Geography and distribution
The male flowers are small in size, a feature that is reflected in the epithet micrantha ('small-flowered').
Dransfieldia micrantha grows in scattered populations throughout the dense rainforest of northwestern New Guinea, in the Indonesian province of Papua. It is found up to 180 m above sea level.
Dransfieldia micrantha is an elegant palm with pinnate fronds and numerous slender cane-like stems. It grows up to 10 m high, with a stem diameter of 2-5 cm and has a crownshaft (smooth column at the stem tip composed of tightly rolled tubular leaf sheaths).
D. micrantha is monoecious (both male and female flowers are borne on the same plant) and bears small purple flowers, followed by olive-shaped black fruits. Seeds are ovoid with a flattened base.
The inflorescences are borne on the stem below the leaves and are 34-60 cm long with spreading branches. The flowers are in triads (groups of three with a central female and two lateral male flowers) throughout the length of the rachillae (the branches of the inflorescence that carry the flowers).
Threats and conservation
New Guinea, the world's largest tropical island, is a poorly explored biodiversity hotspot and an area of high priority for palm research and conservation. A recent expedition to the remote Foja Mountains by an international team attracted worldwide media attention, making astounding discoveries of new species of frogs, birds and palms.
Dransfieldia micrantha in the foothills of the Wondiwoi Mountains
Palms are tremendously important for subsistence communities and ecosystems throughout the island. However, many New Guinean palms are so poorly known that efforts to study and conserve them are hampered by our inability to identify the various species. While large areas of primary forest still exist in New Guinea, the rapid expansion of logging, mining and other major economic developments constitute a real and urgent threat to its habitats and biodiversity.
In the past five years, a team of experts from Kew, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, and botanists from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia and Denmark have described more than 20 new species of palm from New Guinea, and these institutions are collaborating in writing a comprehensive book that will describe all the palms of the island.
Many more species new to science have been discovered, but are yet to be formally described. A preliminary Field Guide to the Palms of New Guinea has been published, both in English and Indonesian language versions, and is an important tool in the conservation of these species.
Land managers and conservationists can use the guide to identify palm species of conservation concern and geographic areas rich in palm diversity.
The stems of this palm are used to make harpoons and the leaves are used for thatching.
This newly discovered palm is not in cultivation at Kew at present. It is occasionally cultivated by specialist palm growers in tropical countries and can be seen in the palm collection at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
Discovery of a new palm genus
John Dransfield next to Dransfieldia micrantha (Photo: S. Zona)
In 2000, the Kew botanist William Baker and collaborators from the Universitas Negeri Papua and the Indonesian National Herbarium found a palm which had not been seen for almost 130 years in the foothills of the remote Wondiwoi Mountains in western New Guinea.
Originally described by the great Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari, who discovered it in 1872, this palm had been the subject of a long dispute because experts had been unable to agree on which genus it belonged to. However, recent evidence has shown that none of these experts, including Kew’s great Victorian director, Sir Joseph Hooker, got it right. With colleagues from the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida and Aarhus University in Denmark, William Baker analysed the DNA of the troublesome palm and found that it could not be placed in any known genus. The palm needed a whole new genus all to itself.
Choosing the right name for a new plant is always a challenge. William and his colleagues decided to honour John Dransfield, who had recently retired as head of palm research at Kew and had made enormous contributions to the world of palms, by naming the new genus Dransfieldia.
'I was perplexed by this palm when we found it in the forest,” Baker explained “but it was only with the help of modern DNA methods that we realised how unique and special it is.'
'The discovery of Dransfieldia micrantha is an urgent reminder that we still need to explore tropical forests before they disappear under the bulldozer and chainsaw,' said Scott Zona (of Fairchild). 'We never expected this palm to be a new genus. There is still so much we need to learn about remote areas like New Guinea.'
The publication of the new genus is the culmination of a scientific collaboration that also involved Dr Carl E. Lewis of Fairchild, Ms Maria V. Norup of Kew and Aarhus University in Denmark, and Mr Charlie Heatubun and Mr Rudi Maturbongs, both of the Universitas Negeri Papua, Indonesia.
This species at Kew
Both dried and alcohol-preserved specimens of Dransfieldia micrantha are held in the Herbarium, one of the behind-the-scenes areas of Kew. The details of some of these specimens can be seen in the Herbarium Catalogue, and the specimens themselves are made available to researchers from around the world by appointment.