When I began germinating Kentia Palm seed at my nursery on Norfolk Island in the mid 1980’s I did it the old fashion way. I had three greenhouses built, using green color woven plastic as the exterior lining, then covered the lining with shade cloth. Inside the greenhouses we built raised timber beds. We planted the Kentia seed in a mixture of peat and perlite in the beds. Lightly watered the mixture, and then covered the beds with plastic. This old fashion way of seed growing needed us to regularly check the top moisture content of the potting mix. We did this by rolling back the plastic and gently spraying a fine water mist on the mixture. The inside temperature of the greenhouses could get hot in the summer months, even though Norfolk’s average summer temperature very rarely exceeds 85F. The unique thing about Kentia Palm seeds are that they just don’t all germinate at once. Kentia Palm seed picked from local trees has the reputation of providing a very good viability rate of almost 80%. My experience from growing Kentia seed is that you could probably expect a germination rate of between 60% and 65% in the first 10 to 12 months from planting. The balance could germinate anytime over the next eighteen months. By using the expected 60% to 65% germination rate, you could then estimate how many seedlings you would probably have for sale 10 to 12 months from planting. So if you had planted, say 100 bushels, which is probably around 450,000 seeds, you could probably negotiate with European buyers a selling price for 270,000 seedlings, because that would be the germinated number you could expect to pick once you started picking. A normal shipping consignment to a single European buyer was 25,000 seedlings. Once the beds looked like there were enough seedlings germinated for a consignment to be shipped we would start picking. Each picker could pick about 800 seedlings an hour, and with three other pickers and myself we could pick a consignment number in one day. Once picked, the seedlings were washed and the dipped in a fungicide mixture. They would be left to drain overnight in large plastic bins with small holes in the bottom. The following day the consignment would be packed, and then inspected so that an approved agricultural certificate could be issued to comply with entry into the European buyer’s country. The consignment usually left Norfolk Island by air on a Sunday, and would be at a buyer’s greenhouse in Amsterdam within three days.
Prior to the “Quarantine” imposed by the Federal Horticultural Board in America in the early 1900’s there was a demand for beautiful single Kentia Palms like the ones in the pictures below. Wealthy Americans emulating rich Europeans wanted them in their mansions, and also high class interior designers wanted them for décor in fashionable hotels and restaurants. The big Kentias were imported from Belgium growers and came sleeved and packed and stored in the ship’s consignment area. Kentias such as the height and maturity of these, did not need any acclimation in grower’s greenhouses prior to sale and delivery to the customer. As mentioned on many occasions I just love these mature single Kentia Palms. They just “make’ any setting!!
In the 1700’s and 1800’s British navel explorers criss-crossed the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. New territories such as Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island near Australia were claimed for the British Empire.
Botanists sailed aboard many of these ships. Their duties encompassed descriptions of local wildlife and vegetation with accurate illustrations of their findings. Wherever possible, seeds and living specimens were bought back to England.
Under such perilous conditions few tropical plants survived to grow or germinate in the northern climate of Great Britain. Only the Royal Botanical Gardens at Mew and very few other gardens where researchers conducted plant studies, could expect to receive such precious samples. Tropical and subtropical plants remained rare and costly. To own such plants was a sign of significant wealth and status.
in 1869 Charles Moore, the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney, made a brief visit to Lord Howe Island. Moore’s task was to survey the island’s vegetation, including the palms that formed dense forests covering the Island’s lowland area.
Moore singled out two palms that grew in abundance. They were given the botanical names Kentia Belmoreana ( after the Earl of Belmore ) and Kentia Forsteriana ( honoring William Forster, a prominent Senator in. We South Wales, Australia ).
Upon his return to Sydney, Moore sent a small amount of seed from these palms to Sir Joseph Hooker, curator of England’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kev. Hooker had been a distinguished plant collector. He was well aware of the potential commercial possibilities of successfully introducing into the British market a previous unknown plant from a distant part of the Empire.
As an enthusiastic member of the international botanical fraternity, Moore would have been informed of the changing fashions in England. Moore laid the groundwork for the Kentia’s introduction with several letters published in the “Gardeners’ Chronicle’. This magazine was founded by Joseph Paxton in 1841. By 1870 it was England’s premier gardening journal, with a readers in the thousands. Moore’s later letters advocating the decorative quality and reliability of the Kentia he has identified on Lord Howe Island were read with interest by gardening enthusiasts. Those in a position to afford such luxury, when the plants were available, turned to English nurserymen for supplies of the plant.
Shipping planter box used by botanists in the 1880’s.( picture from book “Seed to Elegance”).
Horticulture Magazines in the late 1880’s attributed the popularity of the Kentia Palms to Queen Victoria. Her stately homes and castles featured Kentia Palms in elaborate urns bringing tropical nature inside these vast chambers.
In many portraits of the nobility in Europe there was often a potted Kentia Palm displayed. On some occasions the potted Kentia Palm might not have been the most elegant choice for its shape or size, but it was a feature. Could this trend be because the Kentias in that area defined good fashion sense and wealth, all because of Queen Victoria’s admiration for the palm?
In 1878 the New South Wales government appointed Captain R.R.Armstrong, R.N. As Forest Ranger to Lord Howe Island. Captain Armstrong is credited with establishing the Kentia Palm seed industry in the Island. The first local Islander to begin exporting Kentia seeds on a regular basic from Lord Howe Island to Australian and European buyers was T.B.Wilson.
T.B.Wilson arrived on Lord Howe Island in 1878 and shortly thereafter was appointed the Island’s first schoolteacher. Wilson bought with him a quantity of Norfolk Island Pine seeds. He had obtained the seeds from Norfolk Island during a brief stop-over en route to Lord Howe Island from New Zealand. In 1881 he and his wife whom he had wed on Lord Howe Island in 1878 went on a visit back to New Zealand. The vessel on which they were traveling made a port call at Norfolk Island. Knowing in advance that this stop-over would take place, Wilson took with him a quantity of Kentia Palm seeds. He used the seeds as repayment for the Norfolk Island Pine seeds he had bought into Lord Howe Island.
This friendly exchange of seeds is the first recorded mention of the introduction of these plants into their respective Islands.
Once introduced into Europe, the Kentia Palm was immediately recognized as remarkable for its dramatic appearance and ability to readily flourish indoors. Strong survival rates meant greater numbers of seeds could be imported successfully. However, the Kentias were still very expensive to purchase and therefore exclusive.
The prohibitive cost factor resulted in Kentia Palms becoming famous house plants among the nobility and aristocracy of Europe. Royal residences and stately homes had the high ceilings where Kentias could be displayed in all their glory. The owners also had the budgets for securing them. Kentias could be found by the late 1800’s in parlors, ballrooms, reception areas and conservatories. Since Kentias lived in splendor for many years they were cost effective. Growers found them a popular, worthwhile and a well valued investments. They believed that Kentias defined the good fashion sense and wealth of the plants’ owners. Kentia Palms were admired throughout Europe’s aristocratic, upper class and well-to-do middle class families.
Early in the 20th century the demand for Kentia Palm seed was growing at a fast pace. Buyers for the seed were from Australia, England, France, Belgium and North America. The Board of Control on Lord Howe were shipping seed quantities which exceeded many millions of Kentia Palm seed annually. Then a couple of factors damaged the palm seed industry just as the demand for seed was peaking. The first of these was the outbreak of World War 1 which disrupted the European market. The second factor was the grounding of the Burns Philp ship “Makambo” off Ned’s Beach in 1918, which released a rat plague on the Island. As a consequence, palm seed harvests started to decline considerably. Rats love Kentia Palm seed. They nibble though the seed to get to the “embryo”. Mature Kentia Palm trees normally have three years of seed development on them. The mature seed hangs down the lowest, the next years crop is above that, and then the third years crop is appearing out of the top of the tree. The rats are able to chew all the first and second year seed so that in fact two years of picking has been eliminated. Viable and mature seed from that tree is three years away if the rats don’t get to that once the flowers turn to seed. In order to combat the rats a bounty of 1d per rat tail was introduced in 1920. All islanders were expected to give one day per fortnight hunting rats with dogs, traps and light shotguns. In 1928, owls were introduced to try and reduce the rat population, but without great effect. More effective control had to wait until after the second World War when poison baits were introduced. To illustrate how rats can decimate a palm seed industry, here are some seed export figures from Lord Howe Island from 1919 through to 1927. 1919 20,223,000 1920 16,362,000 1921 11,857,500 1922 7,488,000 1923 4,792,500 1924 6,003,000 1925 3,946,500 1926 4,297,500 1927 13,666,500 From those figures it does show that the hunting by the islanders did pay off, as export figures for 1927 had begun to show a significant increase.
First photo shows the third years crop forming and the rats ignore these small flowering seed as embryos haven’t yet developed. Second photo shows seed after two years on the tree, and the third photo shows the third year’s crop ready for picking.
If you are a plant enthusiast then you would enjoy reading my book about the history of the majestic Kentia Palm.
Did you know that the Kentia Palm was discovered on beautiful Lord Howe Island in the 1800’s?
That it became the most popular sought after indoor plant in the Victorian Era?
That it was Queen Victoria’s favorite palm?
That it has ruled the foliage plant world for the last 15o years because of it’s easy care and maintenance record?
All these questions, and many more are answered in my book called “Seed to Elegance”. There are abundant illustrations in the book depicting the Kentia’s life cycle, the methods used to produce and distribute the Kentias to customers, and how a beautiful Kentia Palm can enhance the décor of any residence or business.
Copies of the book can be purchased for $15.00 by emailing me at: email@example.com
It is hard to imagine that within a 100 years of a small quantity of Kentia seed arriving on Norfolk Island that Norfolk would become the world’s largest exporter of Kentia Palm seed. That is amazing for a little island, five miles long and three miles wide, located almost 1,100 miles off the east coast of Australia. It took the vision of one Norfolk Islander, and a lot of hard work to see that dream come true. The original Kentia seeds that T.B. Wilson brought to Norfolk Island were germinated and planted at various locations around the Island. Each year more trees were planted from seedling germination. Most trees were grown in small numbers around island homes. During World War Two a Norfolk Islander named Ivens “Pullis” Nobbs, while serving with the Australian Armed Forces in North Africa, and on R&R leave, saw Kentia Palms displayed as decorative plants in various luxurious locations. “Pullis” was aware that his father had planted twelve trees on the family’s property from the original seed T.B. Wilson had brought to Norfolk Island. He believed that the seed harvested from those, and other Kentia trees on Norfolk Island, and sold to European Kentia seed buyers, could have been the finished product he saw in North Africa. A vision for his own Kentia Palm plantation on Norfolk Island was born! When Ivens returned from war service he began to clear the family land and plant out Kentias in quantity. There were some plants available from the early seed that had been brought from Lord Howe Island, but Ivens needed more. He decided to make a trip to Lord Howe Island. As T.B. Wilson had done in the previous century he traded Norfolk Island Pine seed for Kentia Palm seed. ( This is a great picture of Ivens in his elder years )
Pullis” cleared his land using hard manual labor. He germinated his Kentia seed that he got from Lord Howe Island in a wet creek bed in a valley on his property. All this he did primarily in his spare time. Many of the people on the Island said that “Pullis” was mad to plant palms, firstly because one couldn’t eat the seed, ( back then Norfolk Islanders still lived a mainly subsistence lifestyle ) and secondly because of the length of time required to get a return on the investment. It took many long years of hard physical work planting and maintaining the palm groves. However, the trees gradually grew and developed seed. “Pullis” did not live to see the mature plantation when it reached its full potential, but he enjoyed the vision in his mind’s eye for many years. Today “Pullis” Valley is the largest Kentia Palm plantation on Norfolk Island. It is the realization of the dream “Pullis” had imagined, coupled with unceasing hard work over four generations. Ivens “Pullis” Nobbs is recognized as the pioneer of the Kentia Palm industry on Norfolk Island. He was instrumental in its expansion through his encouragement of other Islanders and residents to also grow and cultivate Kentia Palms.