The Freeze: Palms of Central Florida

We tend to think of Florida as a tropical holiday destination, hut they, too, have their ups and downs.
Mike Horwitz, Reedham, Norwich, UK.
Chamaerops No.32 Autumn 1998

In the pink: Livistona chinensis (Chinese fan palm), happy survivor of the freeze.

Will it freeze or not is never a question in Europe, we know it will. In the tropics it is certainly not a question, they know it will not. However, in Central Florida it was a big question for most palm growers as there had not been a serious freeze since 1989. So now coconut palms along with many other non-hardy palms have been growing where they should not. The question is how long they will last and/or should more be planted.

On my last trip to Florida in February 1998 "The Freeze" was an important topic of conversation. I try to make a trip to Florida once a year to visit family and friends and to escape the prevailing gloom of the East Anglian winter. As a misplaced Floridian living in the UK for many years, I thought I would take the opportunity of this past trip to write this article to describe a few places that may be of interest to the palm enthusiast living in Europe. As I know so many of you are visiting Disney World and surrounding attractions, I hope to be able to give you good reason to leave the attractions of Orlando behind for part of your holiday. Which I strongly suggest you do especially now that there are so many more species to see, which may or may not be there after the next serious freeze.

To make it easier for the palm enthusiast to tempt his/her family away from Disney World, I will suggest a few place of interest to the whole family, which you can combine with your palm expeditions.

The Treasure Coast - Fort Pierce & Vero Beach...

The Ft. Pierce/Vero Beach area is called the Treasure Coast because of the Spanish Treasure fleet, which was sunk in the area by a hurricane in 1715. I will he covering this area in some detail as my parents live here and visiting them is the main purpose for my trips. Consequently, I have a convenient base for visiting places of interest to the palm enthusiast and family.

I will start the tour of the area in Vero Beach at McKee Botanical Garden. McKee Botanical Garden was established in 1932, an 80acre live oak hammock. The gardens were a major Florida attraction up to the mid 1970's when they bad to shut down due to competition from, you guessed it, Disney World. The property was then sold to land developers, but thanks to a successful fund raising campaign the Indian River Land Trust managed to purchase 18 acres in 1995.
At present, the gardens are undergoing restoration work by volunteers. The plans are for a reopening this year. In the mean time McKee Garden is open for guided walking tours 9:30 Saturday mornings. It was one of these tours my wife and I attended. The tour gathers outside the main gate in an area dominated by Bunyan Trees and Royal Palms (Roystonea elata), both trees which do not appreciate the freezing conditions that can sometimes bit this area. You can clearly see in the Bunyan tree where it froze back to in "The Freeze" and how the new wood has grown back. There is a standing trunk of a Royal that did not survive a freeze and has now become a home for woodpeckers.

Inside the garden the palm that dominates is the Chinese Fan (Livistona chinensis) and because of the high over bead canopy of vegetation these palms have developed unusually long petioles reaching for the light. Two of the palms, Arenga pinnata and Phoenix reclinata, have been awarded State champion status, meaning that they are the single largest species in Florida. Other palms of note are Sabal domingensis, Sabal causiarum, Acoelorraphe wrightii and Acrocomia aculeata The entire garden contains a large selection of native and exotic plants, several of which are included in Florida's endangered list. The Live Oaks are also very special, one specimen of which is estimated to be 400500 years old.

We continue this tour by heading south on US Highway I to Fort Pierce for 14 miles and stopping at the Fort Pierce City Marina where amongst other palms you will see a row of approximately 40 Majesty palms (Ravenea rivularis) on the road curb on the lagoon front. This is an unusual site in Florida and when you view them closely you will understand why. They simply do not look good. Perhaps it is the salt air, lack of water or nutrients. In front of the Marina you will see a grouping of approximately 10 Royal palms (Roystonea elata) which were newly transplanted (props still in place) to this site this year. I would estimate that these Royals were 25ft tall. It is quite incredible to see the size of the palms that they transplant in Florida.

Back in the car and continue south on US1 to the south side of Fort Pierce until you reach Heathcote Botanical Gardens. Heathcote Botanical Gardens started life as a nursery, the owners of which planted many trees around the 3 1/2-acre site. It was the Japanese Gardens which sparked the interest in the local people to raise the funds to purchase the site when it was threatened by development.
Of particular interest to the palm and cycad enthusiast is Heathcote's Palm Walk. There you will find 27 genera, 50 species of palms, and 7 genera, 17 species of cycads. The palms that I found of special interest were Arenga engleri, Wodyetia bifurcata, Chamaedorea species, and Livistona decipiens I bad always been impressed by their Bismarckia nobilis with 4 - 5ft fronds, at least that was until I saw the ones that Mike Dabme is growing (more on that later). Those that appreciate cycads should be impressed; those that caught my eye were Zamia pumila, Dioon meiji, and Zamia furfuracea.

At this stage of the tour, I would suggest a break from palms, because if your children are anything like mine they would have had enough by now (dad not another palm!). Head for the Southern bridge/ causeway to the beach and stop at the St. Lucie County Historical Museum. This is a small, very well laid out museum and I can honestly say my boys really enjoyed it (so did I). It contains exhibits relating to the Spanish Treasure Fleet (mentioned earlier), the Seminole Indian Wars and bow the early pioneers and Indians lived and prospered in the area.

From here, you can continue on to the beach for a swim and/or I would recommend a visit to my parents (Jules & Betty). Up until retirement they owned and operated a garden centre in the area. My father, a member of the IPS, is responsible for giving me an interest in palms. As you would expect, they have a large collection (over 200 species at last count), most in pots as they spend a lot of their time selling at the various palm 1 sales throughout the Southern part of the State. Amongst their collection are the eleven native palms of Florida (Acoelorraphe wrightii, Coccothrinax argentata, Pseudophoenix sargentii, Rhapidophyllum hystrix, Roystonea elata, Sabal etonia, S. minor, S. palmetto, Serenoa repens, Thrinax morrisii, T. radiata). The one that interests me the most is the Serenoa repens, extremely common in Florida. From here you have a two hour drive back if you are living in the Orlando area and what a pity if you are, because there is no beach for many a mile and the beaches are still the finest attraction Florida has to offer.

The Central Florida Palm and Cycad Society Members Gardens & Florida Institute of Technology...

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the gardens of several members of the Central Florida Palm and Cycad Society. The first was the home of Ed Carlson - Vero Beach. I came to know Ed through my father as Ed used to buy plants from him when he was still in business. Ed's garden is without a doubt one of the most organized and best maintained that you could find anywhere. Ed gave me a listing of his collection of palms and cycads. It totals 182 species of palms and 76 species of cycads, most of which are in the ground and mature. This garden certainly has been thriving since "The Freeze" as one can plainly see by the four species of Cocos nucifera, which are thriving, and in fruit when I visited. Ed does not seem to worry about when the next freeze will come. He accepts that his plants may or may not survive depending upon the weather conditions. His pride and joy are the two Pseudophoenix sargentii planted either side of the front entrance of his home and they are impressive. I am willing to bet that these two palms get all the protection possible when the next freeze comes. It was all so impressive that it is difficult to pick out a few that are of particular interest, however the size of his old man palm was impressive as I find it so difficult to even get one to survive myself. I liked the Bottle Palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis), I hope that mine develops that distinctive shape someday. Not to forget the cycads, I took particular interest in the Cycas media.

After we finished at Ed's he drove us to Mike Dahme - Grant. A more contrasting garden you could not expect to see. Where Ed's garden it laid out as a botanical park, Mike's it in a natural state; a tropical jungle would possibly be a good description. His home you cannot tee from the road at it is screened by the thick vegetation. In amongst the palms and other vegetation are large ponds which were dug for their fill, the effect of these water features to the overall landscape it surreal. The jungle effect it further enhanced with hit exotic bird collection making their exotic noises in the background.If you take part in the IPS list, you will know Mike as the distributor of palm seeds for the CFPS; I for one have many of these seeds germinating/ growing at home. I have no idea how many species of palms Mike has, but I do know he has zero cycads, be does not like cycads. One genera that he is specializing in is Borassus, both the African and Asian forms (B aethiopum and B flabellifer respectfully). As I mentioned above I have never before seen Bismarckia nobilis like the ones Mike has, particularly interesting was seeing the two forms (green and silver) side by side to see the contrast. Mike is one of the most knowledgeable people I have yet to meet on the subject of palms. There is no way a novice like myself could comprehend or remember all be bad to say, good reason for visits in the future.

Both men are very interesting to talk with (many subjects, not just palms) and take considerable pride in what they are doing. I am sure if you were in the area and contacted them, they would gladly show you around their gardens.
Last of all, we visited the Botanical Gardens of the Florida Institute of Technology. Getting back to the theme of escaping Disney World, this is an excellent opportunity as it is only a 1.5hr drive from Orlando and open to the public. To entertain the children there are several beaches near by to choose from and/or a visit to JFK Space Center.

Back to the gardens, they were originally planted by Dr. Jerry Keuper who was President of the Institute from 1958 to 1986. The trail that runs through the garden is named after no other then Dent Smith. Mike guided me through the garden which included: Copernicia alba, Arenga caudata, a branched Hyphaene crinita, a Washingtonia filifera with quite large cracks running along the trunk, a Coccothrinax crinita (old man palm) of at least 15ft in height (and I thought Ed's was large), Syagrus coronata a Majesty Palm in excellent shape as it has its feet on the edge of a creek and a couple of seed producing Elaeis which survived "The Freeze". The gardens at the Florida Institute of Technology are very special, one of the highlights of my trip.

Busch Gardens - Tampa ...

I am not one for amusement parks. However, I was impressed with Busch Gardens. Busch Gardens is not another Disney World, hut as the name implies it is a garden. A garden with extraordinary landscaping including 21 species of palms (our count) and while I can't say there was anything out of the ordinary for Florida, what is impressive is the excellent condition the plants were in, along with the rest of the landscaping, a credit to Bush Gardens gardening staff. This area of Florida is USDA Zone 9 so it is a good opportunity to view palms and landscaping that would suit outdoors in Zone 9 Europe. However, he aware they also had Coconut Palms growing outside, which would not normally survive in Tampa. They must have grown up since "The Freeze".

A large part of the garden tends towards an North African theme, Phoenix dactylifera dominate and they are outstanding. I understand that date palms do not produce fruit in Florida, as it is too humid. Syagrus romanzoffiana are not one of my favourite palms as the Queen palm is overused in Florida, but here they were so well kept, green and lush, that I bad to appreciate the palm which I grew up knowing as the Cocos plumosa. Chamaedoreas were everywhere. This is one genera of palm which I am interested in as they grow so well in my home in England, but not this well. There is a large grouping of C. metallica tucked away in a corner that is worth locating. For me this was the first time I took notice of C. cataractarum In the protected enclosure where the Komodo Dragons are kept are non-hardy palms, including species of Licuala (Note: The palms are not labelled, recommend a copy of our Editors book be brought along.)

For those of you who are not familiar with the Busch name, they are the brewers of Budweiser beer among other brands. Included in the admission price is the hospitality house where you can try their full range of beers. Whilst they may not compare to European beers, they are drinkable, which is more then you will get from Mickey Mouse.

The End...

This concludes my last visit to Florida. I hope that this article has accomplished its purpose, to entice palm enthusiast with young families away from Disney World, if only for short trips to view the palms and other attractions of Central Florida. Those without young families probably need no excuse. Please note the above is only a sampling of the locations where palms of particular interest can be found in Central Florida.

Those interested in additional information on any of the gardens or attractions are welcome to contact me at tel: +44 (0)1493 700057; e-mail: No questions on Disney World please!


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