Pseudophoenix sargentii in Dominica

ARLINGTON JAMES
Forestry, Wildlife & Parks
Division, Botanic Gardens,
Roseau, Dominica
forestry@cwdom.dm
This article provides an account of the buccaneer palm, Pseudophoenix sargentii, on the island of Dominica, where until recently its status was poorly known. Reprinted with permission to post on palms.org from the Vol. 47, No 2, Palms (formerly Principes), Journal of the International Palm Society
© 2003 The International Palm Society,
All rights reserved
It was August 2001 and Ms. Dena Garvue, conservation assistant with The Nature Conservancy, was nearing the end of her assignment with the Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division (FWPD) on the Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. Before the end of her tour of duty, and together with two staff members of the Division and an intern, Ms. Garvue embarked upon an important field visit to the north and west coasts of the island. The purpose of that visit was to investigate the status of a local population of buccaneer palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii) (Fig. 1) that had first been reported for the island in 1969, by R. W. Read in Principes. She immediately reported back to the Division that a population of  the palm did in fact exist above the village of Mero, about 11 miles north of the island’s capital. The FWPD was also informed that the palm is currently classified as threatened or as endangered in other parts of its range and that the Dominican population was the only one that exists outside of the Northern Caribbean. Suffice it to say, at the time none of the officers at the FWPD was familiar with that species of palm.

Not much has been written about the Dominican population of the buccaneer palm. Notable references, however, are Read’s article “Some notes on Pseudophoenix and a key to the species,” which was published in 1969, “Trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands” (Little et al. 1974), and “Flora of the Lesser Antilles: Leeward and Windward Islands” by R. A. Howard (1979). Since then, no further mention was made of the palm on the island until the 2002 issue of PALMS, and the Caribbean Palms Symposium hosted by the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Florida, USA, in May 2002.

It must be noted that although generally unknown to the botanical community, the buccaneer palm was well known to local inhabitants who, until the late 1960s, regularly harvested the spear leaves of the juvenile of this palm. A small group of women from the nearby villages of Mero and St. Joseph harvested the leaves, shredded them, put them to dry, plaited the material, then sold it in bundles to a handicraft outlet in the capital for making ladies’ hats.

Facing Up to the Challenge
Following a reconnaissance of the site in the hills above Mero, near Dominica’s west coast (Fig. 2), a 3-man team from the FWPD set out to work in earnest on 6 September 2001. The aim of this ambitious exercise was to gather as much information as possible on the size and characteristics of the population of buccaneer palm on Dominica.

The scorching heat of two short dry spells that interrupted the 2001 official rainy season, the relatively steep slopes – which are more suited for mountain goats than foresters – combined with the thorns from six different plants were not enough to dampen our enthusiasm. We spent many long weekdays and Saturdays, sometimes literally in the blazing sun, in the rain and even during a thunderstorm, measuring stem heights and girths of the palms. We also counted leaf scars, measured the lengths of the longest leaves on younger palms and recorded the status of flowering and fruiting of mature palms.

Our 15-minute lunch breaks were sometimes spent in the cool of a small cave that we had stumbled upon accidentally in the “Upper Class,” the highest sub-population of the palm on Dominica.  With mature palms located at up to 173 m above sea level in “Upper Class,” Dominica’s population of Pseudophoenix sargentii is not only the most southerly and easterly in the species’ range, but may possibly be the highest above sea level (Back Cover).

There were days when, past 6:00 p.m., and while ending a long day’s work, we would stop to admire the sun setting over the canopy of tree crowns and palm fronds or to watch the reflection of the sun on the calm waters of the Caribbean Sea only a few hundred meters away. We had tripped and fallen on several occasions while working on the clayey slopes, and often got scratched, cut or tangled among the vines while we documented over 3,340 palms of various sizes and ages, distributed in ten sub-populations over an area of about 25 acres. However, only about 2% of the current population of buccaneer palm on Dominica is reproductively mature.

The Sub-populations
We also assigned descriptive names to the other sub-populations of the palm, which are contained within two small watersheds. “The Hilltop” is located at the top of a small hill; a brush fire in 2001 had taken its toll on some of the palms in “Fireball;” currently there are three large houses in “The Mansions,” while the remains of a concrete house stand above the palms in “The Ruins.” Three of the other sub-populations were named “The Corner,” “Two Roads” and “The Valley.” Also, we had worked all day on the Saturday before Mardi Gras at “Samdi Gwa,” while the most southerly and challenging of the subpopulations was appropriately named “Southern Blues” (Fig. 3).

Dominica’s population of Pseudophoenix sargentii grows amongst dry to semi-deciduous forest, with tree species such as Plumeria alba, Bursera simaruba, Clusia mangle, Tabebuia heterophylla, Manilkara bidentata and Sabinea carinalis – the island’s national flower.

Standing Above The Others
Among the ten sub-populations of the buccaneer palm on Dominica, three stand above the rest. The Hilltop has the highest proportion of reproductively mature palms (RMP), with approximately 35.6% of the population of palms at that site having borne flowers by 2002. However, even with its large “mature adult” population, the Hilltop site hardly has any regeneration or saplings to show, except for a light scattering of “newly” germinated seedlings.

Hilltop also hosts the palm with the largest diameter (29.6 cm at breast height) and the palm with the largest bulge (31.2 cm diameter). Also, approximately 40% of the palms in that subpopulation have bulges and/or constrictions on the stem; bulging is rarely encountered in the other sub-populations except at Upper Class.

Southern Blues has the largest sub-population, although two brush fires at the end of May and early June 2002 claimed at least eleven palms and injured over thirty others from the previous population of 1,005. Possibly the oldest palm in the Dominica population, with 113 scars, a stem height of 3.20 m and a diameter of 15.3 cm in 2002, is located in that sub-population and was affectionately named “Pampo.” At the age of 127 years in 2002, Ms. Elizabeth “Pampo” Israel is possibly the world’s oldest living person and resides in Portsmouth, Dominica’s second town. Only eight of the palms in Southern Blues are reproductively mature, but this particular subpopulation has a dearth of young seedlings; it also supports a large number of juveniles and subadults.

Upper Class, on the other hand, has only 22 palms that had borne flowers by August 2002. The mature palms in that sub-population are relatively tall, with stem height averaging 3.28 m, and internodes of up to 18 cm. In fact, because of the height of the tallest trees in that sub-population, coupled with the closeness of the younger scars, we resorted to using binoculars in order to count the upper scars on the taller trees. That subpopulation also has very few juveniles but a surprisingly large number of young seedlings (with no rings and leaf-lengths averaging less than 0.5 m in 2002). There is an even larger number of younger seedlings that have only eophylls and the first set of lanceolate leaves. It is estimated that that sub-population may have as many as 1,500 very young seedlings scattered around and among the handful of “giants.” It is possible that some episodic events occurred in Southern Blues and Upper Class which resulted in the unusual structure of these two sub-populations.

The tallest palm in the Dominica population is located in The Valley – which has only 72 palms with pinnate leaves. In early 2002 this palm had a stem height of 4.49 m, a diameter of 20.1 cm and only 50 scars. This palm was jokingly assigned the name, “Overgrown,” as it only reached reproductive maturity in August 2002.

Harvest of the Cherry-like Fruits
At the beginning of 2002, only ten of the palms in the Dominican population of buccaneer palms had mature fruit. The fruits on nine of these trees ripened between the end of January and the middle of February, while the infructescence on the other tree ripened in June.

The year 2003, however, is expected to bring forth a “bumper harvest.” The small yellow flowers began to appear in June 2002, providing nectar and pollen for the honeybees and bumblebees, and at least 75 trees are expected to produce the next batch of cherry-like fruits from the population.

Agents of Dispersal
After first suspecting fruit-eating bats to be the main agents of dispersal of the seeds of the buccaneer palm on Dominica, we had the opportunity to witness a Lesser Antillean saltator (Saltator albicollis), while feeding on the fruits on one of the palms in Upper Class, chase away a Lesser Antillean bullfinch (Loxigilla noctis) that had come to partake of the “harvest” (Fig. 4).

We found a feeding perch used by the saltators in Upper Class, but it appears that a secondary agent of dispersal may be involved in moving the seeds. Several pieces of pericarp of the ripe palm fruits were found scattered over a small area near the perch, but barely any seeds were found. This would suggest that either the Dominican ground lizard (Ameiva fuscata), or possibly rats, or crabs (Gecarcinus ruricola and Coenobita clypeatus) may be carrying away seeds that have been dropped by the saltators and the bullfinches while feeding.

The Future of Dominica’s Population of Pseudophoenix
Dominica’s (and the Eastern Caribbean’s) only population of the buccaneer palm faces a wide range of threats. These include the general lack of knowledge about the palm in Dominica, the annual brush fires, housing development and the land-ownership situation in the area where the palms occur. Brush fires may be resulting in some mortality or causing injury to several palms annually. To these threats may be added the erosion from runoff on the steeper slopes and habitat degradation from the invasion of the Mulch or Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus) into the areas where the palms occur.

Currently, the Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division is attempting to propagate the buccaneer palm. The Division is also in the process of developing a Plan-of-Action for the protection, conservation and increasing public awareness of the buccaneer palm on Dominica. The Division also proposes to launch a campaign to raise sufficient funds to enable the Government of Dominica to acquire some of the lands where Pseudophoenix sargentii (and the endemic Sabinea carinalis) occur. This is in order to afford some protection to the palm population in the wild, as well as to conserve part of the habitat of this species.

Acknowledgments
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance and support provided in the field by Alvin DeJean and Stephen Toussaint, two drivers at the Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division in Dominica. The assistance and support provided by the then acting Director and other members of staff of the Division on other occasions, as well as the support provided by Dr. Scott Zona and Ms. Dena Garvue are also gratefully acknowledged.

LITERATURE CITED

HOWARD, R.A. 1979. Flora of the Lesser Antilles: Leeward and Windward Islands – Monocotyledoneae. Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

JAMES, A. 2002. Buccaneer palm rediscovered on Dominica… So what! Prepared for the Caribbean Palms Symposium, Fairchild Tropical Garden, 18 May 2002 (Unpub.).

LITTLE, E.L. JR, R.O. WOODBURY AND F.H. WADSWORTH. 1974. Trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Washington, D.C.

READ, R.W. 1969. Some notes on Pseudophoenix and a key to the species. Principes 13: 77–79.

ZONA, S. 2002. A revision of Pseudophoenix. PALMS 46: 19–38.


1. Mature buccaneer palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii) with bulge, constricted stem, and three inflorescences

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2. Mero-St. Joseph area along Dominica’s west coast, where the buccaneer palm population occurs.

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3. Growth of this juvenile palm in Samdi Gwa was interrupted, producing an ornate-looking stem.

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4. Fruits are eaten by birds before fully ripe, February 2002.

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