Pritchardia sp. ‘Laysan’

Laysan Palm (Pritchardia sp.)

The genus Pritchardia contains about 26 species, 22 of which occur only on the Hawaiian Islands, most of them being single-island endemics. Today, the northernmost population of these palms can be found on the little rocky island of Nihoa, where Pritchardia remota Becc. occurs, which apparently also occurs on the island of Ni’ihau.

There was once, however, another population of such palms even further north, on the island of Laysan, this population may indeed have been a endemic species, it disappeared sometimes during the late 19th century.


The first account that mentions this palm species dates from the year 1828, when the island Laysan was “discovered” by Europeans (which named it Moller).: 

Den 12. (24.) März betrat derselbe die neuentdeckte Insel Moller, eine ursprüngliche Korallenbank mit einem langen daran hängenden Riffe. Die Insel selbst scheint durch den Unrath der Vögel nach und nach etwas erhöht worden zu seyn, sie ist fast durchgängig bewachsen mit einer starken buschigen Grasart und zum Theil mit kurzem Gesträuche, zwischen welchem einige zwergenhafte Exemplare einer Art Fächerplame aufgekommen waren.


The 12th (24th) March the same [C. Isenbeck, ship’s doctor on board the “Moller”] entered the newly discovered island Moller, a pristine coral bank with a long attached reef. The island itself seems to have been somewhat elevated by the filth of the birds, it is nearly continuously overgrown with a strong shrubby grass species and partly with short shrubs, between which some dwarfish specimens of a species of fan palm had come up. ” [1]


At around 1890, the Hawaiian kingdom granted permission to British guano miners to exploit the large seabird colonies of the island – not only fro guana, but also for eggs and “feathers”, which actually meant that whole birds respectively their wings were exported from Laysan.

Probably shortly after the palms had disappeared, apparently most had been destroyed for their wood. The sad remains were still found in 1896, as Hugo H. Schauinsland, a German zoologist, tells us.:  

Not too long ago, palms have also lived on the island, and, as the many remnants of their rotten stumps show, they were very numerous. However, the last living examples died off a few years ago, and since we cannot find a spot anywhere on the island to escape the burning rays of the sun, we miss their shade-providing crowns. It is not unlikely that castaways contributed to their demise, for at times, they were for sure present on the island. I found heaps of coal, in a few places, still showing the characteristic structure of palm wood. These could have been remnants of campfires, or else signs of fires kindled by carelessness. A final noteworthy observation about the flora of laysan is the complete lack of ferns, mosses and lichens.” [2]

Hugo H. Schauinsland also wrote the following lines.:

Finally, we should remember the palms …, which Kittlitz already mentions (in 1834, in the Museum Senckenbergianum). In 1859, there were still 5 specimens on the island (according to capt. Brooks), the tallest reaching 15 ft. I myself saw no more living specimens, although i found numerous stumps and pieces of root in the northern part of the island; some having a diameter of 50 cm. I also found numerous remnants in the southern part of the island, not far from the lagoon. Thus, the original numbers of trees were certainly several hundred. According to verbal information, the palms had hugh fan-shaped leaves and long florescences and fruit racemes. in all likelyhood it was Pritchardia.” [2]


The photo below shows two of these dwarfish palms once found on Laysan, the date and the photographer of this photo, however, are not known (at least not to me). 



[1] Heinrich von Kittlitz: Nachricht von den Brüteplätzen einiger tropischer Seevögel im stillen Ozean In: Museum Senckenbergianum: Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiete der beschreibenden Naturgeschichte 1: 116-126. 1833
[2] Hugo H. Schauinsland: Three months on a coral island (Laysan); translated by Miklos D. F. Udvardy. Atoll Research Bulletin 432. 1996


Photo: photographer unknown

(public domain)


edited: 26.09.2019