5.7.11

  The Rise and Fall of Coconut Palms in South Florida



Dawn at Key Biscayne, Florida

Many years ago South Florida was a palm paradise, with a tall, dense canopy of palms swaying in the prevailing southeasterly winds. The legendary tales of the thousands upon thousands of tall coconut palms in the lower coastal areas gave rise to visions of paradises lost from the Pacific. Innumerable business and real estate and restaurant and hotel names sprang from the palm's namesake. The brilliant yellow coconuts, set against a rich canopy of 20 foot emerald fronds, set atop trunks as tall as 70 feet, made Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and nearby cities a grand attraction.




Then, in the late 1960s, something awful happened. A disease called Lethal Yellowing started in the Florida Keys, which spread and raged through the lower part of the state like a slow forest fire, killing thousands upon thousands of coconuts and other palms. The disease is still here, but there are rather few coconuts for it to infect compared to the 1960s or earlier. There is now a certain nervousness about planting coconuts, even the "disease resistant" ones.  This is a textbook case of a pest destroying a monoculture, wherein far too many of a single type of plants was grown in a defined area. This was the case with Dutch Elm Disease destroying its primary host, likewise with whiteflies destroying Poinsettias, and so on. The moral of this story is that planting large numbers of the same thing is asking for trouble, and usually trouble arrives sooner than you expect.



Death from Lethal Yellowing
Disease


How can we alleviate or prevent the problem ? The answers seem simple, but have deeper difficulties embedded in them. Let's look at some of the "clear" answers, and see why they have not been employed as best they could be.

The obvious answer is to plant trees which are resistant to diseases and pests. This is easier said than done, since many commercial nurseries have large inventories of "old classic" mature palms they need to sell before they can re-stock with resistant species. Another reason that disease-resistant plants are not grown as commonly as they could alludes to the lower supply of disease-resistant coconuts. These resistant species often have higher price tags and growers are already looking at increased costs for almost everything as it is, much less having to pay for improved plant stock that may not sell.

Many growers state that native plant species are automatically disease-resistant, to which I say that the plants from your local area, soil type, and weather are usually durable. On the other hand, though, the wrong plant in the wrong exposure can be fairly weak and disease prone. There is little exact science that would allow growers to state that a chosen variety of palm is , for instance, 90% resistant to Lethal Yellowing. It becomes a game of statistics, that fewer coconuts will die if you plant lots of Malayan Golden Dwarf  coconuts than if you plant Atlantic Tall coconuts. A good case could be made for planting alternative species that are disease-resistant, but many landscape architects will specify coconuts in a design and many homeowners or businesses will ask for coconuts. There are numerous palms that bear a resemblance to coconuts that have a higher resistance to Lethal Yellowing, but the supply is shorter, and the prices are usually higher. For large commercial installations, coconuts can be acquired in large numbers, exactly according to specifications, whereas an allied species like Archontophoenix or Beccariophoenix may not be so easy to find.


The highly disease-resistant
'Fiji Dwarf' coconut, in limited release 


With growers looking at tough economic times, many of them wish to sell what they have, and may not be interested to re-stock the "improved" varieties. Landscape architects may not be as current as they could be in knowing about new varieties, or even aware that coconuts are still risky for some installations such as pool islands in a courtyard. The supply of newer, more disease-resistant varieties like Red Spicata , Red Malayan and Fiji Dwarf is remarkably small, and the prices are higher than the old fashioned, fast-growing Panama Tall or Maypan. The look of the newer varieties is different, too, than the grand and majestic Panama Tall or Jamaica Tall, with their giant coconuts and 30 foot diameter crowns. The Malayan varieties also need more water and fertilizer in our coral soils than do the older tall varieties.  There are choices to be made:
  • whether we need to re-assess our devotion to coconuts by replanting with other palms,
  • whether we should choose disease resistant varieties that need more care and cost more than older varieties,
  • or skip the use of palms altogether.                        






'Red Spicata' Coconut,
moderately disease resistant
 As with all facets of horticulture and its integration into modern life, there are lots of choices, and lots of information about those choices. I preach the gospel of "being informed in being enlightened". There is a lot of accurate information about this disease and the effective management of coconuts in the landscape. Do some research !


Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


11 comments:

  1. None of those replacements for the coconut palm have the same grand appearance as the tall, stately coconut palms. Disease can be prevented by using sandy soil, using salt and potassium based fertilizers, and keeping them away from golf-course type conditions - for example using mulch to create a barrier. If you notice most of the coconut palms by the beach were largely unaffected by the lethal yellowing crisis because the growing conditions and have been standing there for half a century!

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  2. Greetings Sulema, you have an interesting point. I might gently take some exception to your comment that the beach coconuts have been unaffected; many hundreds have been killed on the Beaches of coastal Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Naples. I agree that the coconuts surrounded by St. Augustine grass have more favorable conditions for Lethal Yellowing. I agree completely that the "new" coconuts are a poor comparison to the grand Atlantic Tall types. Thanks for reading the blog !

    Craig Morell
    Pinecrest Gardens

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    Replies
    1. Hi Craig, I live in SW Florida and would like to plant around 10 Jamaica Tall Coconut Palm Trees. I realize they are subject to the lethal yellowing disease but willing to take a chance. I'm having a very hard time finding fertile coconuts for germination, newly sprouted coconuts (that would be best), or Juvenal trees for sale or donation. I have called many nurseries all around Miami and here on the Gulf coast. No one seems to know where to get them. Is there anyone here that has an ideas? Your help is very much appreciated!! :)

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    2. Greetings- You will definitely have a problem finding the Tall varieties, since there are so few left to provide the seed stock you're looking for. If you can, call the horticulture team at Naples Botanical Garden. They should either have some of the tall varieties, or may be able to hook you up with a local chapter of either the Palm Society or the Rare Fruit Councuil. Either of those groups should have a good source of where to find what you need. The South Florida Palm Society meets on Monday of next week, so I'll inquire as to connections on this coast and the west coast where you can find some of the taller varieties. Oddly, even the so-called Dwarf varieties will grow to 40 or 50 feet tall, but need more fertilizer and water than many of the taller varieties do. Many of the malayan hybrids such as Maypan and MayJam will grow as fast and full as a Tall variety, with a bit more disease resistance (statistically speaking) than the Tall varieties would. I'll report more details after the Monday meeting.

      Thanks for reading the blog,

      Craig Morell
      Pinecrest Gardens

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    3. Craig...I have 7 jamaican tall juveniles ready to be moved to their permanent location. Im in stuart fl and hhavest augustine grass and sandy areas without grass. Could you suggest spacing distance?
      Thanks!
      Heytobb at yahoo.com

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  3. Where can I buy the dwarf coconut palms or seedlings in S.Florida.

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  4. I HAVE TWO WASHINGTONIAN PALMS THAT ARE APROX 20 & 30 FT TALL. IF SOMEONE WANTS THEM I WILL GIVE THEM TO YOU FREE IF YOU HAVE AN INSURED COMPANY REMOVE THEM.

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  5. where can I buy Malayan dwarf coconut palms to plant in Hilo Hawaii

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  6. Craig- I am looking to push the envelope a bit. I am in Clermont, Florida. I am aware that our temps here are far from ideal for coconuts. I am on a large lake and I am considering having trees with 10+ft clear trunk delivered from the south. Is there a variety that is more cold tolerant than others? Are there varieties that are known for more juice content and better flavor? Thank you! LVbellabella@gmail.com

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