Red palm weevil discovery sparks fears of 'palmageddon'

A coconut tree-killing pest is the latest plant health problem to arrive in Britain.

Red palm weevil - image: APHA
Red palm weevil - image: APHA

A member of the public found a red palm weevil after buying a fan palm from an Essex garden centre that had been imported in a consignment from an EU country. It was the first such discovery in the UK.

The Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) is looking for other weevils within the retailer from the same consignment and further afield but has yet to find any further examples. Adult weevils and larvae were collected by APHA inspectors and sent to the Food & Environment Research Agency for identification. The infected palm was burnt.

Rhynchophorus ferrugineus Olivier is the most important pest of date palm in the world and has been dubbed "palmageddon" in some Mediterranean countries. The pest attacks several ornamental palms imported into the UK, such as chusan palm. The EU has introduced emergency measures to prevent further spread. The affected palm was traded as a Livistonia rotundifolia (fan palm/table palm)

The weevil causes a total loss of foliage and rotting of the trunk, which eventually results in the death of the tree. Each adult female lays 200-330 eggs in holes in the tree. Larvae bore into the tree, feeding on soft, succulent tissues, and reach 50mm long. Insecticide availability is limited in the UK so destruction is likely to be the only successful eradication measure.

An APHA spokesperson said: "Red palm weevil adults and larvae were identified in a palm purchased from a retailer in Essex. APHA established an incident action plan and is carrying out tracing, surveillance and awareness-raising to determine whether the pest is present elsewhere and to eradicate it. No further findings have been made at this time. The weevil only affects palm plants and presents no risk to human health."

RHS chief horticultural adviser Guy Barter said: "This has been reported by RHS members living abroad but so far we have seen no UK cases of course. Clearly opportunities for spread are limited in the UK due to weather and dearth of host plants. There may be exceptions where palms are commoner outdoors - Torquay perhaps?

"As the pest is rife in source regions of imported plants such as the Mediterranean regions and South East Asia, one must anticipate there will be constant pressure. Indeed, our expert entomology team predicted its arrival in their 2014 article 'Stemming the tide'.

"This shows the very great importance of rigorous quarantine where planting palms from abroad particularly in glasshouses as at Wisley. We have a dedicated quarantine area of course. Our entomologists are happy to rely on APHA info for now, but obviously the entomology team will keep the situation under review."

The red palm weevil is already established in Europe including in France, Greece, Italy and Spain. It has a life cycle of around four months.

A plant pest fact sheet is available at https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/phiw/riskRegister/plant-health/documents/notifiable_pests/redPalmWeevil.pdf and any sightings should be reported to the APHA. For further details, go to www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/47472.

Dobbies garden centres sold 41,000 palms in a year in 2009-10, a 68 per cent rise on the previous year, at an average of 1,640 palms sold at each of its stores. Dobbies said then that buyers bought cordyline, trachycarpus and phoenix palms to make up for going without a foreign holiday. Prices ranged from £6.99 to £300 for an 8ft tree.


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