Acanthophoenix rubra

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Red palm, Palmiste rouge, Barbel palm.

rubra (ROO-brah)
Scientific Classification
Genus: Acanthophoenix
rubra (ROO-brah)
None set.
Native Continent
Habit: Solitary
Leaf type: Pinnate
Survivability index
Common names
Red palm, Palmiste rouge, Barbel palm.

Habitat and Distribution

Acanthophoenix rubra is endemic to lowland rainforest on the islands of
Photo by Hery, La Réunion.
La Réunion, and Mauritius, of the Mascarene archipelago.


A palm with a spiny stem, and in serious danger of extinction because of the collection of 'palm cabbage'. Very much a collector's item, and rarely offered for sale. younger specimens of the barbel palm can be distinguished by the striking, red leaf sheaves bearing long, sharp spines, found at the top of the trunk. As the plant matures these spines fall away and the sheaves become gradually browner. The leaves of this species are impressively large, reaching up to three metres long, and are composed of numerous pointed, paired leaflets, which project from the bristly leaf midrib. Mature plants have around 10 leaves in total, which radiate from the crown in a spiral arrangement. During flowering the barbel palm develops conspicuous, 50 centimetre-long, inflorescences that hang below the leaves. These comprise a multitude of small, creamy-white flowers suspended from a central stem. The fruits are roundish drupes, up to one centimetre long, which contain a single seed. Editing by edric.


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Cold Hardiness Zone: 10a

Comments and Curiosities

History: Uninhabited when the first French settlers landed in 1642, La Réunion was mainly covered by tropical rain forest on the windward side, and semi-dry ecosystems on the leeward side. More than 350 years later, the native vegetation has been thoroughly disturbed by human and agricultural pressure. Deforestation has made space for farming and human establishment, so that some of the endemic species, including palms, once abundant are nowadays endangered, at least in the wild. By the end of the nineteenth century, on the other hand, at a time when palm populations were much more abundant than nowadays, Jacob de Cordemoy recognized two distinct species of Acanthophoenix in his Flore de La Réunion: Acanthophoenix rubra or palmiste rouge in the lowlands of the windward side (southeast and east coasts) and Acanthophoenix crinita or palmiste noir, occurring at 800–1800 m, in the mountainous back country. In Flore des Mascareignes, Moore and Guého (1980) treated Acanthophoenix as a monotypic genus with Acanthophoenix rubra its sole species. Endemic to La Réunion and Mauritius, A. rubra was regarded as an extremely variable species and rare in the wild in Mauritius. Moore and Guého (1980) claimed that this species is still well represented in La Réunion by some wild populations in remote locations and also in palm groves, especially in the sections of Saint-Philippe and Bois Blanc. Although they reported some differences between lowland and highland populations,they stated that there was “no real discontinuity” among the Acanthophoenix populations. This conclusion was formulated after their visit to a few sites, including the ONF (National Forest Service) nursery in Basse Vallée (alt. 610 m) and the René Huet plantation in La Crête (alt. 630 m). The Huet plantation was started in 1961 with both Acanthophoenix rubra and A.crinita. Forty years later, most of the palms are hybridized, which was probably already true bythe time of Moore and Guého’s visit. No doubt it has led to confusion in the taxonomy of Acanthophoenix. Observations conducted in the field and examination of flowers and seeds lead the present author to conclude that there are three species of Acanthophoenix, with differences in vegetative feature, inflorescences, fruits, seeds, seedlings and young plants. In addition to the previously recognized A. rubra and A. crinita, a third species should be recognized. This palmiste, which is herein described as A. rousselii (Front Cover), is a close relative of A. rubra and occurs, at present, only on the Roussel family estate at Trois-Mares, at 600–850 m elevation. It was pointed out by Thérésien Cadet some 30 years ago, but with his untimely death this third species of Acanthophoenix was forgotten for decades.

LITERATURE CITED BORY DE ST-VINCENT, J.B.G.M. 1804. Voyage dans les Quatre Principales Iles des Mers d’Afrique. Paris. CADET, TH. 1980. La Végétation de l’Ile de La Réunion. Saint-Denis de La Réunion.

This solitary palm has a slender, reddish brown trunk, a well-developed, velvety, reddish brown crownshaft that is armed with long spines when young but unarmed in older plants, and elegantly arching, pinnate leaves that are whitish below. Seedlings are densely covered in small, soft spines and have attractive red leaf veins. Acanthophoenix rubra is endemic to Mauritius and southeastern Réunion island (Mascarene Islands), and will grow best in tropical regions. (

External Links


Phonetic spelling of Latin names by edric.

Special thanks to Geoff Stein, (Palmbob) for his hundreds of photos.

Special thanks to, Dr. John Dransfield, Dr. Bill Baker & team, for their volumes of information and photos.

Glossary of Palm Terms; Based on the glossary in Dransfield, J., N.W. Uhl, C.B. Asmussen-Lange, W.J. Baker, M.M. Harley & C.E. Lewis. 2008. Genera Palmarum - Evolution and Classification of the Palms. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. All images copyright of the artists and photographers (see images for credits).

Many Special Thanks to Ed Vaile for his long hours of tireless editing and numerous contributions.

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