Thursday, 10 May 2012

Attalea (palm)

Attalea is a large genus of palms native to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. This pinnately leaved, non-spiny genus includes both small palms lacking an aboveground stem and large trees. The genus has a complicated taxonomic history, and has often been split into four or five genera based on differences in the male flowers. Since the genera can only be distinguished on the basis of their male flowers, the existence of intermediate flower types and the existence of hybrids between different genera has been used as an argument for keeping them all in the same genus. This has been supported by a recent molecular phylogeny.

Somewhere between 29 and 67 species are recognised in the genus, with estimates of as many as 100. Incomplete herbarium collections make it difficult to determine whether certain groups represent single species, or groups of similar species. Attalea species have a long history of human use, and include economically important sources of palm oil and fibre. Many species are fire tolerant and thrive in disturbed habitats. Their seeds are animal dispersed, including some which are thought to have been adapted for dispersal by now-extinct Pleistocene megafauna.