Australian Palms: Biogeography, Ecology and Systematics

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Csiro Publishing, 2010 - Nature - 290 pages
2 Reviews
Australian Palms offers an updated and thorough systematic and taxonomic treatment of the Australian palm flora, covering 60 species in 21 genera. Of these, 54 species occur in continental Australia and six species on the off-shore territories of Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island and Christmas Island.

Incorporating recent advances in biogeographic and phylogenetic research, Australian Palms provides a comprehensive introduction to the palm family Arecaceae, with reviews of botanical history, biogeography, phylogeny, ecology and conservation. Thorough descriptions of genera and species include notes on ecology and typification, and keys and distribution maps assist with field recognition. Color photographs of habit, leaf, flowers, fruit and unique diagnostic characters also feature for each species.

This work is the culmination of over 20 years of research into Australian palms, including extensive field-work and examination of herbarium specimens in Australia, South-East Asia, Europe and the USA.

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If you love your copy of Palms of Madagascar, then this will be a fitting accompaniment for the palms of Australia. A new book by Research Botanist John Leslie Dowe, titled Australian Palms, Biogeography, Ecology and Systematics is a beautifully presented and well laid out look at all Australian palms including those of Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands. The opening chapters of the book give an insight into early palm collecting and documentation in Australia. There are small biographies of the leading botanists which make for interesting reading, and small extracts from their work help complete the picture. Chapters also focus on fossils in Australia and New Zealand, climate, natural disasters, distribution and more. The fossil section makes compelling reading, and contains many photos, maps and tables of extinct species from Australasia. There is also a systematic arrangement of fossil palms, which shows 10 species that once lived in New Zealand but have now been lost to the mists of time.
There are many maps and graphs to help illustrate the facts of each chapter in the book. One extremely handy graph which is useful to plant growers in New Zealand, (and which would make Palms of Madagascar just that little bit better for those not in a tropical climate) is a bar graph showing the altitudinal range of each species.
But like all palm books the real purpose is in the plant descriptions. All 60 Australian species are systematically laid out and described in detail. Those familiar with books such as Palms of Madagascar will be familiar with the layout. Each species has its description as well as distribution, ecology, typification, etymology and other notes. The wonderful amount of colour photos in the descriptions helps set this book apart, and helps make it a very useful field guide, as I prefer a photo to a line drawing. Most species have adult pictures as well as fruit and male/female flower shots. Many also have have photos of the original type specimens, and all include a distribution map.
This is not a gardener's book, as it does not include cultivation tips or requirements. It is, however, the best, most up-to-date account of the palm flora of Australia, which sees a few new species named, and a few name changes, one being the return to the use of Caryota albertii. Caryota albertii was briefly that until it was lumped in with C. rumphiana, but it is now once again a stand-alone species.
If you are to buy only one palm book this year, then this should surely be it. My only complaint would be that the book is not available as a hardback.

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"Australian Palms" is the result of many years' work on the part of a busy Australian ecologist and systematist who has somehow found the time and resources to study Australia's palms as well as their relatives in other countries. Among other publications, he's the author of a fine recent revision of the palm genus Livistona, which ranges as far afield as Somalia and Japan.
The chapter on distribution and ecology on pages 31-49 is a gem. Fire, drought, cyclones--and photos. One of the fire adaptations that Dr. Dowe mentions in Livistona is "the placement of dead leaves away from the central axis, so the most intense fire is remote from the apical meristem." In other words, the dead leaves are away from the sensitive growing point. That's reasonably similar to Florida's Sabal palmetto (cabbage palm), which also survives fires. Other Australian palms survive long drought and/or flooding.
Matters of botanical classification are utterly up to date, thanks in part to Dowe's own work. The book has splendid photos of flowers and fruits (as well has other identifying features). All photos are in color. The habitat photos of palms are an impressive accomplishment, considering that a number of Australian palms live only in extremely remote areas.
For the technically-minded, "Australian Palms" is valuable for its thorough review of botanical nomenclature, which is based in history going back to the 18th century, when Linnaeus and followers set up the binomial naming system. Australia received many visiting botanists, who published names for Australian palms in various languages.... Dr. Dowe clearly did a quite a lot of work to get the names straight and dispose of surplus ones.
Modern molecular methods are contributing to much better understandings of relationships. "Australian Palms" presents recent research, showing genus, subfamily, and family relationships in a way that could only be dreamt of back when the first Genera Palmarum (a massive book on the palm family) was published in 1987. We've come a long way in just one generation.
Given that Australia has relatively few palms compared to hotspots like Madagascar or Central America, many non-Australian palm enthusiasts will want other reference books first. However, since Australian palms are popular cultivated plants in warm climates worldwide, many owners of these palms will appreciate knowing something about the habitats where their palms come from, and how they look at home. A photo of a hillside covered with foxtail palms (Wodyetia) is particularly evocative--the species is vastly more abundant in cultivation than in the wild.
Botanists who might dream of preparing similar detailed treatments of other groups of plants will find John Dowe's book an inspiration and perhaps an example that can be shown to potential sponsors and publishers.
The most similar book for palms is perhaps "Palms of Madagascar" by John Dransfield and Henk Beentje (1995).


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About the author (2010)

John Leslie Dowe is a research botanist specializing in the systematics and ecology of the palm family Arecaceae. Since the early 1990s, he has focused on the Australian palm flora providing revisions and accounts of the genera Archontophoenix, Caryota, Licuala, Linospadix and Livistona, and describing over 25 new palm species. He was awarded a PhD in 2001, for research on the Australian fan-palm genus Livistona.

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