ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar – A self-destructing palm tree that flowers once every 100 years and then dies has been discovered on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, botanists said Thursday.
The name of the giant palm and its remarkable life cycle will be detailed in a study by Kew Gardens scientists in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society published Thursday.
"It's spectacular. It does not flower for maybe 100 years and when it's like this it can be mistaken for other types of palm," said Mijoro Rakotoarinivo, who works for the London botanical gardens in Madagascar.
"But then a large shoot, a bit like an asparagus, grows out of the top of the tree and starts to spread. You get something that looks a bit like a Christmas tree growing out of the top of the palm," he said.
The branches of this shoot then become covered in hundreds of tiny white flowers that ooze with nectar, attracting insects and birds.
But the effort of flowering and fruiting depletes the tree so much that within a few months it collapses and dies, said botanist Dr. John Dransfield, author of the study.
Dransfield noted that "even for Madagascar this is a stupendous palm and an astonishing discovery."
The world's fourth largest island, Madagascar is renowned for its unusual flora and fauna, including 12,000 species of plant found nowhere else in the world. Ninety percent of its plant species are endemic.
The palm tree, which grows to 66 feet in height and has about 16-foot leaves, is only found in an extremely remote region in the northwest of the country, some four days by road from the capital. Local villagers have known about it for years although none had seen it in flower until last year.
The bizarre flowering ritual was first spotted by Frenchman Xavier Metz, who runs a cashew plantation nearby. After seeing it he notified Kew Gardens.
Puzzling Dransfield is how botanists had missed such a "whopping palm" until now. According to him it is the largest palm species in the country, but there appear to be only about 100 in existence.
He also questions how the palm got to Madagascar. The tree has similarities to Chuniophoeniceae palms, however these are only found in Asia, more than 3,700 miles away.
Dransfield suggests the plant has been quietly living and dramatically dying in Madagascar since the island split with mainland India 80 million years ago.