Plant seduction

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

The sight of my first palm tree when I stepped off the plane in San Diego as a young Navy bride hit something so familiar in my mind that it took me by surprise: I had been romanticizing palms since my preschool encounter with the line drawings of them in Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet, a poetry book of my dad’s full of enticing art of faraway places. I nearly wore it out before I could even read. And there I’d landed, a 20-something dropped among the tropical beauties of my favorite childhood book.

As we left in a cab from the San Diego airport, orderly but friendly palms marched along the road beside us. They clustered in the park we passed where I spied what would soon be my new public library. They surrounded the pool in the middle of our apartment complex.

I was quickly seduced by their swaying ways; they were easily corrupting my first live tree worship – the boxelder outside my second-story bedroom window that was my friend. At that first sighting of a live palm, I became a semi-tropical groupy, falling under the spell of wafting fronds in balmy breezes beckoning me to abandon my origins among the elms and maples of the north. Beneath the fairytale palms grew the bloomin’ hibiscus and the vining bougainvillea. I had landed where I knew I’d always wanted to be.
And here it is several decades later when I learn that the graceful exotic isn’t a tree at all; it’s a grass.

Unlearning something is a shock to the system. I’d had enough disbelief this year what with the political scene to be just about finally ticked off when I learned that my favorite tree was a blade of grass.

Really, I could have gone to my grave thinking the 2,500 kinds of palms in this world were what they looked like – trees.

What is the old saw? If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger? I hope this is true.

Until last week I never sat beside a palm and eyeballed it close-up. I ran my hand over it to pet it so to speak because I’d never seen such weird bark. The experience forced me inside, away from the heat, the humidity, the fire ants and the lush flora so I could consult Ms. Google.

She explained to me that the most common palm in Florida is a sabal, or cabbage palm, which is the brand I had been close up and personal with. The trunk can mature to 65 feet tall; it is slim –six to 18 inches in diameter. The effect is that the whole thing looks like a tree – really, if it looks like a tree….

But a palm tree is a grass. The particular palm skin of the sabal is not like the bark that we in more northern climes know as tree skin. The epidermis of a Florida native cabbage palm is a cardboard-like substance that wraps around the tree in neat tight fibers. It looks like it’s been run up on a sewing marching, a grass skirt kind of effect in neat little stitches.
Strange-looking “tree” skin. But this funny skin of the palm is the result of its grassness. It is cousin to the many grasses we know – corn, wheat, barley, millet, oats, sugar cane, sorghum, rye, rice. It’s not good for a fireplace fire; it will rot away in a season if you make a stump out of it and leave it lying in your backyard; it can bend with a hurricane and not break; its canopy is a frivolous parasol, nowhere near the shady majesty of a 300-year-old oak.

The palm is ever green, like a pine tree. It’s been found to be possibly the longest-lived material known in the plant world. Because of this, the ubiquitous palm tree may hold the key to longevity. Biologists have learned that palm cells thrive for the entire life of the tree, which can be 150 years. Would that our cells from about age 30 stayed with us for our lifetimes!

Most organisms have cells that remain active only a part of their lives; they then make new cells as the old ones slough off – like our smooth young skin drifts away to make way for what’s underneath – wrinkled skin. What a poor plan that is! Palms keep their cycle going better than animals because they are always growing new tissue without losing the old. Oh, to be a palm.

Some pines, like the bristlecone pine in Nevada, may live to 3,000 years. But I’d rather be a palm at 150. Those high desert bristlecones of ancient age are truly gnarly, half-dead looking, really; their trunks are dead cell tissue that makes up their outside skeleton. The new cell growth takes place deep at a trunk’s core for all those millennia, but who cares? They do not age well, like palms, that have continuous facelifts.

Palm trees are as naturally exotic to this native Midwesterner as tulips in December. The popular bias around palm trees is encouraged by their constantly being shown drooping their fronds on white beaches near turquoise waters with slim, scantily clad bronzed people languishing beneath them. This type of public relations would lend a certain exotica to anything, not just a very tall grass.

I no longer care that a palm is a grass. I got over that news because of its personality – it is nonchalantly handsome, it bends with the times, it lives long and likes both salt and fresh water, this non-prejudicial habit that lends to it a lightness of being. It can take too much hot air and periodic bellowing wind.

With that in mind, it may be the only thing alive and well after this particular political era.

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