Skyrail Nature Diary: March 2014

This month we’ll be looking at palms. Palms have been associated with the tropics for a long time now, especially coconut palms. They are often thought of as trees but interestingly, this is not the case. Unlike ‘real’ trees which have secondary thickness growth of their trunks, palms only grow on the top of their crowns (apical growth). If the crown is cut off the palm dies. Palm flowers are very simple structures which are believed in most cases to be pollinated by the wind, although some have been observed with visiting native bees. Most palm flowers are borne on special bush like flowering structures known as ‘panicles’. The fruits are usually fleshy drupes that are only rarely edible for humans. The edible ones include Date Palms, Coconuts and Walking Stick Palms. Palms belong to a group of flowering plants known as monocots, which include lilies, irises, orchids, grasses and sedges among others.

The Alexandra Palm is by far the most common palm in Barron Gorge. It tends to grow along rainforest creeks and is a good indicator of water. The fronds are large and overhanging with silvery undersides. The fruits are small, red drupes that are quite popular with birds. These palms are named after Princess Alexandra of England. A similar palm also found in areas of Barron Gorge is the Solitaire. Solitaire Palms have narrower trunks and smaller, less elaborate panicles than its relative. The fronds have chopped off tips. Both of these palms are notorious for being very difficult to transplant. The success rate is best if the palms are transplanted pointing in the same compass direction as they were on their original growth site but even then it is still only 10% at best.

Black Palm is strictly speaking only native to the Daintree region but has been planted around Lake Smithfield in recent years. These palms have foxtail shaped fronds that don’t whorl all the way around the rachis and rather narrow trunks that strangely don’t swell at the base like the similar (and far more popular in cultivation) Foxtail Palm. The hard timber was often used to make clap sticks by the Kuku Yalandjii people. The fruits are significantly larger than those of the other palms mentioned earlier.  

Dwarf Walking Stick Palm is possibly the smallest palm in the world and has an extremely skinny trunk that often bends. These palms thrive in low light conditions and have some unusual fronds to boot. The fronds resemble the leaves of the Palm Lily but split up more and have more distinct veins. The tiny red fruits are borne on slender spikes and are edible. Despite the name, these tiny palms, which are smaller than most humans, are not suitable as walking sticks as the trunk is quite flexible and weak.

by Tore Lien Linde