Keys Homes
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Hairy old man palm is nature's unique gift to the tropics

By robin robinson Key West Garden Club

You would think that the hairy old man palm was fat by measuring the girth around its belly at 60 inches. But if you measure underneath all the hair, it shrinks to a skinny 32 inches. That's a comfortable waist size for the Coccothrinax crinita.

It could get to be 20 feet tall and 15 feet in circumference. Old palm spines stick out of its hairy trunk, but it is still beautiful and unique.

The palm I measured was 12 feet tall. It was planted in 1985 at a height of several feet, which would make it about 30 years old. Its slender trunk was topped by a cascade of circular, palmate fronds that are divided and keeled with deeply margined teeth.

The leaves can grow to 36 inches in width. They are deep green on top and silvery on the bottom. Its untended beard houses insects, lizards, beetles and bugs.

It grows slowly, but its growth rate speeds up as it gets older just like it does for the rest of us.

Tiny, yellow flowers make up its inflorescence. It is pollinated by the wind as are other Coccothrinax, but they also are pollinated by bats, beetles, bees, wasps and flies. The flowers turn into small, black seeds half an inch in width.

The palm does not propagate from strewn seeds, but will grow if scared and put in gelatin. Animals like to eat the fruit, especially key deer.

The hairy old man palm is critically endangered in its native country, Cuba, where only 136 individuals are found in the wild. Under the auspices of the Global Tree Campaign, the Havana Botanical Gardens and Fairchild Tropical Gardens are involved in preserving these trees. The western world, in the person of Charles Wright, discovered the palm on May 18, 1860.

Hairy old man palms are grown in nurseries, but are very expensive. A 5-foot palm costs more than $1,000 and probably grew for 10 years. A small one in a 5-gallon pot runs $65.

Once they are planted, they are care-free. They love our alkaline soil, are drought and salt tolerant and have survived the hurricanes at least since the '80s.

The palm was exploited for various uses for many years, which is why there are so few of the left. The wool-like fibers are used to stuff pillows and mattresses. Its leaves are made into hats and bowls. The trunks are used to build homes.

Crinita means hairy. There is a miniature version that is suitable growing in a pot called C. brevicrina, meaning "briefly hairy." This palm has no pests and will grow well in full sun or in part shade.

You can see a 10-foot-tall hairy old man palm at the Key West Garden Club by going to the left when you exit the entrance door. You can't miss it because its hairy trunk makes it a totally unique palm. You also can see one at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden on Stock Island.

The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to pull weeds, propagate and play in the sandy soil from 9 a.m. to noon Mondays.

Key West Garden Club's master gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist at the Chicago Daily News and syndicated by Princeton Features. Her book, "Peeling the Onion: Reversing the Ravages of Stroke," can be found on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. Visit http://www.keywestgardenclub.com.

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