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Fairchild’s tropical garden column: Palms are not just another pretty face

Paurotis palm can be used for thatch, fiber and fruits. Plant this Florida native in a wet spot.
Paurotis palm can be used for thatch, fiber and fruits. Plant this Florida native in a wet spot. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Palms are ornamental gems, stunning growers with relatively few horticultural needs. All they require is water, fertilizer and access to soil — no maintenance necessary.

For this reason, they are wildly popular. Although they are often planted solely for their beauty, they are more like trees of life, providing resources such as fruit, sugary sap and thatch.

The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, is the original palm tree of life, called that in many cultures because every part of the palm can be used. The trunk is used for timber, the fruit are the delicious dates, the leaflets are used for basketry, the fibers are used for thatching, the stalks of the flowers are used for ropes or burned for fuel, the sap is drinkable and can be boiled into a candy, and the midribs of the leaves are used in furniture. This remarkable palm is regarded as so important that Muslim legend says it was created from the dust left over after the creation of Adam.

The date palm is suited for desert life, requiring very dry, non-humid conditions. Date palms do not do well in muggy southern Florida. Even if they do survive the summer, they won’t produce fruit.

But some close relatives of the date palm will do fairly well here, although they won’t produce dates: the Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), Senegal date palm (Phoenix reclinata) and the miniature date palm (Phoenix roebelenii). They do have nutrient deficiency issues, however. Treat these palms with twice-a-year applications of slow-release palm special fertilizer and don’t remove discolored leaves. Removing the deficiency worsens the problem.

Other giving palms are better suited for southern Florida. Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, paurotis palm, is a beautiful southern Florida native. This clonal palm provides big leaves for thatching roofs, and fibers on the stem can be used to make cloth. The black berries are eaten by migratory birds, and the gray foxes in Belize rely solely on this plant seasonally. The resource-rich paurotis palm, which grows in the swamps and even in the urban landscape, prefers to have its feet wet. Keep it well watered, or better yet put it in the water, or it will show signs of frizzle top.

The biggest-kept secret is the royal palm (Roystonea regia). Royal palms are called the most beautiful palms in the world, but many people don’t realize they have delicious hearts. If you have royal palms in your yard, instead of yanking out seedlings, let them grow into mature plants. Once they are five to six feet tall, cut them down, remove the bud and enjoy the heart of palm. Surprisingly, these palms grow in the marsh. Plant them in a wet spot in your yard to avoid pencil tipping of the trunk and eventual crown decline.

Another great palm tree of life for southern Florida is the sugar palm (Arenga pinnata), which gets its name from the sugary sap its blossoms produce. This sap can be made into a fresh drink called saguir, fermented into a distilled liquor (arrack) or dried into arenga sugar. The palm heart is edible and so are the newest leaves. Sago, a starch, is made from the pith. The dark, fibrous bark is manufactured into cord or rope.

Not surprisingly, this is an incredibly important economic crop in its native tropical Asia. According to Sudanese folklore, the spirit Wewe Gombel nests in this palm, where she keeps the children she abducts. This mythical and resource-rich palm is a great grower for southern Florida. Put it in partial sun and watch it flourish. But be mindful — the fruit contain oxalate crystals and can be a skin irritant.

If you want a horticultural challenge, try planting Bactris gasipaes, also called pejibaye or peach palm. The reward definitely outweighs the challenge. This clumping palm produces a delicious fruit that is edible after being cooked for three to five hours.

Not only is the fruit delightful, but so is the heart — the clumping palm is one of the main producers of heart of palm. Hearts removed, the stems make valuable timber. Almost every part of this palm is used for economic benefit.

The peach palm is difficult to grow in southern Florida because it needs a truly tropical climate of year-round heat and humidity, well-drained, acid soils and prefers higher altitude. Cultivation in southern Florida is possible with the right microhabitat and diligence. Keep your peach palm well watered and well protected.

Palms are not only beautiful and easy to grow but have many economic and cultural uses. Don’t waste any more time — plant a palm tree of life in your yard and be prepared for a plant that will truly give back.

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

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