Prota 2: Vegetables/Légumes
Fl. Serres Jard. Eur. 16: 181 (1867).
Areca rubra Bory (1804), Acanthophoenix crinita (Bory) H.Wendl. (1867).
Barbel palm, red palm, Mascarene Islands cabbage palm (En). Palmiste rouge, palmiste bourre, palmiste des bois, palmiste des hauts, palmiste épineux, palmiste zépines, palmiste piquant (Fr).
Origin and geographic distribution
Acanthophoenix rubra is endemic to Réunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues.
The palm heart (palm cabbage) is edible and much appreciated in Réunion and Mauritius as a delicacy. A decoction of the roots is used as a diuretic. Acanthophoenix rubra is cultivated as an ornamental, also outside its natural range.
The palm heart of Acanthophoenix rubra is very susceptible to enzymatic browning, caused by polyphenol oxidases, especially catecholases.
Palm with solitary trunk up to 12 m tall and up to 18 cm in diameter, sometimes enlarged at base. Leaves c. 10 in crown, arranged spirally, up to 3 m long, pinnately compound; sheath 30–60 cm long, red turning brown at maturity, with numerous spines up to 11 cm long and shedding at maturity; petiole up to 30 cm long, often spiny; leaflets in 25–65 pairs, up to 105 cm × 4 cm, with bristles on midrib above. Inflorescence below the leaves, up to 50 cm long, peduncle short, branches long and pendulous, unarmed or with dark-brown spines up to 15 cm long. Flowers unisexual, 3-merous, white or cream-coloured, arranged in triads of 2 male flowers and 1 female flower; male flowers with imbricate sepals c. 2 mm long, valvate petals up to 8 mm long and (4–)6–12 stamens; female flowers with imbricate sepals c. 3 mm long, imbricate petals up to 5 mm long, 6–9 small staminodes and superior, 1-celled ovary. Fruit an ellipsoid to globose drupe up to 1 cm long, 1-seeded. Seed globose, c. 7 mm in diameter, brown; endosperm homogeneous.
Acanthophoenix comprises a single but variable species.
Acanthophoenix rubra occurs in the upland mixed moist forest and heath sites of Mauritius above 500 m altitude. In Réunion it grows at 500–1500 m altitude. It is reported to tolerate light frost.
Acanthophoenix rubra is propagated by seed. It is cultivated both in Réunion and Mauritius for its palm heart and as an ornamental. It is quite easy to grow, but should be protected from full sunlight when young. Weed control is essential in the early stages of development. Fairly large amounts of organic matter in the soil stimulate growth. Acanthophoenix rubra has been tested in on-farm diversification programmes in the north-eastern highlands of Réunion.
Genetic resources and breeding
Wild Acanthophoenix rubra was common in the past, but has become rare in Mauritius due to uncontrolled collection of palm heart. In Réunion it also became rare because of the establishment of sugarcane plantations and palm heart collection. The total natural population is estimated at about 1300 palms. Only about 100 reproductive individuals are present in Mauritius, and most of them are quite isolated. Natural regeneration seems poor. Introduced animals, e.g. rats, snails (Achatina spp.) and domestic pigs, are predators of the fruits and seedlings. Acanthophoenix rubra is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. A large population has been located on Rodrigues and founder palms for a restoration programme are being identified. Barbel palm is common in cultivation as an ornamental in Mauritius and Réunion and is occasionally grown elsewhere.
Palm heart production on a commercial scale is an option if the plantations can be protected effectively until the commercially interesting age. The single stem habit, however, is a major drawback. Other palms are being tested on an experimental scale in Réunion as possible replacements for Acanthophoenix rubra:Euterpe oleracea Mart. (assai palm) and Bactris gasipaes Kunth (pejibaye or peach palm), both with higher growth rates and with the great advantage of being palms with clustering stems. Acanthophoenix rubra is an attractive ornamental palm, with its dark red spiny leaf bases. It is quite rare in international trade and a real collector’s item. Seed collection should be restricted to cultivated plants.
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Correct citation of this article:
van der Burg, W.J., 2004. Acanthophoenix rubra (Bory) H.Wendl. In: Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA 2: Vegetables/Légumes. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.