Sunday, March 16, 2008

Apple #304: Palm Trees

While I was in Florida, watching the palm trees pass by while my friends kindly drove me hither and yon, it occurred to me to wonder what palm trees were doing in Florida. Not having grown up there, the cliché picture I have in my mind of palm trees is a few of them standing around in the middle of a desert.

Two palms in the Sahara.
(You may purchase a print of this photo for $200 from

So how did palm trees wind up in Florida, which is obviously a non-desert environment?

One of my friends suggested that most of the palm trees we were passing are not actually native to Florida. However, I just found a very helpful page about plants native to Florida, and several varieties of palm trees are on that list. (By the way, Jarred, the page also gives tips about how to choose which native species to plant.)

Okay, if palm trees are native to Florida, then obviously I either don't understand Florida's climate, or I don't understand palm trees.

  • South Florida's climate is classified as hot-humid. Not desert.

(Diagram from the DOE, sourced from Commercial Building Products)

  • In fact, Florida is one of the wettest states in the U.S. It gets at least 50 inches of rain each year.
  • 70% of the rain Florida gets in a year falls from May through November. The rest of the year can be quite dry, and can even experience droughts for long periods of time. But still, this ain't no desert.

That's roughly how I would have described Florida's climate. So clearly I must be misunderstanding palm trees.
  • While palm trees can be found in the desert, they're always growing around oases. In that photo above of palm trees in the Sahara, the reason they're standing around in that particular location is because there's water there. I say to myself: duh.
  • The reason palm trees hang out in oases is because they love water. Besides growing around pools of water in the middle of the desert, they like coastal, humid, or otherwise wet regions. And that is Florida.
  • In fact, if you do a quick search for images of palm trees, the majority of them are standing near the shore of an ocean, not in the middle of a desert. Sure, they might be hanging out on desert islands, but those islands are surrounded by water.

    (Poster available for £3.99 from

I say to myself again: duh.

Now for some facts about palm trees that maybe you didn't already know:
  • Palm trees as a family (Arecaceae) are incredibly diverse, with somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 different species. (The number is indefinite because taxonomists disagree about how to classify lots of them).
  • Most species of palm trees grow in the tropics and subtropics. More than 2/3 of palm species grow in rain forests.
  • Though most of palm trees like moist and tropical environments, it's possible to find palm trees in all sorts of climates around the world.
      • One especially hardy palm, the Trachycarpus, is native to the Himalayan mountains and gets covered with snow in the winter.

The Trachycarpus fortunei, a.k.a. Hardy Windmill Palm, doing just fine in Seattle even though it is covered with snow.
(Photo from Pacific Northwest Gardens)

Snow-covered palm trees in Machindschauri, Georgia, Russia.
(Photo by Rapho)

      • The Ravenea musicalis, which grows in Madagascar, is a water palm -- the only one. It grows in the water of flowing streams.
  • While most palm trees have a single, woody trunk with leaves concentrated near the crown, there are some species that have a different morphology (shape).
      • The Potato Chip palm has a trunk, but it's more like a stem, and it doesn't generally get any thicker than the diameter of a pencil. The tree itself generally doesn't grow any taller than one foot.

The Potato Chip palm, which stays very small even when mature, is native to Guatemala and Mexico. It can also grow in California, Hawaii, and Florida.
(Photo from the Virtual Palm Encyclopedia)

      • Some other palm trees grow by climbing, and still others send down suckers which bury themselves into the ground and form additional trunks.
  • Palm tree leaves can be extremely large. In fact, world record holder for the largest leaf was measured at 25 meters long. It came from the Nigerian or king palm.

Emu is put in beer bottles, but it's actually palm wine.
(Photo from the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi, Nigeria)

  • Speaking of things you can make from palm trees, here are just a few more things you can use palm trees for:
      • palm oil
      • palm wine and beer
      • paper pulp
      • wax
      • soap
      • candy
      • palm hearts (they taste like artichoke hearts)
      • fruit, nuts, dates, kernels, coconuts, etc.
      • animal feed
      • building materials
      • furniture
      • nets & ropes
      • clothing, hats, fans, jewelry, etc.
      • shady places for people to rest
So, palm trees are extraordinarily useful, hardy, and pleasant for all kinds of reasons. If you want to grow palm trees in your yard or even in your house, go to your nearest nursery and ask someone to help you pick out a variety that's going to be happy in your environment.

Soldiers resting under the palm trees in Iraq, near a town called Karmah.
(Photo from Michael J. Totten's foreign correspondence blog)

University of South Florida, Florida Climate Data and Native Trees for South Florida
Miami University of Ohio, Earth Expeditions, Dragonfly project, palm trees
Palm & Cycad Societies of Florida, Virtual Palm Encyclopedia, Introduction
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Tropical Palms, Introduction, Current palm products
Aluka digital library about Africa, Palmae
David Chandler, The Many Types of Palm Trees


  1. Paul Chase (Kinsgton, Ontario)1/04/2012 7:59 PM

    There are many palms on the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Places like Victoria, BC have palm trees while Kingston, Ontario gets the NY State ice storms. 1998 is a perfect example of the Great Lakes' punishing winters. Vancouver is so beautiful in contrast to Toronto's dismal, palm-less landscape. It freezes to minus 30C is Kingston, Ontario while they have palm trees up in Nanaimo, BC. I used to live in the blizzard Maritimes. The west is best and the east is a beast.

  2. Vancouver is the "Miami Beach" of Canada, just as Miami Beach is the "Miami Beach" of the continental USA. And Las Cruces is the "Miami Beach" of New Mexico, with South Padre Island being the "Miami Beach" of Texas. Each state or country has their own "Miami Beach" - meaning the locale with the mildest winter climate (or largest city within that mildest winter climate).

    Trivia: Which state has the most number of native palm trees: California, Hawaii, Arizona, or Texas?


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