THE FOXTAIL PALM HAS HAD A BUMPY RIDE BUT IT STILL HAS ITS PLACE IN OUR GARDENS
When you have one ice cream after another, the second seems to have less appeal than the first. Have a third and the pleasure diminishes yet again.
Could this be how the story of the infamous foxtail palm ( Wodyetia bifurcata) finishes up? A case of too much loving also happened to the less glamorous queen palm ( Syagrus romanzoffiana) 20 years ago when it was removed from its position as “the” palm to plant and relegated to a weed list because of its volumes of seed and tatty dead fronds that refused to drop.
Then there was its profusion of germinated seeds that looked like a lawn of long grass.
Foxtail palms were ‘discovered’ somewhat unofficially in the Cape Melville area further north in the early ’90s at about the same time as that other relic plant of the long past, the wollemi pine, was also discovered and described as one of the new world wonders.
Foxies, and their seeds in particular, were highly sought after from around the world for their handsome arrangement of fronds, which resembled a large green fox tail. In fact, it is almost certain that there had been trading in the seed a long time before they were said to have been discovered. This is evident if ever you visit Cairns’ Sister City Zhanjiang in China, which has at least one major highway planted with foxtails that were large, mature specimens that would have been planted before the ’90s.
A thousand of the seeds were released officially by the CSIRO to growers for trials, yet there seemed to be thousands more in the market and trade was brisk, to say the least. The seeds of the palm fetched a massive $3 each for some time and were a currency unto themselves.
Raids of growers, court cases and the telling story on the ABC Four Corners program blew the lid off the whole arrangement, while the government of the day decided to, rather than regulate the sale and distribution of the seed, apply more sanctions. They missed a great opportunity that would have had better results.
Over time the foxtail has evolved as a garden palm, still with massive amounts of seed that were pig food in the national park of their origin, to become a worrisome plant with heavy falling fronds, copious seeds now worth nothing and a root system that precludes companion plants. But, to be fair, it is still a handsome palm.