Thursday, November 11, 2004

Dispatches from the Plant Kingdom: on palms



In honor of Veterans Day, I stayed at home, and had a chance to run to Lowe's to get a carbon monoxide detector (now required in all dwellings in New York City). Impulse buying struck, and I left the store not only with the detector but also two plants.

I can't resist plants, even though I already have too many.

These new acquisitions are palms. One is a very large chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis, for only $8.97 and pictured above) and the other a tiny little "Areca" palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens). I'm assuming I have the species right; plants sold retail are never adequately labeled.

I've been interested in trying my hand at palms for some time. My doctoral dissertation was the biography of a botanist, Liberty Hyde Bailey, who spent the last decades of his very long life devoted to the study of palms. He traveled all over the Americas, and especially the Caribbean, seeking out rare and un-named species. Bailey planned to continue this work in Africa, but old age caught up with him and that was that.

The palm family -- called the Arecaceae, is a large and economically important tribe of plants found throughout the tropics and even into the subtropics. They are monocots -- close relatives of the grasses and orchids, among others. We have palms to thank for such diverse products as coconuts, dates, palm oil, carnauba wax, rattan fibers and more. There are around 200 genera and 3000 species of palms in the world. The ones I bought are pretty commonly sold as houseplants. I'm told they are not demanding -- other than wanting some humidity.

One palm I'd really like to get ahold of is the lady palm (Rhapis species). Despite the fact that these plants are supposed to be super easy to grow indoors, they are very hard to find available retail. If you do find one, it's bound to be very expensive. There were some at Lowes, marked down to $100. Still too much for me. And the plants were too big for my tiny apartment anyway.

Here's hoping my new roommates thrive!

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