America’s Tropical Trees – The Palms
By A. Hyatt Verrill
from Tropical and Sub Tropical America, a monthly magazine, May 1908, digital capture by Doug Frizzle December 2007
SYMBOLS of the lands of perpetual summer, soft skies and balmy trade-winds, the palms are the most familiar of all tropical trees. Indeed, a landscape scarcely seems tropical without these graceful trees, and in the minds of most people they are a necessary adjunct to all southern scenes.
Although so well-known as a whole, and so readily recognized, it still remains true that the great variety, manifold uses, strange habits and odd forms of this group of trees will prove a revelation to those who have not made a study of the subject.
It is doubtful if there is a single class of tropical trees so essential to mankind as the palms. Houses, clothing, rope and cordage, food and drink, needles and thread, timber and firewood, boats and fodder, wax and drugs are all obtained from palms of various species, and there is scarcely a variety of palm or palmetto that is not utilized in the making of at least one of these necessities.
Probably the commonest and most useful of the palms is the coconut. It is a striking feature of every tropical seaside and village throughout the world, yet the origin of the tree is lost in antiquity, for long before Columbus and his caravels sailed the sparkling Caribbean the floating coconuts had weathered the tempests of every southern sea, and wherever they were cast ashore on tropic beaches, had sprung into life and flaunted their plumed heads above the breaking surf.
The coconut palm is especially adapted to spread from land to land and from island to island, for it thrives best on sandy beaches, where its long, rope-like roots are seeped in the briny waters, and its stiff, feather-like leaves are thrashed and torn by every passing breeze. In such situations the ripened nuts fall either into the sea itself, or so near its edge that the first high tide or storm carries them out to sea. Once afloat, and encased in the tough outer husk and dense, waterproof fibre, the nut can withstand an enormous amount of buffetting and can remain in the water for a long period before becoming waterlogged.
The nuts sprout readily when resting on the surface of the ground, the roots pushing from one of the "eyes" at the end and gaining a firm foothold in the most inhospitable soil, while the spearlike leaf shoots upward with remarkable rapidity. The leaves as they first expand are lanceolate, and not divided as are the mature leaves, but in a few hours the slits along the sides appear. As the coconut grows most commonly in spots exposed to the full sweep of the trade-winds, the tree gradually bends away from the wind, while the efforts of the trunk to assume a perpendicular position often results in odd and grotesque curves.
The stem of the coconut palm, as is the case with nearly all the palm family, is very strong and tough, and is composed of closely interwoven fibres in a hard and almost horny outer bark. So strong is this rope-like column that in severe hurricanes the entire top of the tree is frequently twisted off wilhuut injuring the trunk in the least. Often, also, the tree is torn bodily from the ground, for the trunk grows entirely from the surface and is merely anchored by a multitude of fibrous roots that spread from its base in every direction.
The coconut commences to bloom when from three to ten years old, and bears continually, year in and year out, for 80 or ioo years. It is seldom that one of these trees can be found that does not hear buds, flowers, and fruit in various stages of development. The fragrant flowers are borne in clusters, on branching stems, and the nuts develop in the same manner.
Not only is the coconut used for food and drink, but the people of the tropics make every part of the tree serve some useful purpose. The leaves form a thatch for their huts and bedding for horses and cattle, the trunk is used for posts, fences, and for building houses, while fish lines, coarse cloth and our familiar doormats are formed from the fibre of the husks. The dried meat of the nut is the well-known copra of commerce, and from copra, as well from the fresh meat, coconut oil is prepared. The oil, when fresh, is sweet and pleasant, and is widely used for cooking purposes. It is used also in making soaps and as soap made of coconut oil is soluble in saltwater it is highly esteemed on shipboard. From the oil a kind of butter can also be prepared, and when properly made it is superior to animal butter, especially for persons troubled with digestive disorders.
At present practically all the copra and coconut oil used in the United States, Canada and England is imported from the East Indies and Africa. There is always a large demand for it, and there is no reason why the American tropics should not produce large quantities of oil and copra for the north American and British markets. The slightly fermented sap of the tree is also used as yeast in making bread, and if fermentation is allowed to continue a fine vinegar results. When fermented and distilled the coconut-sap furnishes the fiery drink known in the East as "arrack." In some portions of the tropics the fresh sap is boiled down and used as a sirup or sugar.
The shells of the nut are made into dippers, jars, vases, spoons and other household utensils, while the stiff, sharp ribs of the leaflets serve as toothpicks, pins and forks, and at a pinch are made to answer the purpose of needles.
Almost as common as the coconut, but of very different habits and appearance, are the various species of Royal palms. These are the most graceful and majestic of their tribe—the aristocrats of palm land—and are as useful as they are beautiful. They are widely cultivated in tropical countries as ornamental trees, and there is no more imposing sight than the long avenues of these trees so common in the American tropics. Straight as arrows, their beautifully molded and tapering trunks tower, smooth and almost as hard as granite, for eighty or even a hundred feet above the earth, each bearing at its summit a great mass of deep-green, drooping plumes from the centre of which the unfolded leaf-bud points straight and rigid towards the blue sky. Glorious as are these splendid trees when arranged by the hand of man, yet to me they are even more admirable when growing in their natural haunts on verdure-clad mountain sides, their white trunks standing boldly out from the surrounding greenery, and their plumes waving gently to the breeze, far above the tangled sea of vines and jungle at their feet.
From the centre of the crown of the Royal palm the famous "mountain cabbage," or "palm cabbage," is obtained. This delicious vegetable is really the unborn leaves of the tree, and to procure it the tree itself is killed for all time. Scores of the dead trunks thus sacrificed dot every West Indian hillside—gaunt skeletons of vegetable giants whose lives have been taken for a paltry six pence.
The woody covering of the Royal palm trunk is quite thick and strong, and in many places is used by the natives for building their dwellings. These so-called "yagua" houses last for a lifetime. They are wholly built from the palm, for the roofs are thatched with the leaves, and the timbers and frames are composed of sections of the trunk. The fruit of the Royal palm consists of bunches of small purple or dark-green berries, much used in making preserves and pickles.
Related to the Royal palms, and resembling them in general appearance, are the various small forest species, variously known as "gru-gru," the "maho," and by other local names. Several of these bear edible nuts or fruits, and many of them are exceedingly useful because of their tough and durable timber and for their leaves. From the leaves of the maho-palm the few surviving Caribs of Dominica and St. Vincent weave their wonderful waterproof baskets. These leaves are used also in making fish-traps, in thatching houses and for making sieves through which the manioc meal is grated.
Quite different in aspect are the fan-palms, those stout, bushy trees with broad, fan-shaped leaves from which the common palm-leaf fans are made. In many parts of the American tropics the fan-palm leaves are transformed into a great variety of objects, such as hats, baskets, trays, saddle-bags and panniers. Such vegetable articles are strong and flexible, and endure a great amount of the roughest usage. In San Domingo such bags or "macutos" are used universally; small hand-bags, market-bags, and huge coffee and cacao sacks made from palm leaves are seen on every hand, and scarce a schoolchild is met who does not carry his books in a brightly-colored and handsomely woven "macuto" of fan-palm leaves.
The giant of all the fan-palms is the remarkable Talipot palm, originally of Ceylon, but now common in many portions of the New World. The leaves of this fine tree are often ten or twelve feet across, and fifteen to twenty feet in length. They are used as umbrellas, tents and roofs, and, when cut up and pressed flat, are made into books and manuscripts.
Still another class of handsome and useful palms are the "wax-palms" of Brazil and the Andes. These trees have the stems, and in some cases the leaves also, coated with a secretion which consists of two thirds resin and one third wax, and which forms an important article of commerce. When melted with the addition of a small quantity of fat, this secretion forms an excellent substitute for paraffine or tallow, and is widely used in making candles.
There is scarcely a person who has not heard of vegetable ivory, and many of us have seen and handled the smooth, brown-coated ivory-nuts. Few are aware, however, that the nuts are the fruit of certain palms.
The most important of the ivory-palms is a native of Colombia, and the nuts form an important article of export from that and other South American countries. When young, the seeds or nuts are filled with a milky fluid that later hardens into a firm, fine-grained, albuminous substance which for many purposes has all the requirements of animal ivory.
A familiar feature of all tropical oriental countries is the date-palm. Although not a native of America, it has now been so generally introduced in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of this continent as to be worthy of consideration as an important factor among our economic trees.
While the date-palm seldom fruits in the West Indies, yet in Arizona and other sub-tropical districts it flourishes and bears profusely, and has already become of decided commercial importance. Stiff, dry and ragged, the date is probably the least attractive of the palms, but when loaded with the great clusters of its valuable fruit it presents a striking and most interesting sight. A remarkable feature of the palms and palmettos is the fact that many species are peculiar to but one country or island. Of such species the Bermuda palmetto is a good example. Found only in those mid-Atlantic islands, this palmetto forms a most striking feature of their landscape, and in former days proved the salvation of the early settlers, for the berries of the palmetto are edible, and were eagerly devoured by the half-starved mariners and colonists.
The palmettos, however, proved a curse as well as a blessing to the Bermudians of those early days, for they soon discovered that an intoxicating drink or "toddy" could be made from the sap, and for some time the colonists were on an almost continual spree.
Many species of palmetto possess great medicinal value, and the extracts and tinctures of the saw-palmetto of Florida are well known and valuable medicines.
Although but a few of the most valued and familiar palms and their use have here been described, there are more than one thousand species known to botanists, and a large proportion of them are of commercial or economic utility.
Every tropic forest abounds with a multitude of varieties of these trees of poetry and romance, and there are few that do not possess some special value as food or clothing, or that are not essential to the rude arts and crafts of the natives, even though quite unknown to the outside world.
This strange tree is not really a true palm, but is more closely related to the bananas. The stalk somewhat resembles the banana stalk, but the leaves are borne at the extremity of long, stiff stems that spread alternately from either side of the trunk and form a broad, flat, fan-shaped crown. The most remarkable feature of the tree is that it is a veritable vegetable drinking-fountain, and an incision at the base of one of the great leaf-stems will bring forth a quart or more of clear, sweet water, and so beneficial is the tree that many governments have planted them along the highways, where they will ever prove a welcome boon to many a thirsty wanderer. Every traveller in tropic forests should know this tree by sight.