If they didn’t constitute such a varied family of plants, palms might be in even worse shape. They grow in African streams and 9,000 feet high in the Andes. They’re found in sweltering mangrove swamps in Southeast Asia and in blizzard-lashed highlands in the Himalayas. Some top out at six inches, and others tower upwards of 200 feet; rattan palms (which grow as vines) can exceed 600 feet in length. The palm family boasts the plant kingdom’s largest seed, the double coconut of the Seychelles, which weighs more than 40 pounds. African raffia palms have the longest leaves on earth, some reaching 75 feet or more. “Because palms are so diverse, they’ve risen to dominance in many ecosystems,” says Scott Zona, a palm botanist at FairchildTropicalGarden in Coral Gables, Florida. “They’re characteristic of savanna forests, rain forests, gallery forests along rivers, and mangroves. There’s opportunity in diversity.”
Like many plants, palms get help in seed dispersal from the creatures who depend on them for nutrition. The date palm tree of the desert Middle East produces 500 pounds of seeds, or dates, each year. Dates are sweet, so sugar-loving “dispersers” from parakeets to pachyderms consume their flesh and then drop, regurgitate or otherwise deposit pits wherever they go. In similar fashion, various other palm seeds or fruits feed electric eels in the Amazon, vultures in South Africa, orangutans in Indonesia, coyotes in Mexico and elephants in India.
Coconut palms, however, rely on seawater for dispersal. A coconut palm can grow 130 feet tall, so its seed comes packaged to survive its eventual crash to earth with a husk made of cushiony fibers called coir. The nut may grow where it lands, or if it plunks into the ocean and gets swept away, it may take root 3,000 miles or more from the mother tree. Coconuts from the West Indies have been cast up on the shores of England and northern Europe.
Palms put food on the table for people directly and indirectly. Almost half a million people in the South Pacific rely entirely for their livelihood on coconut palms grown commercially on Fiji and other Pacific islands, like Samoa. Coconut oil and coconut milk are important food sources in this part of the world. There are very few parts of a palm that somebody, somewhere, hasn’t found useful. If a latter-day Robinson Crusoe got marooned on an island blessed with a serendipitous mix of palm species, he could nibble on dates while toasting coconut meat over coconutcharcoal embers; nestle into a rattan-palm recliner in his palm-post bungalow under a palm-thatch roof while writing a screenplay with palm dye on palm paper; buff his palm-plank surfboard with carnauba palm wax; stroll in the rain with a palm cane and a palm-frond umbrella; take a cue from Venezuela’s Warao Indians by using a palm leaf as a canoe sail; and end the day watching a palm-fringed sunset over a palm-wine nightcap.
“Palms are the trees of life,” says Mike Maunder, NTBG’s conservation director. “They’re absolutely fundamental to many tropical ecologies and economies. Take away palms, and tropical ecosystems can be profoundly damaged.”