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Wodyetia bifurcata A.K.Irvine 1983
pronounced: wod-YET-ee-uh by-fur-KAH-tuh
(Arecaceae — the palm family)
common name: Foxtail Palm
Wodyetia was named after Wodyeti, an Aboriginal bushman who was the last of his line holding a vast traditional knowledge of the palm’s natural habitat, the Bathurst Bay – Melville Range in Far North Queensland. He died in 1978 at about the age of 78. Bifurcata is from the Latin bifurcus, having two prongs.
This is a very attractive palm with long (2–3 m) very bushy pinnate leaves formed by the pinnae dividing again (hence the name ‘foxtail’), and growing up to 10 m tall with a grey trunk. It produces large reddish orange fruits, about the size of a duck’s egg. It was only discovered in 1975, in its sole natural habitat of a few square miles of the Cape Melville National Park in a relatively inaccessible area of Cape York, and had a quick rise to stardom. This was not so much for the palm’s horticultural qualities, but for the smuggling racket which went on to generate a political scandal in Queensland.
Scientists did not get round to describing the palm officially until 1983. Something in their description must have caught the fancy of an unknown nurseryman, because soon afterwards the palm was highly prized (and highly priced) and on the open market. Some of the Cape York locals promptly added foxtail palm seed collection to their other legal, barely legal, and wholly illegal activities. For the best part of a decade seed collectors and smugglers were mainly untroubled by official intervention or concern. By the time the relevant government department was beginning to realize that something needed to be done about the seed smugglers who were tearing up the pristine National Park with their 4-wheel drives, other government agencies were lining up as enthusiastic buyers of illegal palms. These included the Brisbane Southbank Corporation, the Cairns Port Authority, and the Thursday Island TAFE College. Then, in 1992, the police fauna squad descended on a Brisbane palm nursery and seized 18,000 foxtail palms (only to give them back a few months later!). When the operation was eventually shifted to the National Park, very, very few were caught in the net, but one of those was the brother of one of the Premier’s most senior staffers. There was a government inquiry, and so the story went on, rather like the plot of a comic opera. The actual events of the “Cape Melville Incident” were lost in a mist of obfuscation.
Seed is now available legally from trees growing outside the National Park, but the regulations about the tagging of seedlings are not at all clear, and the observation of the regulations is only patchy. The Queensland government still has the palm on its endangered species list, even though there are now tens of thousands of the palms growing throughout the world, and fruiting copiously – as may be seen from the photographs.
This palm is now prized by palm enthusiasts and landscapers for its thick, robust trunk and neat appearance, and especially for the arching crown on light green fronds which gives the palm’s foliage the appearance of a fox’s tail as it sways in the breeze. It has become one of the world’s most popular landscape palms.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2010-2015
Page last updated 10th March 2017