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Medemia argun (argun palm)

The fruits of the argun palm were first discovered by archaeologists in the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs.

Argun palms in the Nubian Desert

Medemia argun (argun palm)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Medemia argun Wurttenb. ex H.Wendl.

Common name: 

argun palm

Conservation status: 

Critically Endangered according to IUCN criteria.

Habitat: 

Desert oases.

Key Uses: 

The leaves are used for weaving.

Known hazards: 

None known.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Arecales
Family: 
Arecaceae
Genus: Medemia

About this species

The argun palm (Medemia argun) was first discovered by archaeologists as fruits in the tombs of ancient Egypt. The discovery of Medemia as a living palm did not come until 1837, when it was found growing in the Nubian Desert in northern Sudan. Then, in 1859, these living specimens of Medemia argun were finally linked to the tomb fruits. The fruits are quite widely recorded in archaeological excavations in Egypt, suggesting that the palm was once more widespread.

The significance of the palm in ancient Egypt remains a mystery. Nowadays, there are only a few localities in which this palm is found, and in most cases the populations there consist of very few individuals.

Genus: 
Medemia

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Medemia argun

Medemia argun is restricted to a few localities in the Nubian Desert oases of southern Egypt and northern Sudan. This region is so arid that consecutive years pass without any rain falling.

Medemia argun, as with all desert palms, can only grow in oases where ground water occurs.

Description

The argun palm is a dramatic single-stemmed tree palm with fan-shaped leaves that are glaucous blue (blueish-green with a whitish bloom) and have bright yellow petioles (leaf stalks). It is dioecious, meaning that individuals are either male or female.

It produces inflorescences (flower-bearing parts) with numerous catkin-like branches. The female bears plum-shaped fruits which are purple-black when ripe. The fruit flesh is very thin and surrounds a large seed. The fruits fall from the tree and lie baking in the intense desert sun.

Medemia argun

Though desert mammals appear to eat the flesh, the main dispersal agent could be water during flash floods following very infrequent rains.

Germinating seeds root very deeply indeed, presumably as an adaptation to finding ground water as quickly as possible.

Threats and conservation

The habitats in which Medemia argun occurs are sparsely inhabited. Nevertheless, the palm has experienced considerable pressure. Records from the late 19th century onwards indicate that exploitation of the leaves of Medemia has been a serious concern for many years, and evidence of destructive leaf harvesting can be found even today. In most sites, the population size is very small and vulnerable to accidental damage or even vandalism (for example by burning). None of the known Medemia populations falls within a protected area.

A team led by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, in collaboration with Kew's palm experts, is currently exploring the oases of the Egyptian Nubian Desert to complete a census of Medemia populations in the area and work towards a conservation management plan of the oases and their palms.

Uses

The leaves are used for weaving, for example to make ropes. It has been reported that the fruits are edible, but with so little fruit flesh and so hard a seed, it is hard to imagine them being palatable. According to Loutfy Boulos, the fruits are buried for a period, during which the endosperm develops a sweet taste similar to coconut.

Cultivation

Exploitation of the leaves of Medemia argun is of serious concern (Photo: Haitham Ibrahim)

Medemia argun has been cultivated by palm specialists as a result of seed introductions from Sudan. It needs a deep root run to germinate and establish successfully.

This palm is grown at Kew in the Jodrell Glasshouse (one of the behind-the-scenes glasshouses). Here the nursery collection of palms is grown, as well as plants that are being used for study in the Jodrell laboratories.

The palm is grown in a pot in a dry sunny position (under glass). The ideal temperature range is 18 to 21˚C. The compost used is a mix containing 10% 9mm loam, 45% coir and 45% Sylvafibre with Osmocote and kieserite. To this mix some perlite, Seramis, grit and sand are added. The aim is to grow the palm in an open, free-draining mix. A liquid feed is provided twice weekly. Apart from this liquid the pot is only watered when the substrate in the pot looks dry.

Medemia argun seed cut open

Medemia argun has not been propagated in the Jodrell Glasshouse as it has not yet produced material suitable for nursery propagation. It is subject to occasional pest infestations of mealy bugs and soft scale insects when grown under glass.

The argun palm at Kew

There are several archaeological specimens of Medemia argun in Kew's Economic Botany Collection. Kew also holds specimens collected by Speke and Grant on their celebrated expedition to discover the source of the Nile in 1863.

References and credits

Bornkamm, R., I. Springuel, F. Darius, M. Sheded & M. Radi (2000). Some observations on the plant communities of Dungul Oasis (Western Desert, Egypt). Acta. Bot. Croat. 59: 101–109.

Boulos, L. (1968). The discovery of Medemia palm in the Nubian Desert of Egypt. Bot.Not. 121: 117–120.

David, A.R. & E. Tapp (1992). The Mummy’s Tale. The Scientific and Medical Investigation of Natsif-Amun, Priest in the Temple of Karnak. Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.

Dransfield, J., N.W. Uhl, C.B. Asmussen-Lange, W.J. Baker, M.M. Harley & C.E. Lewis (2008). Genera Palmarum - Evolution and Classification of the Palms. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Gibbons, M. & T.W. Spanner (1996). Medemia argun lives. Principes. 40: 65–74.

Ibrahim, H & W.J. Baker (2009). Medemia argun – Past, Present and Future. Palms. 53: 9–19.

Kunth, C.S. (1826). Recherches sur les plantes trouvées dans les tombeaux égyptiens par M. Passalacqua. Ann. Sci. Nat. (Paris). 8: 418–423.

Martius, C.F.P. Von (1823–1850). Historia Naturalis Palmarum. Leipzig, Germany.

Newton, C. (2001). Le Palmier Argoun, Medemia argun (Mart.) Württemb. ex Wendl. P. 141–153 in Encyclopédie Religieuse de l’Univers Végétal. Croyances phytoreligieuses de l’Égypte ancienne (ERUV) II. OrMonsp XI.

Pain, S. (2006). Fruits of the tomb. New Sci. 190 (2554): 54, 55.

Tackholm , V. & M. Drar. (1950). Flora of Egypt 2. Bull. Fac. Sci. Egypt Univ. 28: 296–302.

Kew Science Editor: William Baker
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell
 
While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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