Palm enthusiasts and collectors choose their favorite with an array of criteria.
Some base it on rarity or looks. The red lipstick palm (Cyrtostachys renda), for example, is coveted because of its stately red trunk. While others select based on uniqueness. The gingerbread palm (Hyphaene thebaica) has unique dichotomous branching found only in a handful of palms.
Sadly, there is a large group of great palms habitually overlooked by palm enthusiasts because they aren't striking, unique or rare. These palms are like the "nice guys" — often overlooked, repeatedly dateless but completely deserving of more attention.
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is perhaps the best example. There are so many reasons for this palm to be cherished, but it's constantly overlooked due to homely growth habit. The flowers are a great nectar source for bees. In fact, the honey is coveted by beekeepers and honey growers as the best and most delicious. You can even find honey from saw palmetto at some local farmer markets. Florida black bears use the saw palmetto to find food. They injure the trunk of this clumping palm, and palm weevils invade the trunk. The black bear returns and feasts on the weevils. If this does not work, the bears will settle for the fruit. Saw palmetto also is a great landscape ornamental since it is low-maintenance and does well in dry, sunny and cold conditions, unlike most palms.
Pseudophoenix lediniana is like the shy sister — it can be forgotten because its congeners are more eye-catching. Pseudophoenix sargentii is a Florida native currently threatened by habitat loss. P. ekmanii has a unique swollen belly, and P. vinifera is used for wine. P. lediniana is the best grower and does well in all conditions. While most palms can't tolerate our soils, this palm loves our limestone earth. If your property is like most in Miami, you have a thin layer of topsoil over hard limestone rock. Roots of this palm will break up the stone and soon you will be able to plant other plants in your yard. Not only is it a great grower, it is an even better facilitator.
Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, the Paurotis palm, was once very popular as a landscape ornamental but lost favor after inappropriate planting left many individuals with severe frizzle top. Although not as popular in the horticulture trade, this palm is very important in the wild. It grows in seasonally flooded parts of the Everglades. By branching at the base, the Paurotis palm forms clumps. During periods of heavy flooding, these clumps are a place of refuge for Everglades critters. With huge ecological importance, it is quite surprising that there is relatively little known about this palm. This palm would be great along your canal or pond. It can handle sun or shade as long as its feet are wet, at least seasonally.
These palms are treated as runts of the litter, but they deserve more attention. While not the homecoming kings of the palm world, they'd still make an excellent date to the dance.
Sara Edelman is palm and cycad manager at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.