Palmerston Atoll is made up of six main Motu and a number of sand cays dotted around a lagoon teeming with marine life. There is no airstrip. A cargo boat visits every few months to ferry passengers, food supply, gas and fuel.
As well as holding a rich marine ecosystem
filled with parrot fish, sharks and turtles, the plants found on land also hold
significant history and mysteries.
The five-week long rat eradication project on
Palmerston has provided us with a valuable opportunity to look at biodiversity
present on the island. Anything from insects to plants and potential invasive
species. Here we are talking about some of the trees that can be found there.
As you approach Palmerston from sea, the
slither of slightly raised land includes three obvious high features in the
center of Home Motu, where residents live. It is not until you are on the
island that the three points can be identified as tall pine trees, most likely
New Caledonian Pines, which are similar to the more well-known Norfolk pines.
These were planted by Carl Marsters in front of his property in the 1960s.
Palmerston’s central vegetation is made up
largely of tall tamanu, ano, and coconut.
There is also one unidentified tree, tall like
a chestnut tree but has not fruited or flowered recently to confirm its
Its leaves are long and tear drop shaped, a
clear difference from the more oval shaped tamanu leaves that surround the
A chat with Edward Marsters and Fiftieth Rowe
reveals the tree was planted by their great grandmother Akatu Dean also known
as Tutu Marsters in the 1960s, but cannot confirm the species.
Simon Masters recalls seeing the tree produce
a red seed once that stained really easily and thought perhaps the tree was
planted to make red dye. A pressing of the leaves will be brought back to
Rarotonga for further analysis from the Natural Heritage Trust.
The coastline is home to coconut trees, Toa
ironwood and Kōpara, or Rakau
Pakari as known by the Palmerstonions.
The knowledge stick, translated to English, is
well known amongst the younger children as a disciplinary stick, ouch.
One particular shrub however noticed on the south side of Home Motu by Fiftith and Will Rowe in 2018 is the only one of its kind.
Po’utukava, Silverbush Sophora tomentosa is a flowering yellow shrub up to 6m high with
pods and glossy oval leaves.
There are no records of this particular
Po’utukava being planted on Palmerston, so perhaps a seed pod was brought over
A closer look on the Cook Islands Biodiversity
Database highlights the Po’utukava, is a native and is present across the
majority of southern group islands. It is also found across the Pacific,
including most of the high archipelagoes of
In a 1992 book on Pacific plants by well known
botanist Art Whistler , he writes “the seeds are sometimes strung into
ei’s, the leaves are employed for native
medicines and the stems are burned for firewood”.
With the Po’utukava mainly growing on sandy
beaches, it also acts as a natural coastal erosion control. Because of its
coastal stability properties, it has been used with other native trees at the
Avana geotextile sand bag coastal protection site on Rarotonga.
Keep an eye out in
the coming weeks for more information from our expedition to Palmerston.