of bustling Honolulu. Are you a lowreyana that was brought over from Moloka’i? Or are you actually one of the last survivors of a population whose extermination was complete enough that your true identify is now questioned like some urban legend? Akin to the Bigfoot and the Yeti stories, somewhere out there is the supposed Green-leafed Palm tree of Honolulu.

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Beccari, O. and Rock, J.F. 1921, A monographic study of the genus Pritchardia. Mem. Bernice P. Bishop Mus. 13: 1-77, Pl. 1-24

Hodel, D.R. 2007. A review of the genus Pritchardia. Palms 51: S1-53 (special supplement)

Hodel, D.R. 2009. A new species of Pritchardia and the rediscovery of P. lowreyana on Oahu, Hawaii. Palms 53(4): 173-179

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2 Responses to Enigmatic Honolulu Palm Tree

  1. XJ says:

    Very interesting Sebastian. I’ve read that prior to the Polynesian migrations Kailua was covered in Loulu according to pollen samples. It would be interesting to know if this may have been the unidentified Pritchardia.

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