Alexandra palm is NOT a palm for landscaping your house; it can reach forty to sixty feet tall and is best used in large public spaces. It has a single, tall, one-foot-in-diameter, gray trunk, crowned by large feather-like leaves, and adorned by dramatic clusters of bright red fruits. (Don’t be misled by the word “fruits.” That doesn’t mean you can eat them: in botany-speak “fruits” just means the seeds and their coverings.) Birds do eat these fruits, and a flock may come and eat all of them in one sitting!
Alexandra palm was named for Alexandra of Denmark, the woman who became queen-empress after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. She is remembered as a beautiful and charming queen, despite facing difficulties. Therefore, although this palm is sometimes called the King Alexander palm, the King palm, or the Alexander palm, these names are all incorrect: the most accurate common name is Alexandra palm. The botanical name is Archontophoenix alexandrae.
Alexandra palm is native to Queensland, where it was discovered for science by a German-Australian plant explorer who named it in 1875 to honor Alexandra while she was Princess of Wales. Archontophoenix alexandrae grows in coastal rainforests of Queensland; it easily survives the heavy rains, making it the dominant species in the area— the good news being that it is not endangered in the wild.
Have you ever eaten “hearts of palm”? Found inside the top of the trunk, the “heart” is composed of folded-up, baby palm leaves that look like a cabbage. The “heart” of an Alexandra palm is particularly prone to fatal shattering. As this palm is dug up from a field and transported to its new home, its “heart” can be broken, and the transplanted palm will not survive. Because of this, the crown of an Alexandra palm should be splinted and supported during transport. Alexandra palm hearts are not eaten; other palm species supply that dish.
Alexandra palm’s height necessitates a bucket truck for grooming— another reason not to plant it by your house. While its leaves are self-pruning i.e., they fall off naturally after they die, it can be best to cut off those red fruits before they drop 1) to prevent a mess and 2) to prevent “volunteer” seedlings from sprouting all around.
Enjoy all the Alexandra palms planted in the public spaces of Valencia Reserve. Amazingly, they flower on and off all year, and so there are red fruits to liven up the landscape in every season.
The bottle palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis) is one of the most distinctive palms planted around VR homes. A relatively small palm, the trunk has an interesting bottle shape topped by four to eight stiff, arching, feather-like fronds. As it ages, the trunk loses the bottle shape and becomes cylindrical.
It was long assumed that the swollen base was a water storage adaptation, but this has not been studied and bottle palms are only moderately drought tolerant, needing extra water during dry periods to look their best. The reason for the bottle shape is unclear, and indeed, nature does not need a “reason” behind every feature that evolution produces.
The botanical name, Hyophobe lagenicaulis, translates roughly to “pig-food flask-stem!” The small fruits are not used as food by humans.
Bottle palms are native to the Round Island in the Indian Ocean, where they are critically endangered because of habitat destruction. The forests were cleared for timber; goats and rabbits devoured seedlings preventing regeneration of the forest; non-native weeds choked out native plants; and rains washed away the soil. Growing the palms in South Florida and around the world in tropical and subtropical climates helps to prevent their extinction.
With its attractive fronds, eye-catching trunk, disease-resistance, and slow rate of growth, bottle palm is a perfect choice for the landscaping of an individual home, planted singly or in groups.
Queen palm is a South American palm that beautifies many VR homes. As you can tell from the photo above, their fronds each have several hundred gracefully hanging leaflets, their flowers are massed and look like Rapunzel’s long golden hair, and the numerous fruits start out green
(eventually ripening to yellowish orange).
The scientific name for the queen palm is Syagrus romanzoffiana. Romanzoffiana honors Nicolay Rumyantsev (1754–1826) who sponsored the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe; obviously, there was some spelling confusion here, but once a plant name is assigned, the governing rules do not allow it to be corrected simply because the honoree’s name was misspelled.
Unfortunately, the queen palms in Florida are succumbing to Fusarium wilt of queen palm and Mexican fan palm. (Mexican fan palms are the only other palm that carries this fungal disease, and I have never seen this palm type in VR.) There is no cure for this lethal disease and no way to prevent your palm from getting the disease: it is spread primarily through the air, and possibly also by birds and insects. It can also be transmitted by contaminated gardening equipment e.g., pruners, and, of course, it is always good horticultural practice to disinfect pruners between cutting plants. The palms can die as quickly as three weeks after the first symptoms (wilting and dying of the lower leaves) are noted.
If you do have to replace a dead queen palm, you could consider a foxtail or a Christmas palm, which are both also non-native, moderately tall, feather palms. Other ideas can be found on the VR HOA website in the Landscaping publication entitled “Plant Identification.”
Looking on the bright side, these substitutes are less likely to topple in high winds than the shallow-rooted queen palm. And there is another reason for not crying too hard over the loss of the queen palm: the Florida Exotic Pest Control Council lists this species as a Category II invasive: exotic plants that show signs of increasing in abundance, but that have not yet altered native plant communities.
I will offer this long shot: maybe YOUR queen palm will live. Here’s a true story to support you in that hope. In the late 1970’s the flowering dogwood trees on the east coast were threatened by a fungal disease called anthracnose; many dogwoods did die, but one was found growing unaffected at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland! It was found to have 100% resistance to anthracnose, was cloned, and is now widely sold as Cornus florida ‘Appalachian Spring.’ So, if your queen palm looks healthy, don’t give up hope; plants, like people, have genetic diversity, and maybe you are the lucky homeowner with a rare queen palm that is resistant to Fusarium wilt.
Why was the Montgomery palm named after an accountant? The Montgomery palm (Veitchia arecina) was named for Colonel Robert Hiester Montgomery (1872-1953). His formal education stopped at age fourteen, but he went on to become Columbia University’s first accounting professor, the author of the first American book on auditing, a co-founder of Pricewaterhousecoopers. and the first honoree of the Accounting Hall of Fame. His other passion was palms, and he was the founder of Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami, which he named for his friend David Fairchild, a famous plant explorer.
How can you identify the Montgomery palm? Look for A SOLITARY PALM (more rarely planted as a triple) with a SLENDER GRAY TRUNK, holding ONLY 8–10 VERY DARK-GREEN SEVEN-FOOT FEATHERY FRONDS that are held HORIZONTALLY. Each frond has about a hundred 1.5 inch LEAFLETS AIMED DOWNWARDS. REINS (skinny green strings that dangle down from the leaf area and represent leaf tissue that held the frond folded until it unfurled) are seen. BLACK WOOLLY SCALES are noticeable at the top of the green crownshaft. The FLOWER-FRUIT STALKS are VERY BRANCHED, WHITE, and hold BERRY-LIKE FRUITS, which are red when ripe.
Where can you see a Montgomery Palm? Once you get tuned into the appearance of Montgomery palms, you will begin to see these dark-green beauties everywhere. At VR, we have a nice clump of three very tall plants in front of the clubhouse and five smaller specimens in a row between the lap pool and the lake. There are many of them planted at Canyon Town Center.
Would a Montgomery palm suit your home landscape? Montgomery palms are a good medium-sized palm to replace the Queen palms that are dying in our neighborhood. Native to Vanuatu, these palms are popular in Florida because of their appearance, moderate drought tolerance, only slight susceptibility to lethal yellowing, and their fast rate of growth (reaching 25–30 feet). They are self-cleaning, meaning the dead fronds fall off by themselves. They work well mixed with other palms because they bring a darker shade of green and a different texture to the mix; Pamela Crawford suggests planting them alongside foxtail and robellini palms in her wonderful gardening book called Easy Gardens for South Florida, which is available from our local library.
Do you want to help conserve the Montgomery Palm? Collection of these palms for their edible palm hearts is threatening their existence in the wild; it’s nice to know that you are helping to save this species by planting it here in Florida.
Katherine Wagner-Reiss has her botany Certificate from the New York Botanical Garden, where she is a volunteer tour guide.