Palm Trees – Friend or Foe? By Martin Liptrot. This article appeared in Beach Happy Magazine and 30A.com.
As fir trees became synonymous with Christmas from the late nineteenth century, so the palm has established itself as the de-facto symbol of the beach, hot weather and sunny climes.
So iconic has the palm become, it decorates the national flags of Haiti, The Cocos Islands and Fiji, as well as the cities of Miami and Penang and the state seal of Florida and flag of South Carolina.
The palm has also become the ‘must have’ design element for luxury resorts, grand hotels and ritzy boardwalks and esplanades. Despite the small inconvenience of the palm not being native to many of these locations, designers and architects pay to have these trees transplanted on to their properties - so how did this remarkable looking plant become the ubiquitous symbol of Summer?
Well, it obviously helps when the 2500 different types of palms – they are actually more like a grass than a tree - are found in tropical and sub-tropical regions and they provide a range of fruits from coconuts bananas and dates, to acai and betel nuts prized by hungry locals.
The palms’ energy giving fruits, its coir for rope and pliable fronds for building shelters were so important to the early people of its native regions it quickly became a symbol of peace, prosperity and fertility, rapidly working its way into the culture and folklore of the Romans, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
So, as early as two millennia ago, the ‘brand’ of the palm as something luxurious was already starting to take root.
The palm’s status was further enhanced by the late Victorian passions for both landscape gardening and warm weather vacations. Many of the Mediterranean resorts where the British and European aristocracy ‘took their winters’ were built with design flourishes which reflected the territories in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean upon which their fortunes were based and incorporating the elegant palm was seen as very ‘on point’.
And as with all fads and fashions, when the royal and wealthy ‘influencers’ adopt it, the ‘followers’ pick it up pretty soon after. Palm decorations, illustrations and décor began appearing in homes, businesses and civic developments around the world.
Of course, palms aren’t just a symbol denoting wealth, for many locations around the world they have become an actual key economic driver, sometimes with shocking environmental consequences.
Mature palm trees provide an oil valued in food processing and for the creation of bio-diesel fuels. And because of their relatively high yield – ten times more than rapeseed or sunflower oil crops - palms have been extensively farmed and cultivated. Research suggests each human consumes 17lb of high calorie, saturated fat palm oil every year, in products including peanut butter, frozen pizza and ice cream.
In areas like the Indonesian island of Borneo, millions of acres of virgin rainforest have been cleared to accommodate palm oil plantations. This deforestation has had a huge impact on native wildlife including orangutans, pygmy elephants and Sumatran rhinos all of whom are now threatened with extinction.
But the enduring status of the palm as a symbol of prosperity and wealth remains, so much so that in the World’s most flashy and affluent location, Dubai, developers have created a series of man-made islands off the coast in the shape of the famed palm.
This intricately designed island, visible from space, is home to many of the world’s top hotels and resorts as well as private homes owned by rock stars, sports stars and Hollywood glitterati. Clearly, why settle for simply having palms on your property when you can actually live on a palm instead!
So, what else is behind the enduring love affair with palms in hot, sunny locations?
Well, one thing is the fibrous material palms consist of makes them very flexible and capable of withstanding the winds and storms which are prevalent in these tropical and sub-tropical climes. Another is how easy they are to move around, replace or rearrange. Palms don’t have complicated deep roots systems like pine or oak trees, instead they have a small dense root ball which can be easily dug up and moved on a whim.
Palms are also pretty uniform in look and size – one palm looks pretty much like every other palm in its genus. That way, a resort developer or luxury hotel operator can easily find large numbers of similar palms to line avenues, decorate boulevards and fringe entrances and gateways.
Oh, and they’re relatively cheap. So, if one wobbles over, gets damaged or dies it can be easily replaced with an almost identical plant within hours rather than having to wait a generation for a hard wood replacement tree to grow in.
As with everything these days for is a pro and anti-palm lobby. Foes of the palm point to the amount of water the palm consumes – around 1000 litres per day – and the ridiculously low amount of shade its sparse fronds and vegetation offer to help cool cities and urban areas. They report the fact that it filters 17% less ozone and 14% less carbon than indigenous trees like live oaks, claiming that for a ‘tree’ – it does little of the things we love trees for.
But the pro-palm lobby have an enduring brand on their side. We have identified palms with desert islands, luxury retreats and good weather locations for centuries. This, together with their affordability and flexibility tends to suggest, we will be sharing our warm weather spaces with these alien invaders for quite some time to come.