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