International Palm Society LogoMedemia argun Lives!

Reprinted with permission from the April 1996 issue of Principes, Vol 40, No 2
Journal of the International Palm Society

© 1996 The International Palm Society, all rights reserved

MARTIN GIBBONS AND TOBIAS W. SPANNER

The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West, London, SWI4 7ED, UK and 7-tzianstr.44, 80638 München, Germany

Medemia argun -- just the sound of the name, together with the splendid and evocative photographs in Arthur Langlois' 1976 Supplement to Palms of the World has captured the imagination of every self-respecting palm enthusiast who has chanced upon them. The fact that it was well known to the ancient Egyptians but recently feared to be extinct, or at best, on the very edge of extinction, added even more mystique to this very special palm's reputation, and set a challenge to plant hunters to prove its continued existence in today's world. It had not been reported since two isolated trees had been discovered in oases in southern Egypt by L. Boulos in the 1960s (Boulos 1968), and the story of their discovery forms the basis of Langlois' account. It makes exciting reading. In its native country, the Sudan, Medemia had not been recorded since 1907 and Genera Palmarum (Uhl and Dransfield 1987) reports that ". . . it appears to be on the verge of extinction if not already extinct."

We, doubtless along with many other people, had long been thinking about this challenge and just where to begin the search, but the final push came in mid-1995 when Mr. Jean-Yves Lesouëf, of the Conservatoire Botanique National de Brest, France, contacted us, having read about our earlier adventures with Trachycarpus, with an offer to pass on all his research papers concerning Medemia, on the condition that we mount an expedition. We needed no persuasion and after reading the information he kindly supplied (in fact photocopies of all the many accounts of this palm that have appeared in print over the years), we were convinced that not only was there a good chance of its continued survival, but of our finding it.

Several locations were listed, but one that cropped up time and time again, was "Wadi Delah," near "Murrat Wells" in Sudan, a huge and by all accounts none-too-friendly country, between Egypt and Ethiopia, and where a civil war has been raging for many years. Missing from all modern maps, Murrat Wells turned out to be in the far north-east of the country, close to the border with Egypt and fortunately well away from the fighting.

Our reception at the airport of the capital, Khartoum, in October 1995 was none too welcoming, what with currency declarations, careful scrutiny of our visas, and even a thorough search of our baggage. It turned out that the officials were looking for nothing more sinister than alcohol, since Sudan is a "dry" country in both senses of the word, and finding none, they simply waved us on, and out into the warm Sudanese night. Fate took a hand then, leading us to the Acropole Hotel, the hotel in Khartoum, whose Greek owner, George, took a keen interest in our project and was to prove extremely helpful to us. He was not overly surprised by our goal though; nobody goes to Sudan without a reason. It should also perhaps be added at this point that his friendliness and willingness to help was typical of the many people we met in Sudan, and our fears about "hostile natives" were soon completely dispelled.  Many -- most -- people had so little, but were happy to share even the little they had.

We had imagined that it would take some days to get ourselves and our little expedition organized, but George had other ideas, and sorted out photography permits, registration with our respective embassies, currency exchange, supplies, together with a jeep, driver, and co-driver/mechanic, within a matter of hours, and we were ready to leave almost before we knew it. We thus had a few hours left that day and did a taxi tour of the city, but Khartoum has little for the tourist. We saw the confluence of the two Niles, the Blue and the White, a rather poor botanic garden, and just a few palms: Royals, Washingtonias and some others, but best of all, several multiheaded Doum Palms, Hyphaene thebaica, fabulous and wonderful trees with dense blue-green foliage (Fig. 1). The temperature was in the high 90's (30'C).

This excerpt is just the first page of the article that originally appeared in the April 1996 issue of Principes.  Several color photos accompany the article.  Back issues are available through our online shopping cart while supplies last.

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