Friday, May 11, 2012

The Pseudophoenix Saga

One of the ethnobotanically interesting Florida Keys native plants on my tour is the buccaneer palm, known to us plant nerds as Pseudophoenix sargentii. Early Keys / Caribbean settlers fed their pigs fruits from this palm to fatten them, and to have a good time they would tap the trunk to extract its sweet sap and ferment it into a palm wine. They would also harvest, cook, and eat the bud at the top of the palm for food, but they no doubt limited this practice after realizing that harvesting the bud kills the palm, thereby negatively affecting palm wine supply.

Sadly, our specimen of P. sargentii, planted in 1995, had been in decline for a couple years and the palm started looking extremely bad early in April, to the point where it was clear the vital top of the palm had died (note how the youngest fronds are completely brown).

Alas, there was nothing more we could do to try and save our beloved Pseudophoenix. Interestingly, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden was also experiencing a die-off of their Pseudophoenix, the cause of which is still unclear but thought to be fungal in nature. With nothing left we could do for the palm, we reluctantly readied the axe (er...electric saw). Here follows the photographic chronicle of the last hours of our Pseudophoenix and the light that emerged from this darkness.

The trunk was cut in small sections, as it is quite filled with liquid and therefore quite heavy.
Veronika continued to work with the saw to free up the base of the palm with eventual hard-fought success!  Getting the base of the tree out of the hole and onto a dollie was the  really hard part...
Close-up of the top of the palm, which looks quite dead and a bit rotten.
The core of the palm, which Veronika pulled out, was clearly dead and smelled awful; I mean really, really palm wine from this, thank you.
After searching for a replacement, we decided to try our luck again with another P. sargentii, which Veronika and I are putting in the ground here.  Her husband RenĂ© (not pictured) also helped us get the plant in the ground.
After death, new life.
And so we begin anew with hopes that our new tree will last the 16 years its predecessor did and continue in good health thereafter. While it is sad to see one of our trees go, we must remember that death is simply a part of life and has been from the beginning of time. Like us, plants live and then die from old age, accidents, disasters, resource deprivation, disease, and most often a combination of the above. After death, we all break down into our basic elements, which await incorporation into new life. At any given time my own body (and the body of a given plant) is made up of elements and atoms that have at one time been parts of thousands of other different living organisms throughout the Earth's history, including plants, animals, kings, and vagrants. As a physical human entity, I am essentially water and plant, having derived my nutrition directly or indirectly therefrom, and since plants are essentially sunlight energy, earth, water, and air, I can trace myself back to the same. It is a great miracle indeed how such basic elements give rise to such complexity and how millions of molecules come together in an incredible synergistic way to form a "living organism," even if it is something very small. As Basil of Caesarea is attributed to have said: "A single plant, a blade of grass is sufficient to occupy all your intelligence in the contemplation of the art with which it has been made." After studying cell biology, I think the quote would still be accurate if "one blade of grass" was replaced with "a single cell," which offers a scientist more than enough to study and contemplate for a lifetime. These are things I think about as I walk amongst the plants. I marvel at how we are different and separate entities and yet how someday in the future, long after my body has met the end it must meet, parts of myself may come together with parts of our removed Pseudophoenix to form countless other living organisms.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

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