December 12, 2009 | Ellen Hertzman, Former Manager of Volunteer Experience

Bismarckia

Why is it that all week I’ve been having visions of palm trees on a tropical island, swaying in a warm breeze? Could it have anything to do with the single-digit temperatures we’ve had lately? We have the next best thing to our own island paradise in the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory—open for thawing out from 9:00-5:00, seven days a week!

Palm trees are everywhere inside our tropical bubble. The palm family encompasses more than 2500 species, each of which grows on a single stem and puts out new growth from the top, often shedding old leaves in a spiral pattern down the trunk. Unlike other types of trees, if the top of a palm is cut off, it will not continue to grow, and will not send out branches. Many palms have aerial roots, which emerge from the base of the stem or higher, and make their way downwards to burrow into the soil.

• View a Few: Palms not to miss include Chambeyronia macrocarpa (Red Feather Palm), a slow grower that sends up new leaves that are a warm red color, slowly fading to green. Bismarckia nobilis (see above) is indeed a noble tree, and a big one, with large blue-green fans of leaves. See it at the west end of the building. The Teddy Bear Palm (Hydriastele pinangoides; former name Gronophyllum pinangoides) is a favorite due to the fuzzy texture of the shafts of the fronds. Be sure to give it a pat as you walk by.

Stilt Palm Spines and Roots

• Hands Off: While you’re palm hunting, check out these scary ones. Verschaffeltia splendida (Stilt Palm) sports really serious looking spines along the stem, and sits up on stilt-like roots. And Zombia antillarum (Zombie Palm), a native of the Antilles, features a woven pattern of equally prickly spines, rumored to be used in voodoo ceremonies.

Areca Fruit

• Cool Fruit: Many palms produce fruit, some edible, and some just interesting. Take a look at Areca vestiaria, whose bright red and yellow berries explode out from the stem at about eye level. Hyophorbe lagenicaulis, aka Bottle Palm, has a swollen trunk and, again, flowers that pop out of a shaft on the stem. Right now you can see all stages of this inflorescence: shafts beginning to grow, shafts ready to pop, new flowers, and flowers turning to berries. Finally, track down the Wodyetia bifurcata (Foxtail Palm), which was named for the aboriginal Australian who brought this tree to scientists’ attention. The tree produces bright red fruit that looks a little like a red lemon. See the fruit littered on the ground around the tree.

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