Swaying Palms

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They look almost noble, those feathery palm trees taking the worst winds a hurricane can deliver. How do they do it? Naturalist Michael Ellis has the answer.

As we have been viewing videos of the several hurricanes pounding the Caribbean, I suspect you too have been mesmerized by the palm trees standing up to the extreme winds.

Palms are amazing. There are about 2,600 species, most of them in tropical or subtropical regions. Palms have several biological claims to fame. The talipot palm from Sri Lanka has the largest inflorescence that is collection of flowers, of any plant in the world; the stalk can be 33 feet long. The double coconut is the largest and heaviest seed on the planet weighing over 40 pounds. And the African raffia palm has by far the lengthiest leaves, up to 80 feet long.

Here in our state, and the entire Western U.S. for that matter, there is only one native palm. Taxonomists honored our first president by naming it Washingtonia. Palm Springs, 29 Palms and Palm Desert are all named for this California fan palm. They are only found in 158 scattered oases, most of them in California's low Colorado Desert.

So what about those palms in the hurricanes? Well, there are three adaptations that help withstand that fury. They have very extensive roots just on the surface that hold a huge quantity of dirt in the root ball. This acts as a bottom-heavy anchor for the tree. They also have relatively thin trunks with no heavy branches hanging off. So there's not a lot of weight carried in the tree to be blown over. The trunk is extremely flexible and can bend 45 degrees without snapping. Finally, the leaves are concentrated at the top and fold up in heavy winds and act like feathers. They may be blown off but leaves are relatively easy to replace.


Our native palm does not have to cope with hurricane winds and for the most part they are thriving. And in fact may even be expanding their range due to favorable climate change. But one major concern is the red palm weevil, native to South America, which is now killing Canary Island palms in Los Angeles and ours on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. But so far our Washingtonia palms are resistant to this insect.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.