Twin towers: the stately vulcan palm.
Branching out: the stately vulcan palm. Photograph: Joel Sartore/Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

For houseplant obsessives like me, offerings in garden centres can be a bit samey. In the face of two decades of declining sales, retailers are sticking to an ever-shrinking palette of safe options. But every so often you come across a great find, like the Vulcan Palm, Brighamia insignis.

This striking succulent is found only on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, where it once covered the rocky coastal slopes between pockets of rainforest. Not a palm, in fact, but a member of the bellflower family, it has a thick trunk topped with a crown of shiny leaves, giving it a quirky architectural form. Flushes of pale yellow flowers, 15cm long, erupt from the centre in the spring and early summer, emitting a gorgeous honeysuckle scent. They owe their elongated throats and tubular form to a hawk moth with an enormously long tongue that co-evolved with the plant over millions of years.

Ironically this stunning example of evolutionary adaption has driven the plant to the edge of extinction. Relying entirely on a single pollinator, the plant’s fate was tied to the moth. When this became extinct last century, the Vulcan Palm’s only means of propagating itself was by human intervention, namely through the work of daring conservationists mimicking the moth’s role to pollinate the flowers while hanging from ropes on cliff edges.

The remaining plants were further decimated by a series of natural disasters, including Hurricane Iniki in 1992. By 2003 the International Union for Conservation of Nature reported just seven mature plants left in the wild, so it is perhaps a surprise that they make relatively easy houseplants and are becoming widely available. Proceeds from the sales of these sustainably grown plants, propagated from seeds from plants pollinated by conservationists, help fund their vital work.

Growing vulcan palms

Brighamias love a bright spot out of direct sunlight and, surprisingly given their Hawaiian origin, enjoy a cool room in winter. Their only really fussy point is that their roots should never be left sitting in cold, wet potting mix, as this can cause them to rot. Use a fast-draining potting media, such as cacti mix, watering the plants generously once a week before allowing them to completely dry out. Feel free to miss a watering or two if the soil is moist to the touch. A monthly feed with a dilute general-purpose fertiliser will keep your plant in tip-top condition.


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