Evolution and diversification of the palms and their seed traits

The palm tree-of-life as a key to palm seed conservation. Phylogenomic research in support of the Global Tree Seed Bank project.

Palm tree growing in Singapore

Palms are a vital component of tropical rain forests worldwide, but are increasingly threatened with extinction. As part of the Garfield Weston-funded Global Tree Seed Bank project, a complete tree-of-life for all genera of palms will be completed and augmented with species-level sampling for the major Indo-Pacific tribe Areceae. This tree-of-life will be used to unravel the relationship between seed traits, evolution and extinction risk to better inform the conservation of palms and the banking of their seeds for the future

Why Kew?

A key element of Kew’s conservation work is to establish the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) as the global repository for tree seeds — the Global Tree Seed Bank,  — vital in the fight to conserve the increasing number of threatened trees globally. The MSB currently holds seed from around 11,000 tree and shrub species, more than any other seed bank in the world. The establishment of the Global Tree Seed Bank has been facilitated by generous funding from the Garfield Weston Foundation which will enable a further 3,000 tree species to be banked. The project also aims to address key knowledge gaps related to tree conservation. Kew has a long track record of palm research and outstanding collections of this important group, making palms an obvious focus for the programme.

Palms – a model group for tropical forests

Palms are widely regarded as a model group for tropical research. More than 90% of the 2,600 species are restricted to tropical rain forests. Recent research on their long evolutionary history, stretching back more than 100 million years, has shed light on the origins, and processes underpinning the origins of the world’s rain forests. Throughout the world, but especially in the archipelagos of the Indo-Pacific, palms show very high levels of endemism. However, high rates of deforestation and the great economic value of palms place many species and genera at risk of extinction. Seed banking to conserve palms has so far been problematic as many palm seeds cannot be stored.

The palm tree-of-life as a key to palm seed conservation

In this project, we aim to establish an entirely new 'tree-of-life' for palms as a framework for comparative research on palm seed traits, in order to understand the relationships between seed biology, biogeography and extinction risk. Using cutting edge genomic methods, we will first complete the backbone tree of life, sequencing hundreds of genes from at least one representative of every palm genus. We will then delve deeper by focusing on a major group of tree palms (tribe Areceae; about 600 species), which is distributed across the Indo-Pacific, a region facing some of the highest deforestation rates in the world. The family-wide synthesis of seed trait data and phylogenomics that we will create will facilitate advances in the conservation of this charismatic plant group, leading, for example, to the development of guidelines for the conservation of recalcitrant-seeded species.


  • Generate genomic data for all palm genera and all species of tribe Areceae.
  • Build a novel phylogenomic tree-of-life for all palm genera and tribe Areceae.
  • Create a comprehensive seed trait database for palms.
  • Synthesise palm phylogenies and seed trait data to shed light on the evolutionary and biogeographic correlates with seed biology and extinction risk, and their implications for seed conservation.
  • Establish protocols and obtain data for about 200 genera and 600 species of palms for the reconstruction of the plant tree of life.
  • New trait-based insights into extinction risks with the aim of extending species conservation thinking and informing conservation planning and seed banking protocols.
  • New published research into the history of palms in space and time, and its correlates with seed trait evolution. 


  • University of Georgia, USA
  • Palm Phylogeny Working Group

Garfield Weston Foundation

Baker W.J., Savolainen V., Asmussen-Lange C.B., Chase M.W., Dransfield J., Forest F., Harley M.M., Uhl NW, Wilkinson M. (2009)

Complete generic-level phylogenetic analyses of palms (Arecaceae) with comparisons of supertree and supermatrix approaches

Syst. Biol. 58:240-256

Couvreur T.L.P., Baker W.J. (2013)

Tropical rain forest evolution: palms as a model group

BMC Biology 11:48

Dransfield J., Uhl N.W., Asmussen C.B., Baker W.J., Harley M.M., Lewis C.E. (2008)

Genera Palmarum - the Evolution and Classification of Palms

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond

Faurby S., Eiserhardt W.L., Baker W.J., Svenning J-C. (2016)

An all-evidence species-level supertree for the palms (Arecaceae)

Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 100:57-69


Plant and Fungal Trees of Life


Seed Information Database