Coccothrinax barbadensis
6:58 am
Fri December 21, 2012

The Not-So-Little Palm Tree That Couldn't

This is the sad story of a very tall tree.

"This one right here," says Patrick Griffith, slapping his hand on a rough, grayish trunk, "coccothrinax barbadensis."

Griffith is executive director at the Montgomery Botanical Center, a 120-acre horticultural haven less than two miles from the more famous – yet 50 percent smaller – Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

If trees had supermodels, the coccothrinax barbadensis that Griffith is staring up at would be one. "It's very tall and thin,"  he notes.

But tall and thin is dime a dozen in South Florida. This particular palm tree has it, the quality that would make you want to send a postcard of it to make your Midwestern family jealous.

Unscientifically known as a Barbados silver palm, this one shoots straight up in the air the height of five basketball hoops, blows through a dense tree canopy and explodes above into a green and silver palm frond firework. 

"It’s the biggest one in Florida," Griffith adds, "and, actually, we’re fairly certain it’s the largest one in the United States.”

And if that's not enough to leave you swooning over Montgomery's Barbados silver palm, consider its rich history: 

The tree was planted exactly 80 years ago as part of the original landscaping at the estate of Nell and Col. Robert Montgomery. (Montgomery, a founding partner in an accounting firm that later became PricewaterhouseCoopers, allegedly spent twice as much on his landscaping as he did on the house.)

The tree grew through the great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, Andrew in 1992 and Wilma in 2005. In fact, its stubborn roots made this tree a key part of a study about hurricane-resistant landscaping

Despite all this, and the fact that Patrick Griffith is pretty sure this Barbados Silver Palm is the biggest in the entire country, the Montgomerys' very tall coccothrinax barbadensis is ineligible for "national championship" tree status – the highest honor a very tall tree can be awarded – because the Barbados silver palm is a native of the Caribbean, not the United States.

Every Arbor Day, the American Forests recognizes the largest specimens of trees throughout the country. Two of those are firmly planted at the Montgomery Botanical Center and Patrick Griffith estimates Montgomery has at least two dozen more trees that, like the Barbados silver palm, are the biggest in the country but are not eligible to be champions because of their backgrounds.

There are two basic criteria for national champion status: A given tree must be the biggest tree of its kind on record in the United States and the species of tree must be “native” or “naturalized” to the United States.

To naturalize, a tree has to assimilate to the U.S. But if it does that too well and starts killing off native species, it might cross into invasive species territory.

“I’d say that’s an accurate way of putting it," says Charles Marcus, with the Florida Department of Agriculture. Marcus is in charge of going out and actually certifying any Florida contenders for national champion status.

Even without trees like the Barbados Silver Palm in the running, Florida has more national champion trees than any other state – 111.

Marcus says that’s because of the climatic spectrum spanning from Key West to Tallahassee.

He adds that places like Texas, Hawaii and California also face the same horticultural immigration issue as Florida because of their semi-tropical to tropical habitats. 

South Florida in particular has been a kind of Ellis Island for foreign plant species. Botanist/explorer David Fairchild used the subtropical climate as a testing ground for the exotic species he found abroad.

Charles Marcus thinks it might be time to recognize that history and some of those plants by officially considering more species naturalized. “Perhaps adding some of them that are becoming particularly well-established and have been here for decades anyway and are established in the natural environment but have not become invasive.”

The idea itself of naturalization might be outdated. Sheri Shannon is with American Forests, the organization that founded the national Big Tree Program in 1940.

She says all the rules for what trees count as naturalized come from a book printed in the 1970s. 

But Shannon points out that even with new rules, a lot of South Florida’s unique species might not be fair to include. “Should they be eligible for a national program when they can’t be found anywhere else outside that region? And that’s also part of why Florida is successful. So, that’s how we’re tackling the naturalization issue at the moment.”

From a South Florida perspective, this all should sound familiar: A melting-pot of backgrounds and countries, a debate about legitimacy and recognition, the language of "native" versus "naturalized" versus "invasive." It sounds exactly like the immigration debate.

"It’s possible, but that’s a touchy subject that I don’t want to get in to," Sheri Shannon chuckles. "We should definitely make it about trees."