Madagascar is a global biodiversity hot spot with a host of endemic animals and plants. Many of these are rare or endangered, as Madagascar has lost up to 90 per cent of its original vegetation. Almost 90 per cent of Madagascan plants are endemic and the island is believed to have 11,600 unique plant species. Scientists are still learning about the island and in 2009, Kew Garden botanists discovered 20 new species of palm tree on Madagascar.
There are six species of baobab endemic to Madagascar, collectively known as the Malagasy baobabs. The most famous species is Adansonia grandidieri from western Madagascar. It is a tree up to 70 feet tall with a bulbous trunk up to 30 feet in circumference and a small, flat crown of branches. Baobab trees are pollinated by bats and lemurs and produce edible fruits.
There are 11 species of Didiereaceae; all are endemic to Madagascar and make up an important part of the unique spiny desert ecosystem found in the far south. They are shrubs and trees up to 60 feet high with small, rounded leaves and spiny stems. Some species, such as Alluaudia procera, the Madagascar ocotillo, are cultivated as ornamental species.
The Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) is endemic to the island and endangered in the world due to habitat loss to slash and burn agriculture. It is a herbaceous plant up to three feet high with small, oval, glossy leaves and white to pink flowers with five petals. Madagascar periwinkle is a widely cultivated subtropical ornamental and yields compounds used in the treatment of leukaemia.
The distinctive traveller's palm (Ravenala madagascariensis) is closely related to the South African strelitzias and is not a palm tree. It grows up to 90 feet with a flattened fan of leaf stalks and large oar shaped leaves. The traveller's palm is found only on Madagascar and is common in the remaining lowland forests. Its common name comes from water stored at the base of the leaf stalks that can be drunk in an emergency.
85 per cent of the 1,000 orchid species growing on Madagascar are endemic. Many species have been over collected for the horticultural trade and are endangered. The vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) is, although native to Mexico, widely cultivated on Madagascar for its fragrant seedpods.
The earth iris (Geosiris aphylla) is a relative of the irises and is found in the western and central forests of Madagascar. It is remarkable because it has no chlorophyll and cannot photosynthesise. Instead it gets all its nutrients via its roots which grow in the leaf litter of the forest floor. The earth iris has small vestigial leaves and purple flowers with six petals.
Madagascar's largest palm was only discovered by botanists in 2007. It lives for up to 50 years, reaching 60 feet in height with leaves 16 feet in diameter, before flowering and then dying. The Telegraph website reports that it is so large that individual trees can be seen in Google Earth. The giant flower spike is shaped like a Christmas tree and has hunderds of flowers and then fruit. Tahina spectabilis is vary rare and only 92 trees (reference BBC) have been recorded.
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- Kew: Twenty new Madagascar palm species discovered by Kew botanists
- Telegraph: Self Destructing Palm Tree Found in Madagascar
- College of Natural Resources, University of California
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Madagascar For Real
- The Biodiversity Group Website: The Orchids of Madagascar
- Baobabs: The Species