Fairchild’s tropical garden column

A palm or not a palm? That is the question.


Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Palms are impressive growers. They’ve adapted to tower over the jungle, grow wide without any protective bark, catch rainfall in dry landscapes or let the rain run off in rainforests. With a plethora of adaptations, palm species have learned to survive in every continent except Antarctica and in almost all habitats.

So it’s no surprise that some other plants mimic the palms and look very similar — at least at first glance. Palms are most frequently confused with cycads, giant birds of paradise and the Panama hat palm. But with a little training, it’s easy to pick palms out of the crowd.

Checking three main parts of the plant will let you determine easily if what you are looking at is a palm: the stem, the leaves and the reproductive structures.

Palms grow as single-stemmed individuals or a clump of many stems. Palms have only one crown per stem. But, there is an exception. A few palms can branch at the bud ( Hyphaene species) and they do so by splitting the bud into two equal parts. The result is a Y shape at the upper part of the palm. This is a very distinctive type of branching and not many other large plants branch in this way.

Palm leaves are also a great sign. Palm leaves emerge from the bud one at a time. They look like a spike coming right out of the center of the palm. Take a look out your window; every palm has this feature. As the palm leaf matures, it slowly unfolds. The leaves retain these folds throughout their existence. When you hold a palm leaf, you can almost fold it right back up.

The last big giveaway is the palm’s reproductive structure, or flowers. From one point on the palm, one stalk may separate into many stalks that hold flowers; this unit is called an inflorescence. The inflorescence may be above, below or within the leaves. It holds many, tiny, usually white flowers.

Cycads are most commonly confused with palms because their leaves, at first glance, look similar. But with closer examination their differences are great. Cycads produce many leaves at a time and the leaves uncurl as they mature. Leaf production and maturation on cycads more closely resembles fern habit than palm growth.

Another huge giveaway: cycads have cones. Cycads do not even produce flowers; instead they opt for a more ancient method of reproduction. If those two huge clues haven’t entirely given cycads away, the stem growth definitely will. New heads may sprout from any point on a cycad stem and are generally round in shape. This is completely unlike the Y-shaped branching exhibited by only a few palm species.

Giant birds of paradise are also mistaken for palms but less frequently. Their leaves don’t unfold or uncurl, they unwind. This most closely resembles a child’s play telescope — a spiraled piece of paper. The leaves are produced one at a time but when they mature, they drop in the crown in two directions. While palm crowns generally form a lollipop shape, giant birds of paradise crowns form a plane.

The last clue is the flowers. While palm flowers are inconspicuous, giant bird of paradise flowers are very showy; often big and colorful.

The last plant is probably the trickiest: the Panama hat palm. Don’t let the name fool you; it’s a misnomer. So similar in appearance to the palm, even the name will try and dupe you. The leaves of a Panama hat palm look a lot like a fan palm.

The easiest way to tell the Panama hat palm from a true palm is by looking at its flowers. The immature flower stalk looks more like a cone than a flower. Before maturation, the flower stalk closely resembles a monstera flower. Once a flower develops, it is bright and colorful. This plant is a wonderful example of the necessity for scientific names and exemplifies how common names can be so confusing. Referring to the Panama hat palm by its scientific name may help the misperception. Let’s just call it Carludovica palmata from here on out.

Since palms are such impressive growers, span the globe and inhabit almost every non-freezing habitat, it is no surprise that they share so many growth characteristics with other plants. It is these similarities that may make it difficult to tell palms apart from some others. But by closely examining the stem, leaves and flowers of palms and their look-alikes, it becomes quite easy to tell them apart.

Sara Edelman is the palm and cycad manager at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

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