By ROBIN ROBINSON Key West Garden Club
Understory palms add to the lushness of a garden.
There is something mysterious about the way a plant adopts a gardener. Gardeners do talk to their plants, but plants can emit chemical signals that may speak to a particular gardener. That could be one explanation for why Master Gardener Hazel Hans is a palm nut.
Her latest purchase for the Garden Club is a species of palm known as Chamaedorea that has 107 varieties. The word comes from the Greek chamai, which means on the ground because the plants are spread by runners, and dorea, which means gift.
She has managed to obtain from Searle Brothers palm nursery, five new shade-loving varieties in the Arecaceae Family for planting in the West Martello palm garden to the right of the entrance. None of these palms are native, but they are happy exotics that love our nutrient-poor, alkaline soil.
The most popular of these palms is the parlor palm, Chamaedorea elegans. It was discovered in 1830 and became a denizen of the newly created hothouses of Europe. Now it is produced for the mass market with more than 400 million plants per year flooding the flower shops and supermarkets. It is a small palm with sparse, pinnate fronds. Although it is a solitary palm in nature, it is often combined in pots with many of its sisters. It is easy to grow indoors and doesn't need much light, preferring the dappled forest floor.
A second Chamaedorea that Hans installed in the garden is the tuna tail-palm or Earnest August's palm (ernesti-augusti) that was found in Mexico and Central America. Its unusual leaves are shaped like a fish tail and they form a round compact crown. Because it is sought after for floral arrangements in the U.S., it is an important non-timber forest product in Central America. The petioles have a yellow stripe that runs their entire length. It takes to potting easily and can be six feet in height in bright light but no direct sun.
The leaves of C. metallica do look like they could be made out of metal. It was only discovered in Mexico and named in 1966, but it immediately became a favorite of palm enthusiasts worldwide. The leaves are not divided and their dark bluish green color is covered in what looks like a metallic sheen that resembles an old Ford I once drove. The palm may get to five feet in height and as an understory plant likes the shade or mottled light found on the forest floor. This palm is cold tolerant so it can be planted further north.
Another in the species, C. oblongata was named for its oblong-shaped leaflets in 1839. They are leathery and arranged along each frond. The small palm may reach ten feet and it is often found leaning over instead of upright. Oblongata will grow anywhere in any kind of light or soil. If its leaves turn light green, it needs fertilizer.
C. arenbergiana begins with large leaves, but as an adult is a medium-sized palm with much smaller leaflets. Its inflorescence, long strings of white flowers, blooms before a fruit forms that looks like green corn on the cob. This fast growing, single-trunked palm that needs a sheltered, warm, moist environment.
Two other palms in this family were already in the background of the gardens. The first, C. seifrizi has slender, lacy fronds and is often called the bamboo palm. The gardener knows this one from the grocery store floral markets The last example C. erumpens, is also called bamboo palm which is one reason botanists have scientific names to identify plants. It has orange-stems that carry its small black fruits. It much wider leaflets help to identify the small multi-trunked palm. Both of these palms are toxic.
Many but the most ardent of palm lovers overlook these palms as they fade into the shaded flora of a forest. Ms. Hans likes the subtleties of plants that create a lush garden. Stop by to see how well the new plantings fill out the foliage of West Martello Tower.
At 1:30 p.m. Thursday, April 4, Constance Miller, herbal practitioner will present a talk on "Local Native Plants in the Herbal Pharmacy" in the Key West Garden Club at West Martello Tower. The presentation is free. Refreshments will be served following the talk.
The Spring Plant Sale will be held from 10 a.m - 1 p.m. Saturday, April 6 in the propagation area of the Key West Garden Club located in West Martello Tower. There will be a wide selection of drought resistant native trees along with rosemary bushes, Thai and Sweet Genovesa basil, anthuriums, lignum vitae and many others.
Foolish April is the theme for April floral designs at the fort. The light pastel colors radiant the excitement of spring with a multi rhythmic design.
Key West Garden Club Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist at the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her book "Plants of Paradise" can be found on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. Visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.