Greenery is soothing to our eyes and mind because that’s where we belong irrespective of our ambitions and statuses in man made world. Certain forms of greenery certainly take up more space in our heart than others, perhaps because they resemble what we constantly try to achieve– heights. Palms they are!
Palms are among the most interesting and important as well as the most beautiful, of all the members of the Plant kingdom. From the economic point of view, there are very important species in the palm family, such as Coconut, Date palm, Palmyra, Betel nut, Cane, Oil palm, Sago palm and the other palms which are cultivated for the production of oils, fibers, and edible and other products. Besides, Palms have great ornamental value as they are the most preferred garden plants in the hot regions. Palms are prominent in the plant world for their grace and grandeur, and so, they are regarded as the princess of the plant kingdom.
Palms are woody flowering plants widespread in the Tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world. They are perennial monocotyledons belonging to the Arecaceae (Palmae) family, which comprises of about 185 genera and 2500 species.
Distribution and habitat:
Palms are found mostly throughout tropical and subtropical of the world, though a few species grow over temperate northern regions. Palms inhabit a variety of ecosystems – they can be found in rain forests, grasslands, deserts, mangrove swamps, and high mountain thickets up to the altitudes of 2400 meters. They also grow in poorly drained areas or brackish estuaries and lagoons (E.g. Nypa fruticans) or areas subject to alternate flooding and drying (E.g. Carnauba wax palm, Copernicia prunifera). The regions richest in Palm species are Tropical America (mainly Amazonia, and East Indies) and eastern tropics of Indo-Malaysia; the poorest are Africa and continental Asia. Europe hosts two species only, viz. Phoenix theophrasti, (endemic to Crete) and Chamaerops humilis (of the western Mediterranean Basin). The genus Calamus is the largest with about 400 species.
In India there are 20 genera (Areca, Arenga, Bentinckia, Borassus, Calamus, Caryota, Corypha, Daemonorops, Hyphaene, Korthalsia, Licuala, Livistona, Nypa, Phoenix, Pinanga, Plectocomia, Rhopaloblaste, Salacca, Trachycarpus and Wallichia) and about 94 species growing wild.
Certain plants appear like palms & called commonly as palms but are not true palms.
Cardboard Palm – Zamia furfuracea (Zamiaceae)
Lily Palms – Cordyline species (Asparagaceae)
Panama Hat Palm – Carludovica palmata (Cyclanthaceae)
Ponytail Palm – Beaucarnea recurvata (Asparagaceae)
Sago Palm – Cycas revoluta (Cycadaceae)
Travellers Palm – Ravenala madagascariensis (Strelitziaceae)
Form and shape:
Palms have a distinctive growth form: a single, unbranched upright trunk topped with a tuft of fan-like or feather-like leaves. Besides solitary (with single trunk) form, there are also branching, clumping, trunk-less and climbing palms. Palms produce inflorescence with huge number of flowers, which are borne in axillary clusters. Both male and female flowers occur on monoecious palms, while dioecious palms possess only male flowers or female flowers. A large interwoven mass of roots grows from the base of the trunk. The trunks of palms, like those of other monocots, have no secondary growth, and so the diameter of the trunk does not increase with the age of the tree, as in dicots. The leaves of palms, often large, are formed a few at a time at the stem tips. They have large, sheathing bases that may leave semicircular scars on the stems when they fall off. Palm fruit is either a drupe (a fleshy fruit having one or more stony seeds covered with a fleshy, fibrous mesocarp, protected by a thin exocarp, and the seed surrounded with a shell-like layer or epicarp) or single seeded berries.
The shape of the palm trunks is characteristic for each species – uniform width to tapering upwards; straight to curved. Some species have trunk with supplementary thickening at the base or centre of the trunk giving an ornamental look. E.g. Bottle Palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis), Royal palm (Roystonea regia), Spindle Palm (Hyophorbe verschaffeltii), Pot-bellied Palm (Colpothrinax wrightii), Cheery Palm (Pseudophoenix vinifera), Jelly Palm (Butia capitata). The surface of the trunk may be smooth (Roystonea regia, Jubaea chilensis), spinous (Aiphanes horrida, Astrocaryum aculeatum, Bactris plumeriana, Daemonorops formicaria, Cryosophila warscewiczii, Verschaffeltia splendida, Acrocomia crispa) or covered with woolly hairs, fibres and fibrous sheaths (Coccothrinax crinita, Trachycarpus fortunei, Rhapis excelsa), fibres and spines (Arenga pinnata, Zombia antillarum). In some species the dead leaves remain on the trunk for longer periods and hang on the trunk giving a special appearance to the tree (E.g. Washingtonia filifera, Copernicia macroglossa).
Landscaping with Palms:
Palms are increasingly popular for cultivation along the roads, in the parks and gardens and as indoor and outdoor container plants in tropical and subtropical zones. Because of the predictable growth habit of the palm trees, they can be used as specimen plants or group plants in lawns and also along the garden paths. There is constant demand for the palms throughout the world and many new palm species and forms (such as variegated, grey or blue form etc.) are being introduced by horticulturists. Hybridization of palms in nature and in the cultivated plants is common, especially in genera such as Areca, Bactris, Chamaedorea, Chrysalidocarpus, Copernicia, Elaeis, Howea, Hyophorbe, Latania, Phoenix, Ptychosperma and Syagrus.
Several species are sturdy and grow well in shade or semi-shade though most of the species prefer sun as they come from sunny places. Palms are tolerant to wide range of environment, easy to grow in pot, remain in good shape for many years. Many species are ideal house plants.
Chandra Mohan Reddy is an officer of Indian Forest Service with 32 years of service in forestry and gardening sectors and presently working as the Managing Director of Andhra Pradesh Greening & Beautification Corporation, Vijayawada for Andhra Pradesh State Government. He has wide experience in urban greening and responsible for development of many parks and gardens. He has expertise in forest biodiversity, Eco-conservation, lake conservation, development of botanical & other theme gardens, preparation of city biodiversity index, ecology and environment awareness programs, growth patterns of native species, floral studies, urban forestry and designing of urban landscape projects. His recent activities include transplantation of 272 large and medium trees of various species with a survival rate of 84%.
Chandra Mohan Reddy has been a regular columnist with 35 articles till date for ‘The Hindu’ Newspaper relating to plants, gardens & biodiversity. So far he has authored / coauthored 8 publications on plants and biodiversity. He is interested in nature watch, botanization, and studies on biological diversity, ecological conservation & photography.