Jeff Marcus grows more than 800 species
of palms at his nursery near the volcano
and ships seedlings around the globe.
When Alan called back to say that one of the world’s foremost palm experts was heading to Hilo to speak to the HIPS crowd, I knew my chance to learn more had come. I hopped a plane, got a car and headed for an agricultural extension office up in the hills of town.
The expert was Don Hodel. His audience of forty or so HIPSters sat spellbound for an hour as he talked about Clinostigma samoense and Howeia forsteriana. They asked questions about germination, inflorescences, rates of growth. These people might have once installed Alan as their president, I realized, but they weren’t kidding around when it came to palms (and anyway, installing Alan as their president was a crazy-like-a-fox move: Who do you think brought food to the meetings?).
Restacking chairs after Hodel finished, I introduced myself to some of the HIPSters. I met Karel, a Czech dissident who used to collect crocodiles in Prague; Jan, a Canadian self-described “child of the ’60s” whose son learned to say Chrysalidocarpus lutescens at the age of two; Bo, a fastidious Swede who’s planted—by himself—5,000 palms around his home at last count; and Jeff, a belligerent eccentric who, it turned out, had been waiting for me. “You work for that in-flight magazine? I’ve been meaning to call you to come out and do a story on me. I’ve got things to say that need to be heard.” He gave me a number to reach him. Everyone gave me a number.
Walking to my car, I felt the cheery zeal that always comes when I’m on the cusp of discovery. Months later, as I reach the end of this story, that cheery zeal has changed to staunch appreciation—for now I know what a truly quirky, enchanting and significant tale I stumbled on as I sat eating in Alan’s kitchen.
I learned: The island of Hawai‘i has become a botanical life raft for the world’s palms. There are some 3,000 species of palms on the planet, and many of them are falling prey to the forces warring against Mother Nature: development, urbanization, deforestation. They are disappearing in the wild, these trees of infinite variety—thin, fat; feather-leafed, fan-leafed; one-trunked, multi-trunked; big-seeded, little-seeded—the distinctions go on and on, testament to divine evolution in danger of being lost forever. And that’s where the Big Island now comes in. Those things Jeff Marcus wanted heard? That he has racked up one million miles of travel collecting palms, that he has over 800 species growing on his six acres in Kurtistown, that he is on a mission of seeding and salvation. His nursery, Floribunda Palms, ships palm seedlings all over the world, almost all of them ordered from www.floribundapalms.com. How rare? Try this: There’s the new species Balaka sp. (Bulitavu), which grows in the wild only on a remote mountaintop on Vanua Levu. Jeff first saw the never-before-described tree in 1997; he named it after his Fijian guide, Timothy Bulitavu, who later collected the seed that Jeff is now growing. Or this: the critically endangered Pritchardia aylmer-robinsonii, a palm native to “the forbidden island” of Ni‘ihau. “Forbidden island” may be a hokey descriptor, but it’s accurate nonetheless: It would be near impossible to get on Ni‘ihau legally to collect seed. Jeff has his only because years ago one of the island’s owners gave some to a palm lover who gave some to Jeff. And it’s not like there’s only one of each of these 800 species at the Floribunda nursery: Jeff may only have six acres, but he’s got over 100,000 palms in his nursery stock—and that’s the conservative estimate.