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Barking up the wrong tree: Famous palmetto was not from Bermuda

Mis-tree: the 60ft palm exhibited in Scotland was mistakenly thought to have come from Bermuda (Photograph supplied)

The origins of an historic tree on display at one of the world’s leading plant science and conservation institutes has finally been unearthed – and it is not Bermudian, as scientists had long thought.

Horticulturalists at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland, had believed that the palm had been planted in Bermuda before it was transported to Europe in the early 1800s. It has been an exhibit at the RBGE since at least 1814 and had grown to 60 feet in height. The palm had been named Sabal Bermudana on an exhibit label giving a history of the species.

The palm had to be uprooted last October when renovation work started on the Victorian glass house, which had been its home for the previous 200 years. The RBGE had nowhere else to house it and it was believed it would not survive a harsh Scottish winter outdoors.

The tree was expected to live on through seedlings collected and cultivated over the years. And according to the RBGE, it was that process that exposed the true identity of the palm.

A spokesperson for the gardens said: “As the day of felling arrived, the process of due diligence started. RBGE scientist Dr Alan Elliott was already in contact with botanists in Bermuda to discuss the potential for donating preserved material or one of the palm’s progeny, in accordance with international information sharing and working partnerships between botanic gardens.

“Samples were taken for DNA sequencing and a detailed botanical illustration was completed, along with close-up photography with the intention of confirming the species identity and creating a free resource for scientists and other interested parties now and in the future.”

But a study of various samples revealed differences between the RBGE exhibit and examples of the species sent from Bermuda.

Tropical botanist Axel Dalberg Poulsen explained: “Of the 15 known species in the genus Sabal, I narrowed it down to three possible species.

“Now we have a clearer idea of the true identity of the flagship palm of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. It is not Sabal Bermudana as the label said for a very long time but quite possibly Sabal Mexicana.

Sadie Barber, RBGE’s research collections manager, added: “Through Axel’s diligence, we now know that our Sabal is not in fact Sabal Bermudana, it is most likely Sabal Mexicana, although only with flowers or DNA sequencing will we know for sure.

“This doesn’t make the palm any less important in terms of its historic relationship with RBGE, but it does shift the focus away from Bermuda. It also demonstrates how the identification of species relies on the skill of taxonomic experts to make the necessary decisions for trustworthy labels to be placed on botanical collections.”

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Published May 14, 2022 at 7:24 am (Updated May 14, 2022 at 7:24 am)

Barking up the wrong tree: Famous palmetto was not from Bermuda

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