Tony King is your guide on a tour of this famous
Tony King, 34 Keats Avenue, Romford, Essex, RM3 7AR, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 2, published online 23-11-2002
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Left: Cuban beauty: Copernica macroglossa.
Right: Thai take-away: Kerriodoxa elegans.
There can t be many gardens in the world where,
outdoors, palms such as Chamaerops & Nannorrhops rub shoulders
with Loidicea (the Double Coconut or 'Coco de Mer'), Licuala, and
Kerriodoxa. Fairchild Tropical Garden is one such.
In the last issue I described some of the native
palms of southern Florida, now I would like to take you on a ramble
through Fairchild, and show you some of the introduced species.
But first, a few words of history...
Planted on 83 acres (34 hectares) in South Miami,
the garden was founded by the wealthy Colonel Robert Montgomery
in 1935 and named after his neighbour, the great plant collector
Dr David Fairchild. It was the latter's expeditions in search of
palms that quickly ensured that the garden boasted one of the largest
and most varied plant collections in the world. This is still true
to this day.
Now, where shall we start? With a warning perhaps
that since palms are planted throughout the garden you must be prepared
for quite a walk if you want to see the full range. However, many
are grouped together in areas where microclimates have been created
to suit their precise requirements. So, on with your stout walking
shoes, and we'll be off.
Here, just inside the entrance, is the first such
area. It's sunny and open with a distinctly 'dry' feel. Not surprisingly,
most of the palms in this area come from regions where drought is
a regular occurrence. Especially well represented are the many fan
palms of the Caribbean. The most unusual and eye-catching is a Cuban
native, which revels in the name of Coccothrinax crinita. It most
resembles a living haystack, topped by a crown of fan-shaped leaves,
and makes our more familiar Trachycarpus seem almost bald by comparison!
Cuba seems to have a number of spectacular palms,
and one that rivals even the 'shaggy dog' described above is the
Cuban Petticoat Palm, Copernicia macroglossa. Perhaps the most attractive
of all palms, it has a mass of closely packed, circular leaves which
are not shed, but are retained right down to the base of the trunk,
giving the appearance of a drum or a complete crinoline, rather
like those elaborate dresses worn by the European ladies of fashion
in years gone by. A relative of this species is of commercial importance
as a source of a valuable wax, and is much planted for this purpose
Contrasting with the fans is a 3m feather palm with
a fat, black trunk covered with stout spines. This is the Cuban
Belly Palm (Gastrococos crispa to the botanist), aptly named, as
the trunk, with such a huge girth in the middle, tapers down to
the base, making the pa lm look quite lop heavy.
The Cuban plants do not hold a monopoly in the this
part of the garden however, and sharing it we can see palms from
the other side of the globe, from the Mascarene Islands in fact,
in the Indian Ocean. Often dry and windswept, they are home to the
three species of Latania, and all are represented here. Curiously,
each species has its own distinctive leaf colour, and this provides
the common names of Red, Yellow and Blue Latan Palms, any of which
would make a unique, attractive and contrasting addition to any
A short hop takes us to the fringes of this arid
area, and to a more familiar plant, our very own European Fan Palm,
Chamaerops humilis, in the form of a multi-trunked specimen. Its
bedfellow is none other than Nannorrhops ritchiana, the Mazari Palm
of Afghanistan and Pakistan, though a smaller, and less densely
leaved plant than the fine specimen at the Villa Thuret in the south
Following the winding path we head for a different
habitat altogether - the Rain Forest, pausing on the way to admire
the popular Triangle Palm, Neodypsis decaryi. These are mature trees,
with the wonderful triangular crowns from which they get their common
name, supported by more conventional round trunks. Hopefully, seeds
from cultivated trees such as these will take the pressure off the
wild stands in their native Madagascar.
Piercing the canopy, a huge Fish Tail Palm, Caryota,
is beginning to bloom, the clusters of flowers emerging from the
highest leaf bases. Successive flower clusters will appear lower
and lower down the trunk, and when the last one has opened and set
seed, the tree will die. 'Monocarpic' is the term used to describe
this phenomenon. A real rarity, not often illustrated, is the breathtaking
fan palm from Thailand, Kerriodoxa elegans. One of the few native
stands of this recently described palm is just behind a popular
tourist spot on Phuket Island, southern Thailand, called the Waterfall
Gardens. Thousands of tourists go there every year, and leave without
realizing that one of nature's masterpieces was just around the
corner. Perhaps it's just as well.
In this area too, grows another monocarpic palm,
whose scale is really difficult to take in and whose sheer size
precludes its appearance in the glasshouses of Europe. It is the
Talipot Palm from India, Corypha umbraculifera. Its fan leaves are
immense. They can reach 5m across and are carried on stalks up to
4m long. One leaf would cover the floor of an average sitting room,
and, with its stalk, is certainly bigger than the side of a London
double-decker bus! The trees grow for some 30 to 80 years, reaching
up to 25 metres tall before producing the largest inflorescence
in the world containing millions of flowers. In time, fruits containing
seeds not much smaller than golf balls rain down in their thousands,
and when the last one has fallen, the tree dies from sheer exhaustion!
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view,
the trees at Fairchild are but youngsters.
Leaving the shade of the rainforest, we now step
out into the sunshine and head for the path that encircles a large
lake, the centrepiece of the garden. Keeping a careful lookout for
snoozing alligators, we can admire reflections of many palms in
the lake's mirror-like surface. If we are keeping one eye open for
the 'gators then with the other we must watch out for falling fruit,
as we are nearing another huge and economically important palm,
the Palmyra Palm, again of India. Its Latin name is Borassus flabellifer,
and its large and heavy fruits, almost the size of a coconut, are
being shed. The thought of being caught by a falling palm nut kept
this palm nut from making too close an inspection!
Welcome shade along this lakeside walk is provided
by avenues of Royal Palms, Roystoneas, so popular in the tropics
for this kind of planting because of the regular and even growth
of their massive, almost white, marble column-like trunks. And here
are some other interesting trunks, on Bottle Palms, Hyophorbe, whose
unique appearance, truly bottle-like, always provokes comment from
Next, as we head back to our starting place, a spectacular
sight is presented to us: a silver torch, created by 5 or 6 trees
of the Madagascan Bismarckia nobilis. Large, shiny, silver fans
rustle in the breeze, supported by dark, thick trunks. Some of these
palms are bearing fruit, black and hard and the size of walnuts.
Sadly, the fact that it grows a deep taproot makes pot cultivation
of this palm difficult.
Onward now through groves of fruiting coconuts,
we arrive at plants labelled 'Jubaea', but to me they bear little
resemblance to the magnificent Chilean Wine Palm so familiar from
visits to the French Riviera. Perhaps it's just too warm here for
it, and it s good to know that we can at least grow some palms better
As we get nearer to our starting point, the unusual
form of an African Hyphaene Palm catches our eye. One of the few
palms to naturally form a branching trunk; they carry strongly costapalmate
leaves, that is, with the leaf stalk extending well into the fan
shaped leaf. A sort of half way stage between fan- and feather shaped
leaves. The common name 'Gingerbread Palm' comes from the smell
of the woody fruits, as they wait to be distributed by passing elephants!
Altogether a most distinctive palm, especially when viewed in silhouette.
As we arrive at the exit, hopefully not suffering
from heat exhaustion, we can reflect on all we have seen. Palms
too numerous to mention, assembled from all over the world. With
new species being added constantly, tested against a climate that
can be very cold at times during the winter, a world class collection
of palms, cycads, and other tropical plants, let us hope that the
time to take another stroll around this, Florida's other magic kingdom,
will not be too far away.
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26-01-21 - 11:59GMT
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