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What is a Palm?

What is a Palm? | Copyright GreenPlantSwap Ltd

Palms are a large and diverse family, with over 200 genera, and well over a thousand species, most of which are what you and I think of as Palm trees: a single, tall, stem, with a tuft of foliage at the top, bearing coconuts, and associated with tropical beaches. Oh, those Bounty adverts have a lot to answer for!

However, not all Palm trees are actually trees – some of them are shrubby, some are even vine-like climbers – and of course not everything that is called a Palm is actually a Palm: many non-related plants are known as “Palms” simply because they “look” like Palms.

The botanical name for the true palm family is Arecaceae, but they are sometimes referred to as Palmae, from the Latin “palma”, meaning palm of the hand, which also answers the following question:

Why are they called Palms?
The obvious answer is that many of them have leaves that are “palmate” which means that the individual leaflets spring from a central point, like fingers that fan out from the palm of your hand.

What are Palms used for?
Palm trees have a history with humans that goes back to our very earliest societies - archaeological finds indicate that the Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) was commonly used way back in Mesopotamian times, i.e. 5000 BC, for food and other purposes: indeed, in tropical and sub-tropical countries, Palms have long been a vital part of the economy, as they provide food, medicine, tools, equipment, and building materials – and even wine!

The familiar Coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) supplies both coconut and coconut milk; the Date palm supplies dates, as you would expect; and the sap of the various Sugar palms (a name which covers several genera including Arenga, Borassus, Caryota and Cocos, the Coconut palm again) was dried, beaten and ground to produce fine sugar. Its leaves could also be boiled and used as a vegetable.

Do you remember sago pudding, from the days of school dinners? Sago is extracted from the Sago palm (Metroxylon sagu), which is not a Palm at all; neither is another Sago palm (Cycas revoluta), extracts of which used to be ground into flour and made into unleavened bread, but the food preparation required great care, as most parts of this Cycad – as we said, it's not really a Palm at all – are poisonous. So if you see something that looks rather like a fern squatting on the ground, with a very short trunk, make sure that your children and pets don't try to chew it. Mind you, if you tell them that it is where Sago comes from, they will probably run away from it!

The genus Elaeis contains just two species, both known as Oil palm, which are both grown commercially to produce high-quality oil for cooking and also for biofuel, for butter and for soap; you would not want to get those products confused, otherwise your chips would taste very strange.

Quite apart from the food, there is no part of the various Palm plants that has not at some time been used: the leaflets, central ribs, and leaf sheaths all produced various fibres which were used to make brooms, baskets and mats; the finest fibre was used as thread for sewing, and the heaviest fibres were even used for making strong ropes. And, as any would-be Robinson Crusoe knows, the large leaves are perfect for making short-term roofing.

Coconut shells have an obvious use, for carrying water: but you might not know that they can also be carved into fine bowls, cooking utensils, even tools. Some Palm “wood” does not easily rot and was used for making boats in areas where tropical storms would destroy hardwood trees, which are more traditionally associated with boat-building materials.

Most Palms have insignificant flowers, but the seeds of some can, if allowed to dry for a long period, became hard and transparent, and were made into durable beads and trinkets.

The Palm in popular culture
Palms are frequently used to promote the idea of a tropical paradise with hot sun and golden beaches: which is odd, because Palms are not restricted to the tropics, just to climates where they will rarely encounter frost.

Palms have been a popular religious symbol for a couple of centuries, and usually represent peace and plenty: in ancient Egyptian temples, the pillars often represent Palm trunks without the fronds. As they were one of the few plants which could grow to a significant size in arid lands, they were seen as being somehow linked to the Sun (which was, of course, worshipped as a god) and were therefore often featured in sacred buildings.

The leaves are often seen in films, being used for fanning cool air on to a Glorious Leader (be that King, Queen, Emperor, God or Alien invader), particularly the larger palmate-leaved varieties, which lend themselves to double duty as a sunshade, and as a fan. In point of fact, actual Egyptian sunshades and fans were usually made of feathers, although Palm fibres would be used in the construction. But it is an enduring image...

How do you know it's a Palm?
The classic Palm is a tree-sized, single-stemmed plant, with a tuft of leaves right at the very top. These leaves are usually large, compound, and evergreen. They can be either palmate (with long thin leaflets radiating from a central point) or pinnate – with long thin leaflets arranged like feathers, or the oars in a slave galley, along a central rachis or spine.

Most Palms might look like trees, but that central stem is not a woody construction, with annual growth rings: instead it is a pith-filled, fibrous sheath. In structure they are much closer to grasses than trees, and they manage to obtain their height because, as the Palm grows, the originally soft cells of the trunk become hardened, supporting the structure and allowing the plant to grow as tall as many trees.

Can I grow Palms in the UK?
Of course you can! But can you grow them outside, like a normal garden plant? Not necessarily... many of them will require protection from frost, which means either having to grow them in pots and bring them inside in the winter, or to take great care to wrap them up every year, which means having to look at an unlovely bulky, hessian-wrapped thing for half the year.

However, this has not stopped Torquay and Torbay making the Palm tree part of their iconic image for The English Riviera. And, to be fair, many more Palm trees fare well in the gentler climate of the South West of England than other parts of the UK.

There are a few genera that can tolerate a reasonable level of frost, particularly if you have a sheltered micro-climate within your garden. They include several of the True Date Palm Trees (Phoenix), Texas Sabal Palm Trees (Sabal), some of the Fan Palms (Chamaerops), the poisonous Sago Palm (Cycas), Washingtonia, another Fan Palm, and finally the Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus) which is possibly the hardiest, and whose hairy trunk and large, rather sharp-edged palmate leaves are often found in UK gardens.

Do Palms need special pruning?
Palms are one of lowest maintenance garden plants – if you don't count having to wrap and unwrap them every year! - and all you have to do is to remove any obviously dead leaves.

Interestingly, they have a rather strange growth habit: they only grow a certain, fixed, number of leaves. Once the plant reaches maturity, a new leaf growing is immediately followed by an old leaf dying, so the number of leaves remains constant. The actual number varies from species to species, it can be as few as half a dozen, or as many as a hundred or more: but the number will remain the same, no matter how old the plant gets.

So all we have to do is remove any dead leaves. How do we know which ones are dead? They are the ones that are yellow, or brown. It can sometimes be necessary to remove damaged or broken leaves, but care should be taken not to remove too many at once, as the plant only grows enough leaves to support itself; and if you remove too many at one time, the plant will be left with insufficient photosynthesising material.

This means that although it can sometimes be tempting to “tidy up” a youngish Palm by clipping off the lower leaves, especially if it overhangs a path, you should resist the urge, as it can have a bad effect on the vigour of the plant. Unlike most of our familiar garden plants, pruning will not stimulate a Palm, it will instead suffer from being deprived of a portion of its greenery.

When is a Palm not a Palm?
In addition to those already mentioned, there are many more not-quite-proper Palms which have the classic single stem with tuft on top: these include Jubaea, Rhopalostylis, and Cohune; and some Palms are considered to be quite royal – as well as Roystonea or Royal palm we have Arecastrum, the Queen palm, and Archontophoenix, the King Palm.

Then we have Veitchia (the Christmas palm), Aiphanes (Ruffle palm), Attalea, and Brahea, Coccothrinax, which sounds like a nasty disease but is better known as Thatch palm, and of course the familiar Cordyline or Cabbage palm.

Hyophorbe is rightly called the Bottle palm, as it has the fattest stem you have ever seen!

And Caryota, the Fish-tail palm, which looks more like a small tree, with rather Ash-like pinnate leaves, is the only Palm with bi-pinnate leaves, which means that they are divided into leaflets, then each leaflet is divided again.

Possibly the prettiest is Cyrtostachys. The cultivar Cyrtostachys renda is known as lipstick palm with its bright red stem. Unfortunately it is not the least bit hardy, and would not survive outdoors in the UK, even in a very sheltered corner.

Generally, Palms are determinedly single-stemmed, and most of them will only show any sort of branching as a result of damage to the original stem. The exception to this is the rather tree-like Hyphaene or Doum palm, which is a forked and multi-stemmed monster, carrying tufts of foliage high up above the African plains.

At the other end of the scale, some Palms have very short stems, so the leaves appear to be growing directly from the ground, rather like a fern. These are called acaulescent, and include several familiar UK indoor plants such as Chamaedorea, Chrysalidocarpus (the Butterfly palm) Howea, Rhapis (Lady palm) and Butia which for some reason is known as Jelly palm.

A formidable plant is Bactris, aptly known as Spiny club palm, which forms dense thickets of leggy, spined fronds.

Finally, the unpronounceable Johannesteijsmannia or Joey palm whose massive, neatly pleated but solid leaves would be more likely to knock someone unconscious than to waft soft breezes over them.

Talking of wafting soft breezes, there are many, many Palms with long-stalked palmate leaves which are ideal for this purpose, prime amongst which is Livistona (rightly known as Fan palm) which very nearly belongs in the first group as it has a tall single trunk, but the leaves are eminently suitable for king-worshipping.

As, indeed are Copernicia, Serenoa, Palmetto and Rhapidophyllum, not to forget the rather large-scale Bismarkia.

Then we have the oddments, such as Amorphophallus or Snake palm which, as the botanic name might suggest, is a rather rude-looking exotic, whose flowers – which look rather like our own common Cuckoo Pint or Arum – can be as tall as a man. Luckily they only grow in hothouses, so you are not likely to give yourself a fright as you stroll through the garden!

Nothing like a Palm is the Cladanthus, or Palm Springs daisy: similarly non-Palm-like is Ricinus, known as Palma Christi or Castor Oil Plant, which is only a palm in the sense that palma Christi means Hand (or palm) of God. The purple-leaved cultivar, with bright red fluffy-looking flowers, is a popular municipal planting, despite the erroneous but constantly-repeated urban myth that it is extremely poisonous.

Lastly we have Ravenala which is known as Strelitzia palm, or Traveller's palm. This has to have one of the oddest natural growth patterns, as each thick fleshy leaf is held sideways on to the next, with a flap of foliage at the top, making it look like a Spanish fan - the sort you can fold up or snap open. Even stranger is when they grow on trunks! This is definitely the one whose single leaf would be used to languidly fan yourself in Hollywood movies.

So, in answer to the question, What type of tree fits into your hand? You now know that it is a trick question - a Palm tree is not actually a tree at all!

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