| Ptychococcus (tee-koh-KOK-uhs)
New Guinea. Photo by David Tanswell
Habitat and DistributionPtycococcus lepidotus is native to the rain forests of New Guinea above 1000 m
DescriptionTrunk solitary, slender, gray, about 5 m. high or perhaps more, about 10 cm. in diameter. Leaves about 12 in crown, spreading or ascending; sheath about 6 cm. long, green with indument of dark brown membranous scales margined with appressed soft interlocking hairs forming a dense tomentose at first but the hairs deciduous in part leaving only the membranous center or the base of the scale at length, especially on marginal or unprotected areas, the margins oblique without ligules; petiole short, 5-20 cm. long. rounded and densely pale lepidote-tomentose below, more or less densely covered above with pale membranous lacerately interlocking scales when young or their darker bases when old; rachis 2.5-3 m. long, rounded centrally and channelled toward the margin below, scaly like the petiole above and helow when young, the margins f1attish toward the base and the upper surface channelled on each side of a median rounded ridge. becoming nearly deltoid in section at mid·leaf and to the apex where scales are often deciduous and the surface only dark punctate; pinnae 41-4.7 on each side of the rachis in regular, mostly alternate arrangement at intervals of 5-6 cm. near the middle, the blade nearly horizontal basally but twisting upward at about a 900 angle with the apex arcuately curved, the lower pinnae 50-65 cm. long, 2.1-4.3 cm. wide, median pinnae 68-78 cm. long, 6-9 cm. wide, apical pinnae 37-42 cm. long, 3.5-6 cm. wide, all with very oblique (basal) to nearly truncate (apical) sharply divided and toothed apex, very narrowly reduplicate at the base where densely and minutely red-brown lepidote above and paler lepidote on the prominent mid-nerve above, the lower surface densely and minutely red-brown or pale Iepidote with a line of twisted basifixed red-brown membranous scales to about 13 mm long on the midnerve, these sparser toward the apex. Inflorescences 9 (on type tree), stiff, densely clustered below the crownshaft, those in flower horizontal, those in fruit drooping; lower bract about 42 cm. long, 7 cm. wide in bud, densely pale lepidote-tomentose, ancipitous-margined and acute, enclosing the upper bract,
|the entire inflorescence red-brown tomentose in bud but the axes becoming sparsely hairy to nearly glabrate at maturity; peduncle dorso-ventrally compressed, 9.5-15 cm. long, 4 cm. wide; rachis 25-40 cm. long, angled as are the about 17 branches, the lower few again twice·branched with ultimate flowering axes 14-23 cm. long, those above once branched to furcate or unbranched. Flowers in triads of a central pistillate and two lateral staminate nearly throughout the axes; staminate flowers green, drying brown, about 15 mm. long, 7 mm. in diam. or smaller when dry, the sepals 5-6 mm. high, 7 mm. across, keeled dorsally toward a gibbous base, ciliate marginally, petals about 15 mm. long, 7 mm. wide, very slightly asymmetric apically with a dense cover of minute brownish membranous scales, stamens 85-110, whitish at anthesis, the anthers emarginate to acute apically, deeply bifid basally, the lageniform pistillode as long as the stamens; pistillate buds about 10 mm. high, the sepals minutely brown hairy, the petals densely lepidote and pale brown when dry, the sepals in fruit about 7 mm. high, petals 11 mm high, 2 cm. broad, forming a cupule about 2.5 cm. across, staminodes 3 and more or less united in a low semicircle in fruit. Fruit orange-red or crimson, 4.1-5 cm. long, 3.4·4 cm. in diam. when fresh, smooth and rounded, ovoid with slightly excentric apical stigmatic scar, drying 4-4.5 cm. long, 2.5-3 em. wide without cupule, prominently angled and wrinkled, the endocarp about 4 cm. long, 2.6-3.2 cm. wide, with walls 2·3 mm. thick, prominently and narrowly keeled on the rapheal side with a hollow below the curved tip and the 3-ridged, 2-grooved ventral surface, laterally with a 2-ridged, 1-grooved flange on each side; seed 2-3 cm. long, 1.5-2 em. wide, 5-lobed, shaped similarly to the endocarp; endosperm with shallow marginal ruminations on the lobes and a deep intrusion in the rapheal lobes. Seedling leaf bifid. (HAROLD E. MOORE, JR.) Editing by edric.
Despite its tropical apperance, it grows remarkably well in the subtropical/temperate zone of San Diego. Its natural range would seem to dictate humidity, adequate water, and shade when young.
"Even though I have managed to keep one of these alive in zone 9b, I would not label it as a 9b species... it grows OK in zone 10a in southern California, but never really looks good there (severely brown-tipped leaves). It is an attractive, solitary pinnate palm from New Guinea where it grows up to 30' tall. It has premorse (bitten-off-looking) leaflets and a mildly bulging light green crownshaft, holding up some 10 or more 10' long slight arching but mostly straight out perpendicular to the ground leaves. Slow growing even in the tropics. This palm looks a lot like a Ptychosperma." (Geoff Stein)
Comments and Curiosities
Etymology: The specific epithet is from the Greek for 'scaly'; referring to the scales on the leaf stem, as well as on the flower petals.
Uses: Its durable wood is used by the natives for bows and spears.
"Ptychococcus lepidotus grows only in the Highlands of New Guinea from an altitude range of 1000 metres up to 3000 metres! I have seen it growing in Eastern Highlands Province in Papua New Guinea right across the other Highland Provinces to the western most one, Enga Province. I believe it to occuralso in Irian Jaya at corresponding altitudes and after speaking to travellers who have toured the Baliem Valley it seems the native people definitely have a palm like P. lepidotus in cultivation. It must have a broad range of distribution and in some areas, at lower elevations may over lap with P. paradoxus, based on personal observations in Morobe Province in P.N.G. I would not say P. lepidotus is abundant in any one area that I've seen, and it is difficult to say whether or not people have been the major cause for its pattern of distribution, but I certainly suspect it so.
Only once have I seen it in natural stands of primary forest in Eastern Highlands Province, adjacent to a major highway - the chances of this population staying intact would not be great. For the most part P. lepidotus has a long history of cultivation and one will often see it in people's gardens or within their village limits. In Western Highlands Province, P.N.G. I've noticed nowadays more and more are planted in 'pies matmat' (cemetaries) and at historic/monument sites, but I don't fully understand the significance of this. My first encounter with P. lepidotus was at a village in Mt. Hagen in January 1993, the home of one of my most gracious wantoks, in Papua New Guinea. In his language (Melpa) it is known as Buna and to this day I refer to it the same, (the botanic name is too awkward to use in pidgin conversation).It has played a very important part, historically, in the lives of these Highland people, and the same can be said for other peoples right across the New Guinea Highlands, for P. lepidotus has a universal use, it is the primary source for bows and spear heads. These were essential tools as far as hunting game and fighting wars was concerned and no self-respecting young man would be without them. These days of course it is much more different, and sadly many young men have lost the skills of their forebears, and do not know how to craft a bow! Whilst it may sound simple enough to do, from what I've seen it is definitely a skill that one must master, consequently there are only one or two 'bikman' (elders) in any one village that still continue this tradition. In the past they would instruct young men, who in their passage to manhood, had to learn this skill to ensure their own survival and acceptance as a warrior. In those days it was considered an important event and great honour was bestowed on those warriors who fought in tribal wars. The entire system of landownership in the Highlands has evolved from tribal wars and the resuiting dividing up of the 'spoils of war'. In recent years many disputes as to clan property boundaries still stem from grievances dating back to these times and as the population of Highlands people is rapidly increasing, the availability of land is correspondingly decreasing. Only the most foolhardy of persons would throw away their 'bunara'(bow) you can bet most people still have theirs tucked away for safe keeping - just in case!" (David Tanswell)
"Ptychococcus lepidotus was only formally described in 1965 by one of the foremost students of palm taxonomy in recent history, Harold E Moore Jr. He had collected material in an earlier expedition to Eastern Papua New Guinea in 1964. Then, as now, he had scant Ptychococcus specimens to refer to from the major Herbaria, but he recognised it as separate, after having checked through the list of described species. The specific epithet 'lepidotus' refers to the prominent brown scales that coat both the male and female flower petals, a trait which he believed particular to the species. Rest assured though, there are a lot of other features that can easily distinguish it with the other species like P. paradoxus or P. elatus (which is a synonym) in common cultivation. The fruits of P. lepidotus are ovoid, 3-5 cm long, and 3 cm in diameter, when ripe the skin is a bright orange, and the succulent/fibrous yellow mesocarp exudes a strong spicy/musty odour, which I think is a particular character of this species. The endocarp is ornate, winged and lignified and tapers to a point. It is a unique palm seed form only known in Ptychococcus spp. from New Guinea and Solomon Islands. The surface of the endocarp is quite smooth, tawny/tan in colour with many strong black fibres that adhere to and are embedded throughout it. The wall of the endocarp appears very thick and woody, deeply intruding and folding into the endosperm, this aspect can be really appreciated when seeing the seed in cross section. There are 7-8 raised edges or 'wings', one of which is prominent and can be likened to a keel. They are however not clearly distinguishable from a glance because of the shallow grooves between them. Compare this to P. paradoxus with an endocarp surface that is dark chocolate in colour, and as many black fibres adhering to it, but importantly the 5-6 edges of the endocarp are very sharp and they are divided by deep grooves, giving a much more defined shape. Usually the wall of the endocarp is not thick and does not intrude or fold into the endosperm to the degree of the former species. The seed of Ptychococcus lepidotus has a 'winged' shape that matches the endocarp, the endosperm is ruminate. All of these seed features are particularly useful to know, as I have seen many instances where P. paradoxus seed is regularly passed off as P. lepidotus, by unscrupulous merchants. Fresh seed only takes a few weeks to germinate. Fruits are born on infrafoliar (below the crownshaft) infiorescences branched to 3 orders. There are usually 5-6 or more inflorescences in varying stages of development, i.e. flowering and fruiting on any one mature palm! So there is never a real shortage of seeds at any time during the year. The first leaf (eophyll) is bifid, with jagged apices. The leaf surface is shiny, almost polished dark green, quite unlike the matt green of P. paradoxus. A white/cream line surrounds the mid rib and is prominent on seedling leaves, later the colour fades once mature leaves are produced." (David Tanswell)
"The palms appearance is of a standard form, the stem base is approximately 30 cm diameter, usually smaller, the trunk is smooth without prominent leaf base scars (cicatrices). The outer layer of the stem is very hard, and there are strong black fibres tightly immeshed within. The core of the stem base also is profoundly layered with coarse wiry black fibres, making it an exceptionally durable palm and hence is much utilised by native New Guineans. Usually the stem of the palm is cut 2 to 3 metres above the base, the outer layer of stem is then hewn off the core and is then cut into 2 metre strips which are then painstakingly carved to make bows, other off-cuts are used for arrow heads. The stems may reach up to 10 metres. This palm generally grows in an exposed situation, and is obviously tolerant to cultivation. It grows best in free draining soil and seedlings will establish in full sun. The crown of the palm is profuse with fronds, usually numbering 12 or more. They are held in an erect plane, although the rachis twists the fronds in a peculiar fashion such that they appear dishevelled! The pinnae are 50-65 cm long, and 2-4 cm wide, they are arranged in alternate order along the rachis. They have praemorse tips, as if tom or bitten off and are a dark glossy green with coriaceous texture. The fronds are about 2.5-3 metres long and are not retained by the palm. There are concentrations of thick brown scales that cover the leaf base, petiole and rachis. This is a distinctive character and useful when observing it in the field. P. paradoxus by comparison, lacks this kind of indument. Frequently large tussocks of moss cling to the palm's stem and crown at higher altitudes, providing an ideal perch for orchids, which only are noticeable when in flower. Here at Flecker Botanic Gardens in Cairns we cultivate both species and P. lepidotus seedlings are not robust in our climate as our coastal conditions are not to the palm's liking. However if you are from the southem parts of Australia the story from here gets much better. I have seen specimens in cultivation in private collections in Brisbane and in Mt. Coot-tha Botanic Gardens and they are fantastic. The subtropical climate, I feel, is perfect for them, and I would guess that temperate climates further south would still be able to accommodate them, however frosty to freezing conditions could be fatal. I am not aware of any large specimens growing in Sydney, and would like to find out. In the Highlands of New Guinea, night temperatures regularly fall to 10 degrees during the dry season, and consistently throughout the rest of the year there is always a distinct drop in temperature from the daytime to night-time. This palm species has adapted to live with such vicissitudes of temperature thus from a horticultural perspective I would say there is a good chance this species will thrive in all zones where subtropical palms are cultivated. I have reports that this species is doing very well in places like Israel and in North America, at the seedling stage (C. York - pers. comm.). Beyond this I cannot predict how well it may grow outdoors. Sufficient interest has been shown around the globe to trial Ptychococcus lepidotus, and in years to come we all will know a lot more as to its horticultural requirements. I see it as a realistic alternative to the much publicised Foxtail Palm, Wodyetia bifurcata especially for palm enthusiasts in cooler climates." (David Tanswell)
Despite its introduction into cultivation some years ago, this palm from the highlands of New Guinea has remained a great rarity. It is native to rainforests above 1000 m (3300 ft.) but also widely distributed around human settlements up to 3000 m (9800 ft.) over much of the island, where it used to be planted for the very durable wood from the outer layer of the trunk that was used for bows and spear heads. Its slender, smooth trunk can grow to about 10 m tall. Like many rainforest palms it starts out fairly thin and widens as the plant reaches some height with better light conditions in the canopy. A crownshaft carries the full crown of large, dark glossy green, upright to spreading leaves with long, wide leaflets that have jagged tips. The large, orange fruits each contain a very hard, woody and heavily winged and sculpted seed. The closely related P. paradoxus by comparison has a darker, almost black seed with a much thinner shell (endocarp) that is more deeply grooved. In cultivation it is best suited to a cool and humid tropical climate, in sun or shade, although it could surely be made to grow in some warm temperate climates as well, as long as it does not experience any freezing temperatures. While expectations of its cold hardiness had originally been overestimated, it does have some tolerance of cool conditions. (RPS.com)
- Glossary of Palm Terms
- MODERN BOTANICAL LATIN
- "Just To Be Clear"
- Ptychococcus lepidotus - A New Species from New Guinea
Phonetic spelling of Latin names by edric.
Special thanks to Geoff Stein, (Palmbob) for his hundreds of photos.
Special thanks to Palmweb.org, 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.