The Queen of Palms: The story of the kentia seed industry on Norfolk Island
If you were asked what tree is most closely associated with Norfolk Island, you would probably say it was the Norfolk Island Pine. However, there is another tree that has featured prominently in this island’s economic and social history for well over a century, and that is the Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana). The Kentia is not endemic to Norfolk Island, but comes from Lord Howe Island, halfway between here and Sydney.
The story goes that in 1878, a resident of Lord Howe, travelling back from New Zealand, stopped off at Norfolk and collected a quantity of pine seed, which was planted on his home island. Two or three years later, on a later journey, he took with him some palm seed as a return gift to the Norfolk Islanders. This seed was planted on various properties around the island, and the trees that grew became the foundation of an industry that was to introduce a significant income for the island’s economy over many decades before our Tourism Industry was established.
To understand how it happened, we need to go to 19th century Europe, where the rich and famous used to compete with other to see who could display the most exotic and unusual flora in their orangeries and conservatories. Adventurers were sent off to foreign parts in search of new specimens. This led to an explosion of botanical knowledge, but also gave rise to a number of commercial horticultural enterprises in places like Belgium, where these new imports would be propagated and sold to those who could afford them.
One particular plant that became very desirable was the Kentia Palm. This proved to be hardy, adaptable and long-living, and provided an attractive show of greenery in large parlours, foyers, hotels and other public places. It is said that Queen Victoria had such a fondness for the “Queen of Palms” that she requested that they be placed around her when she lay in state after her death.
Belgian companies began importing Kentia seed from this part of the world, including Norfolk Island, in the latter part of the 1800’s. There was an opportunity for enterprising Norfolkers to become agents for the seed buyers. Young Evans began buying and selling seed in the 1920’s, establishing a business that remains in his family to this day. He built up a loyal group of local growers who would supply him with seed as it matured each year. Some of the Norfolk product was sold on to Sydney firms like Yates, but strong arrangements with European buyers were established from the earliest days.
Young Evans developed a relationship with local growers that was based on mutual trust and loyalty. If you agreed to sell your seed, then you would be paid promptly and fairly. You would also have your trees maintained at no charge. Young employed people to clear around the base of the palms, to spray for disease and remove dead foliage. Conical ratguards were also fixed around each tree.
When Young died in 1972, the business passed to his son Owen. Beryl, Owen’s wife, recalls those days with mixed feelings. Much of the workload fell to her, as her husband worked for the Norfolk Island Administration. She became responsible for a mountain of paperwork and organisation, and for the hiring and firing of a growing number of workers. Meanwhile, Beryl’s modest kitchen became the source of a massive production line of scones, pikelets, pies and cakes for morning teas for the “Seed Team.”
1987-8 were boom years for Palm Seed. Many Norfolkers were well prepared for it. Ivens (“Pullis”) Nobbs was one such person. Ivens’ father had planted some of the very first Kentias on Norfolk Island. During the War, Ivens had seen first hand the popularity of the Kentia palm in Europe. He came home, and planted a whole valley of palms around his homestead in Ferny Lane. He ignored all those Islanders who, unused to planting cash crops, or accustomed to booms and busts, laughed and said he was wasting both his time and a good piece of land. He persevered, and planted around 4,500 trees, doing most of the work by hand.
Those who took Ivens’ advice, and nurtured their established palms, as well as making new plantings, benefitted from the enormous returns that flowed in those boom years. Even a Norfolk Islander with just 3 or 4 established palms in his or her backyard began to receive yearly cheques that might fund a new vehicle, a luxury holiday or some other unexpected indulgence.
Growing palms became the ultimate “Get-rich-quick” scheme. At one stage, briefly, the price reached $1400 a bushell. Large tracts of unused land were filled with palm seedlings. Any palms growing on your property increased its value almost overnight.
For the Evans’ family, memories of those days provoke mixed emotions. There was an enormous rivalry between buyers of seed, seeking to outbid each other. Bonds of trust and loyalty were tested. As the seed became a valuable commodity, there were security issues. Those with enough seed worth pinching began erecting fences. Up until that time, the Evans’ had stored, sorted and packed the product in a couple of fairly accessible sheds. Now Owen decided to build, close to his house, a large and very secure building that was known as “Fort Knox” among the locals.
It was almost a relief when the price began to drop to more realistic levels. The amount of seed available was rapidly increasing as those trees planted in earlier years reached maturity. At the same time, the buyers in Europe had begun to source cheaper seed from a similar palm in South America. Fortunately this competitor proved to be less attractive or hardy in the long term.
Arthur Evans is now at the helm of the family enterprise. He recalls being “groomed” for the business at the age of six or seven, when his grandfather Young used to challenge him to climb an old palm in front of his house.
As he grew older, Arthur became part of the team going around the island homesteads to gather the harvest. He recalls that in the old days, it was like a red letter day for those with seed to sell. When the Evans’ and their team turned up at some homes, pies and cakes went into the oven, sandwiches were cut, and platters of meat were laid out. Smoko time was a veritable feast, prepared out of gratitude for the payment that would enable repairs to a car, replacement roofs, or perhaps a trip to Sydney to see the grandchildren. A strong bond formed between buyer and grower. The Evans’ have been buying seed from at least one island family for well over 80 years.
The work can be physically demanding, but there is a camaraderie among the working team. Sometimes a “newchum” will be challenged to climb a very tall, old, and spindly palm. Extension ladders with up to three tiers are utilised, but the seed on some of the older trees is often still a little out of reach. Unlike most other tree crops, the palm cannot be kept to a manageable size by pruning. Palm seed has not only brought additional income to growers, but provided employment to generations of Norfolkers. The picking and the packing are seasonal, but maintenance of trees and ratguards, fencing and clearing has meant there are many hours of work for the willing at other times.
In more recent years, the industry has diversified somewhat, and some local buyers and growers, including the Evans’, are producing “shot seed”, thus eliminating the germination stage in the hothouses of Europe. This employs locals over longer periods of time. The disadvantage is that this product must be airfreighted, with the associated risks and costs. Arthur’s grandfather used to tell him about the time, during World War II, when the ship carrying Norfolk’s seeds to Europe was held up in the Suez Canal for some months. When it was finally unpacked, much of it had already sprouted in the damp sawdust!
Attempts have been made to establish plantations of Kentia in warmer parts of Europe, but these have not been successful. Seed- producing palms are much more at home in this part of the world. The Belgian with whom the Evans’ do business have now moved their operation to Sicily, where successful germination of the Norfolk seed is much easier. This means that the Evans’ can now continue to send unsprouted seed by sea freight, with fewer overheads.
Those who thought they were planting “money trees” all those years ago may only see a very modest return on their investment today, with the price for Kentia seed being very much what it was 40 years ago. Much of the crop is left, unwanted and out of reach, on the trees. Most agree, however, that a valley of palms is preferable to a valley of weeds, or eroding bare soil. Moreover, the industry remains viable for Norfolk Island, providing economic diversity beyond tourism. There is a strange twist to the story. Those Norfolk Pines that were planted on Lord Howe 130 years ago, from seed that was exchanged for Kentia seed, are now threatened. Some environmentalists are urging their eradication along with other non-endemic plants. Meanwhile, the Kentia, being a protected species, are not being managed to produce maximum commercial yields.
Back on Norfolk Island, our original old Kentia palms can still be seen on the skyline around homesteads on Norfolk Island. They, and their descendants, have truly made themselves at home here, and are a welcome and valued addition to our landscape.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V2 Iss2, 2010. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.