Thrinax morissii

Toby paints for us a 'palm portrait' of a little-known and even less-used palm, Thrinax morrisii. Deserving of much wider attention.
Tobias Spanner, Tizianstrasse 44, 80638 Munich, Germany
Chamaerops No.25 Winter 1996/97

A year or two ago, Martin Gibbons and I were visiting our friend and longtime Palm Society member Gerry McKiness in Florida. After touring the many local nurseries in southern Florida, we wanted to see some palms in native habitat and Gerry suggested a day trip down to the Florida Keys. High on our list of things to see was Pseudophoenix sargentii, the Buccaneer palm, a strange and very slow growing, pinnate palm with waxy leaves and a green-grey, bottle-shaped trunk. Due to illegal poaching, this palm has become nearly extinct in Florida and Gerry thought the best way to get to some he remembered seeing would be by boat. The windy weather however did not permit us to go and it would have been impossible to find Pseudophoenix from the landward side in just one day, so we had to settle for other things.

Setting out from Homestead by car, we soon reached Key Largo, and continued motoring south down the long and narrow peninsular. We were looking for Thrinax radiata, and while we were driving up and down the road Gerry was leaning out of the window saying, 'I know they were here somewhere'. He soon found a spot where they were growing in large numbers in quite dense, low forest and bushland, almost invisible from the road. They were nice but not terribly exciting palms however, and after spending a while there, we continued down south to Big Pine Key, where we turned off onto a small gravel road and soon surrounded by palms.

We saw Serenoa repens, common everywhere in Florida, growing alongside dainty and fragile-looking Coccothrinax argentata arid large. beautiful Thrinax morrisii, the Brittle Thatch or Peaberry Palm. Thrinax morrisii and T. radiata are the only two out of this small Caribbean genus of 7 species native to Florida but both are common elsewhere in the Caribbean. T. morrisii ranges fro western Cuba over the Florida Keys and Bahamas to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Anguilla and Barbuda. It is not known from Hispaniola, but an isolated population grows on Navassa Island west of Haiti. It generally inhabits dry. deciduous woodland or open, coastal regions, usually at low elevations and regularly on limestone soil, dry, open pine woodland near sea level on coral rock in our case in the Florida Keys.

Thrinax morrisii is of medium size and grows slowly to a maximum of about 10m tall with a solitary, slender grey trunk, 5 - 35cm in diameter which is topped by a large, spherical crown consisting of about 20 leaves. In its upper part, just below the crown, the trunk is wrapped in fine, fibrous leafsheaths which are eventually deciduous. The petiole is narrow, 30-90cm long but occasionally much longer, arching to carry quite a large leafblade 55 to 75cm long or more, with 3060 mostly stiff and rather wide segments which are bright green above. A particularly intriguing feature is the underside of the blade which is usually quite strongly silvery-grey-waxy, a characteristic it shares only with the much larger Thrinax excelsa from Jamaica. The individual leafsegments are arranged at various angles to the petiole, giving the blade a twisted appearance and showing off the contrast in colour between its upper and lower sides.

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