Wild Encounters In The Sunshine State

Tony King's vacational reminiscences of indigenous palms in Florida and the Keys.
Tony King, 34 Keats Avenue, Romford, Essex, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 1, published online 23-11-2002

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Left: Serenoa repens - the beautiful silver form.
Right: 'Woodland serenoa repens'.

October 1990 was the month in which I achieved a long awaited ambition - a visit to the United States and, in particular, to Florida and the Fairchild Garden in Miami. My guide on the trip was to be Willie Tang, both an officer in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and an associate researcher in Cycads at Fairchild.

It was to be my first taste of the subtropics and despite warnings about the heat and humidity, it was quite a shock to leave England, shivering in the low 50°'s F. (10°C) and to arrive in Miami sweltering in the high 80°'s (30°C) with humidity to match.

The delights, in palm terms, of this part of the world, fall neatly into two categories: the natural, and the cultivated. This article will confine itself to the former, and a later issue will cover the introduced species.

The native flora of Florida is under great pressure from the ever-increasing demand for new homes. Land is at a premium and much of the vegetation, with the exception of that occurring within the Everglades National Park itself, faces a rather bleak future.

The native forest is composed of large pines and many hardwood trees, a number of which are at the northernmost limit of their distribution, since they represent mainly tropical families more common in the Caribbean and Central America.

These grow over thin soil with a limestone pan just beneath. Most rain falls during spring, summer and autumn with winter being the dry season, with a corresponding drop in humidity. Light reaches the ground easily through the canopy of the pines, which, unlike those grown in dense northern plantations, are more sparsely branched, with open crowns.

Beneath them grows the Saw Palmetto Palm, Serenoa repens, extraordinarily abundant, its heads of leaves everywhere, with horizontal ground-hugging trunks snaking in all directions, many suckering. It was quite difficult to see these as the same plants I have at home as seedlings, which put on so little growth from year to year. In places the silver form could also be found, standing out clearly against the darker green background vegetation. A most beautiful palm, but like its green cousin, so slow growing in cultivation away from its natural home.

My mental picture of the plants' environment was also shattered not at all in swampy ground as I had expected, but in relatively dry, shallow soil, littered with pine needles.

Large areas of this type of habitat are managed by the Fish & Wildlife Service, with regular burnings, usually every five years. This clears the hardwoods, which re-shoot, and helps keep the forest open, allowing in the light. One area had been burnt a couple of years ago. The palms had grown new crowns and the native cycads Zamia pumila, were just beginning to produce cones again for the first time. Some Serenoa were just coming in to bloom.

This management practice has its opponents, however. Burning on such a regular basis is criticised, as it does not allow plants whose reproductive cycle takes longer than five years, to reproduce satisfactorily. Although fire is a natural occurrence in this type of forest, indeed, the pines rely on it to allow their seeds to germinate, left to itself it would happen rather irregularly, thus allowing all species eventually to reach maturity.

A trip to the Everglades National Park notched up a number of exciting new species. It is a vast area of flooded land, the water mostly only a few centimetres deep, and home to profuse growth of aquatic grasses. Spread amongst this are hummocks, areas of ground slightly raised above the surrounding water, where hardwoods can get established, and a layer of humus can begin to build up. These islands are dark and damp inside, very different from the bright open spaces of the glades around them.

Fringing some of these hummocks, feet in the water, grows Acoelorraphe wrightii, the Everglades Palm, a clumping species, with a few tall trunks head and shoulders above the rest. It seemed to be rather uncommon, but most clumps were very large and undoubtedly of great age. Some clumps were huge, with individuals bearing orange fruit, ripening to black. It was especially good to see this palm, so rarely encountered in Europe, and again, so slow growing.

Serenoa could be seen here also, this wetter environment more as I had imagined for this palm. Less common than I had anticipated, was Sabal palmetto, the Palmetto Palm, the state tree, dotted in amongst the grass, as well as in the gloom of the hummocks. Sabal apparently becomes more dominant just north of Miami, and, as old TZC readers will recall, continues much further up into the Eastern States.

But, most exciting of all was probably the Florida Royal Palm, Roystonea elata, rising majestically above the hardwood vegetation, its distinctive silhouette giving a truly tropical look to the horizon. Again, rare in Florida, and perhaps the tallest of the native palms.

* * *

Leaving the Everglades behind us we headed south to the Keys, for a complete change of scenery and of vegetation. The Florida Keys are a chain of islands, running north-south, from the extreme tip of the mainland down into the waters of the Atlantic. These islands are linked by many causeways, and it is possible to drive the whole way down to the southernmost island, Key West.

The climate is warmer than mainland Florida, though even Key West is still not 'tropical' in the geographical sense. However it is certainly free from the occasional extremes of cold, which can strike hard on the mainland with such devastating results.

Soils are poor and here too lie over limestone; here it is much drier, and more typical of the islands that lie across the Caribbean. The change in vegetation is more noticeable with every mile south that you drive down the interconnecting causeways. It could be another country.

Mangroves are probably the first things to take your eye on the way down. That, and Coccothrinax and Thrinax palms which stud the narrow strips of forest lining the road.

The Coccothrinax is C. argentata, the Florida Silver Palm, whose elegant fan leaves sway gently in the ocean breeze, exposing their silvery backs, certainly the most tropical looking palm I had yet seen. I understand from Willie, that temperature is the factor that limits the appearance of wild plants to the Keys, although cultivated specimens are to be seen around Miami, where they grow slowly, taking 40 or 50 years to reach only 8ft in height. However, according to 'The Palms of South Florida' by Stevenson, on Big Pine Key, the only island to have pine forest similar to the mainland, Coccothrinax can reach this height in just five years.

The other palm typical of this area is Thrinax microcarpa, another fan palm, but distinctively darker in colour, some leaves appearing almost orangey brown, the undersides slightly shiny. Specimens of varying heights were to be found, some bearing white fruit, and in places where sufficient space existed for open forest, the two species could be seen growing together. It was quite tricky to walk amongst them, the limestone hard and uneven underfoot, with drainage channels ready to trap the careless visitor. Another hazard is the Poison Wood Tree, a brush with which leaves a nasty rash.

This entire area lies within the hurricane belt, and the thin and flexible trunks of the palms are well adapted to cope with the strong winds; perhaps the silvery foliage offers protection against sun, salt-laden winds, and periods of drought.

Most of the habitats are home to plants that have become specially adapted to survival there. It would be a great shame if the authorities allow over-development in such special places; even a comparatively small intrusion can cause chaos in such a finely tuned environment.

* * *

Many of my preconceived ideas of 'wild' palms, were to be proven wrong in this, my first excursion to see the naturally occurring Florida species. I was mainly surprised by the sites in which they chose to grow, and in the sheer numbers of them, especially Serenoa with which I almost became bored, as one becomes bored with Phoenix in Spain, or Trachycarpus in northern Italy.

All things considered, it was a real eye-opener, adding, as these trips always do, more information to my store of knowledge, resulting more often than not, in a radical re-think about cultivating these same species here in the U.K.

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