An ancient palm tree studied in Edinburgh for two centuries has been misidentified

The ever-popular palm tree, which has been cared for at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) for almost 230 years, has been revealed as a botanical mystery.

Nearly eight months after it was felled to make way for a major restoration project at its tropical palm home, experts conducting due diligence have now determined that the 60-foot treasure is no example of the endangered Sabal -Bermudana was.

In a further twist, if, as is now suspected, the long-lived specimen is Sabal mexicana, this was a new species which remained to be described to science for some 40 years after it was exhibited in the 1790s.

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The misidentification of the ancient palm tree was discovered after it outgrown its native habitat on the Botanics Pic: Lynsey Wilson RBGE

Sadie Barber, RBGE’s Research Collections Manager, said: “The palm tree we had for 200 years is not what we thought it would be.

“We now know that our Sabal is not actually Sabal Bermudana. It’s most likely Sabal Mexicana, although we’ll only know with flowers or DNA sequencing.

“This doesn’t make the palm any less important in terms of its historical relationship with RBGE, but it shifts the focus away from Bermuda.”

Shipped via Germany to the port of Leith in the 1790s, the palm originally grew at the former RBGE site at Leith Walk until the entire plant collection was transported to its current location at Inverleith in the 1820s. Thousands of plants were removed from the A – Listed Palm Houses last year to allow construction to begin on the ambitious Edinburgh Biomes project to protect the garden as a global resource for future generations.

The historical Sabal palm tree has been dismantled by experts, grown with seedlings so visitors can see its offspring grow “for another 200 years”.

It has been dissected to create permanent herbarium record and a detailed botanical illustration has been produced along with close-up photographs to confirm identity and create a free resource for scientists and other interested parties now and in the future.

During the documentation procedures, Scott Zona, the US-based leading authority on the Sabal family, highlighted some subtle differences in the biology of different species.

RBGE tropical botanist Dr. Axel Dalberg Poulsen said: “Using Scott’s detailed monograph of the 15 known species of the genus Sabal, I have narrowed them down to three possible species.

“Just last week Scott looked at our evidence and now we have a clearer idea of ​​the true identity of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s flagship palm.

“It’s not Sabal Bermudana, as the label has been saying for a long time, but possibly Sabal Mexicana.

“The German botanist CFP von Martius did not describe Sabal mexicana as a species until 1838. Until then, the palm was actually a new species among botanists.”

A full verification can only be done by DNA sequencing or by collecting and examining the flowers of their progeny, which can take several decades for the young palms to mature.

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