Royal Palms are Giant Featherdusters

27 May

Roystonea regia

General Roy Stone 



No fieldtrip today.  John and I both had other obligations, thus a step back to horto-historical themes otherwise dominating my earlier week, such as Florida horticultural titans Pliny and Egbert Reasoner.  Among a million accomplishments, they introduced to horticulture in the 1880s one of the the largest and most important native South Florida trees, the Royal Palm.  Their historic house came down about a year ago.

But, oops, back up already.    How do ever know who in a world of millions of citizens who really first brought a species into cultivation?    Unknowable, so we’ll just give the Reasoners credit for major early prominence—they have no deficit of acclaim—and the fact is, there may have been an earlier introduction, of sorts.   Wind back another century.  In 1774 another icon, William Bartram,  described what were apparently Royal Palms near Astor, Florida by the St. Johns River  a couple hundred miles from their warmer natural range in southernmost  Florida and points south.

reasoner grapefruit

How Bartram wrote of vanished tropical palms substantially too far north has been the subject of about as many speculations as the vanished Jimmy Hoffa.   Ideas include that Bartram had described a different species, that Bartram had actually seen the species on a boat trip in coastal South Florida, that a former Royal Palm population near the St. Johns River had existed but died (by a big freeze in 1835, or by fire, or by exploitation to manufacture walking sticks).    I don’t know.    The old repeated explanation I find most pleasing without critical analysis is that Native Americans took them there from South Florida, and that the trees had matured between lethal frosts.    Anyhow, back to the accomplished Reasoners.

Pliny Reasoner came alone from Illinois to the Bradenton area in 1881 riding an early wave of southward expansion, and founded at what is now Oneco (part of Bradenton) arguably the oldest, biggest, most important, longest-running plant nursery in Florida.   His endeavor, soon joined by brother Egbert and other family members, sold just about everything from pink grapefruits to Royal Palms.    Their catalogs were literary works.   Pliny’s term in Florida ran from age 17 to death by Yellow Fever at age 25.   In that blink of an eye he founded a business empire, wrote a still-useful bulletin for the USDA, became internationally famous, and brought Royals Palms into cultivation, naming the nursery the Royal Palm Nursery, later changed to Reasoner’s Tropical Nursery in rebirth after The Depression.

Roystonea regia Breakers

Here’s how it happened.   Pliny befriended another famous horticultural character who appeared last week in this blog, Charles Torrey Simpson.    Male bonding occurred on a sheriff’s posse to track down the infamous “Sarasota Vigilance Committee” (band of lowdown murderous varmints).   The manhunt worked out pretty well, and the wisp of the friendship relevant today is their explorations of the SW Florida coast on a small sailboat boat called The Permit owned by a friend of Simpson’s.   Simpson was a salty old sailor, whose very pregnant wife did not seem to enjoy coming along for the ride.

Together Simpson and Pliny brought Royal Palms from near Cape Sable, and the rest is history.    Years hence Simpson with other friends toted additional Royal Palms back from Royal Palm Hammock (Paradise Key), and Simpson knew a stand in what is now Miami.  To his dyspeptic annoyance, a “brutal greedy man” destroyed the site “in the hopes of making money from tannic acid in the bark of mangroves.”  (The culprit failed…but what the heck, subsequent development would have nuked them anyhow.)

A taxonomic question I do not want to engage is “Florida Royals” (R. elata) as a species distinct from those in Cuba and points south  (R.  regia).   Modern taxonomists recognize just one broad species.  Ancient interchange of Royal Palm fruits between Florida and Cuba and elsewhere is easy to envision by birds, fruit-eating bats, flotation, and prehistoric canoe.

The trees have an odd biological feature.  Everyone knows legumes have symbiotic Rhizobium bacteria in root nodules.  The bacteria fix nitrogen (capture atmospheric nitrogen for plant use) , and they produce auxin hormones (IAA) wirh complex functions, presumably related to the host-bacterial relationship.    But how many monocots can you name with Rhizobial nodules?  The only one I know of is today’s species.

Three cheers for Royal Palms!—if one of those hefty fronds doesn’t fall on the baby carriage.   We all love them.    Well…not everyone.   Let’s end with yet another rock star of Florida horticulture:    Landscape Architect William Lyman Phillips, who designed landscapes for everyone from the rich and famous to the WWI dead,  wasn’t a fan.    One of the greatest planting planners in Florida history called the trees “feather dusters.”

Roystonea regia

1 Comment

Posted by on May 27, 2016 in Royal Palm, Uncategorized


One response to “Royal Palms are Giant Featherdusters

  1. theshrubqueen

    May 28, 2016 at 9:16 am

    I tend to agree with Mr. Phillips. It takes a keen design eye to use Royal Palms well.


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