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Oh, Christmas Palm

mega millions numbers

christmas-palm-berriesHelping to ensure the palms are “present” in TCI’s future.

By B. Naqqi Manco, Senior Conservation Officer, Turks & Caicos National Trust
Photos Courtesy Board of Trustees, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and TCI National Trust

Call me a Scrooge. I’ve never been big on Christmas. The consumerism, the materialism, the mad rush at supermarkets and stores . . . I’m thankful to live in Kew, North Caicos where the holiday rush means seeing a few banners hung up on telephone poles. I’m normally quite satisfied to not involve myself in the exchange of gifts, but I recently received a Christmas parcel of sorts that quite pleased me.
The parcel didn’t arrive on Christmas. It was not tied with red ribbons or wrapped in green paper or spangled with sticky bows or glittery snowflakes. It was a tall rectangular cardboard box and glued to its side was a large label in red block letters stating “PLANTS – PERISHABLE.”

In January 2008, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the United Kingdom sent their Overseas Territories Programme staff to work with the Turks & Caicos National Trust as part of a project to safeguard the native plants of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Paramount in this project was listing all of the plants growing in TCI—native and introduced—and outlining their ranges throughout the country. This data is to be compiled into the IUCN Red Data List for the plants of the Turks & Caicos Islands, which is a botanical conservation reference for the country. Three of Kew’s UK Overseas Territories Programme affiliates, Martin Hamilton, Marcella Corcoran and Stuart Robbins, came to TCI to carry out the work. Also on the agenda was the collection of seeds for Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, a conservation project of Noah’s Ark sorts, for which the goal is to store at least 10% of the world’s plant species as seed in deep-frozen underground vaults in England. The Seed Bank is a safeguard against extinction of plants in their home countries, and already over 20 of TCI’s plant species are banked as seed in the Seed Bank.
Not all seeds can be banked. One special focus of writing the IUCN Red Data List was to identify populations of rare plants in the TCI, and one of the rarest is a species for which the seeds cannot be banked—they do not respond well to long-term storage, and they do not tolerate freezing temperatures. This plant is one many have seen in landscaping but few have seen in the wild. Variously called the Buccaneer palm, the hog plum palm, the wild date palm, here we’ll call it by its most common Turks & Caicos name—the Christmas palm.
Known to science as Pseudophoenix sargentii (literally Sargent’s false date), the Christmas palm is a squat, tough palm with a thick, banded trunk, and foxtail- feathery leaves atop a tightly arranged green stalk. Our Christmas palms are specifically referred to as variety saonae, after those growing on Saona Island of Hispaniola, which they most closely resemble. Though the species can grow to over 20 feet high, it rarely exceeds 8 feet in height in TCI. Though it resembles a dwarf version of the Royal palm Roystonea regia well known in the swamps of Florida, the Christmas palm does not grow in rich, lush wet forests as its looks suggest. Instead, it prefers the most unlikely of habitats—the windswept, sun-baked tops of ridges in the Caicos Islands. Growing in areas of nearly no soil amongst cracks in the cap limestone rock of the ridges, these plants depend on their thick trunks to store water in the long periods between meagre times of moist soil. In this habitat where few other plants can grow very large, the stout little palms are able to find their niche as an emergent species in a forest with a four foot high canopy. The Christmas palm is also found throughout the Bahamas in similar habitats, as well as in the Greater Antilles. The palm meets its northernmost range in the Florida Keys, where the few remaining wild trees are strictly protected in conservation areas.
The Christmas palm was nearly extirpated from its range in the Florida Keys by indiscriminate collection for the ornamental plant trade. The same small root mass that allows it to live in the thin soils of ridge rock also makes it very easy to remove from its habitat and transplant elsewhere. While the palms do transplant well, they are quite slow-growing and the removal of a mature tree from its native ecosystem prevents it from sowing any further seed there. Ridge-top building has further endangered these trees throughout their Bahamian Archipelago range.
Many populations of this palm have become extinct in parts of its range due to unlimited and unmanaged collection for transplanting in landscaping. While the use of native plants in landscaping is admirable, removing such sensitive species from their habitat—wild harvesting—is not. But the Christmas palm does not have to be removed from its habitat to serve the nursery industry. Each year in late summer, many of the palms produce a structure that resembles a grey-green folded paper fan amongst the lower leaves. This structure opens to reveal hundreds of stiff, waxy, yellow-green flowers with three petals, dripping nectar and attracting bumblebees by day and moths and bats by night. As the flowers get pollinated, they form round, lime-green fruits the size of marbles. By the end of hurricane season in November, many of the palm fruits begin ripening. By Christmas time, most of the trees will be sporting attractive sprays of ruby-red to orange berries, “Christmas balls” decorating the Turks & Caicos Islands’ very own answer to the northern realms’ Christmas trees.
These fruits can be eaten by people (though their taste is not especially pleasing) but they are also eaten by some birds and bats. The palms produce hundreds of fruits on each spray, most single-seeded but some with double or even triple berries containing extra seeds. The majority of these fruits fall to the ground. The lucky few roll into a crack or fissure in the limestone or into a small soil pocket, where they may get covered with enough organic material for the seed to sprout eventually. Most of the seeds will end up rolling down the ridge into higher scrub, where the sunlight they need to grow is unavailable and where only a very few of these tough little trees will grow.
In January 2008, our team searched the tops of ridges in Middle Caicos to locate populations of these trees in an effort to map their range. When we arrived, the trees were still in their “winters’ dress,” festooned with heavy, drooping sprays of ripe red berries. Recognising that the opportunity to collect seeds was immediate, we carefully mapped each tree with GPS coordinates, collected data about other nearby species, tree height, and stage of reproduction (known botanically as phenology) and collected seeds from several palms. Seed collection ethics dictate that no more than 20% of available seed is collected from a population, so we were careful to be conservative in our collection. This practise is especially important in species such as the Christmas palm, which typically only produce fruit once in a year.
We had to be very careful with the equipment we used as well. Palms are susceptible to a number of viruses, most notably lethal yellowing—the virus that devastates coconut palms. We never use any of our pruners, machetes, or horticultural knives on the palms to collect specimens—instead we rip or break the leaves by hand. The fruit is hand-picked into new cotton bags. DNA samples were taken from several of the trees, along with their fruit, and these collections were kept separate from one another so the genetic scientists at Kew Gardens could check for variation and difference from other countries’ populations of Christmas palm. After a long day in the field, we returned to the Middle Caicos Conservation Centre with several kilograms of sticky, musky-smelling palm fruit stuffed into red-stained cotton bags.
The next step in the collection process was to remove the seeds from the fruit. Palms often have sticky, mealy fruits that cling tightly to the seed inside, and the Christmas palm must be one of the stickiest and mealiest of all palm fruits. It was National Trust Sites Steward Judnel “Flash” Blaise who discovered that allowing the fruit to dry in the sun for a few days made it rubbery and tough, and it could be scraped off the seed with a paring knife—still difficult and laborious, but far less messy than removing seeds from fresh fruit. Flash spent an hour a day for the next few weeks scraping partially-dried fruit away from seeds—staining his hands red-brown and creating massive piles of scraped dried fruit, which was thoroughly enjoyed by the local village pig. (One of the alternate names for this palm, the hog plum palm, comes from the habit of Bahamians using this fruit to fatten hogs for slaughter for Easter hams.) When the seed had all been cleaned and sorted, parts of the collections, amounting to several hundred seeds, were sent to England for Kew to grow and the remainder were stored in the Middle Caicos Conservation Centre.
In the glasshouses of Kew Gardens, Marcella Corcoran worked with palm specialist Steve Ketley to develop a horticultural protocol of how to best grow the seeds. They were soaked for 48 hours in water, then planted into a coir-sand potting mix about an inch deep (coir is an alternative material to peat moss; it comes from coconut husks and is regarded as more sustainable to use than non-renewable peat). The pots were placed on a heated bench and in six weeks, the first sprouts of the palms began showing through the soil. According to Marcella, after the first shoots appeared, each palm grew its first leaf quickly. Of the several hundred seeds that had been planted, nearly all of them grew.
Some of the palm seedlings were kept by Kew Gardens to incorporate into their collections (in several years, you may be able to visit them in the Palm House or Temperate House) and the rest were prepared for a long trip home. They were carefully removed from their soil, gently washed, and treated with UV light and pesticides to remove all possibly pathogens in a process called phytosanitary certification. The paperwork documenting this certification was sent to the National Trust to present to the Environmental Health Department to verify that no pests or diseases would enter the country with the seedlings. They were then packed in moist, sterile perlite sand and packed into their travel box.
They didn’t stay in the travel box for long. Exactly as the Kew team was to return to the TCI to continue work on the Pine Recovery Project (see “Pining Over Extinction,” Times of the Islands Summer 2007), unforgettable Hurricanes Hanna and Ike were moving toward TCI. The research visit was postponed; the palms were quarantined to keep their phytosanitary status and removed from their travel box to get light. They were watered carefully, as their roots could not get a firm hold in the loose perlite. Finally, the trip was rescheduled and they were inspected, re-packed, and went on their way.
The following day, they were out of their box again. A security breech at Heathrow Airport had caused the Kew team to miss their flight to the TCI, so they angrily returned to Kew where the palm seedlings made their second reappearance in the quarantine house. But the following week, Marcella Corcoran vowed that neither hurricanes nor Heathrow would keep them from getting to TCI, and the palms were unceremoniously carried through customs and back to their ancestral home on Middle Caicos.
This Christmas present was handed to me with a weary sigh and smile by Marcella, satisfied that the seedlings had finally completed their perilous journey despite all odds. The following days, we unpacked the seedlings, planted them in special “palm tubes” and other tall pots to allow their roots to grow deep and strong, and lined them up on our Conservation Centre’s screened porch as their nursery benches and shade lath were built.
As if the palm seedlings hadn’t been through enough, the following morning we found several of them pulled up and cut in half, their tender young trunks chewed up. We figured a rat or mouse must have been eating them, since no insect pest would have been able to uproot them. Our new pine nursery manager Bob McMeekin set a mouse trap, and the following morning, the true identity of the culprit was identified. The mousetrap had been sprung, but was empty—of both bait and mouse—but beside the trap was the neatly cracked-off thumb of the pincher of a Great Blue land crab! A brisk search by the Kew researchers revealed a crab with a missing thumb— irrefutable evidence—and he was exiled from the porch as a punishment for his taste for “hearts of palm!”
After the crab fiasco, we hastened the building of the nursery benches and shade cloth, and moved the 300-some seedlings into their new home. We also began soaking the remainder of the seeds we had stored (well over 400 of them) to grow them in accordance with the horticultural protocol Kew’s experts had written. These palms will take about ten years to mature, but they will be able to be planted out in gardens in as little as two years.
The National Trust will continue to collect seed following the strict protocols to protect the palms and their habitat, and we will hopefully grow many more seedlings in the future. The one and a half to two years it takes to grow the palms large enough to plant in landscaping (so they’re safe from heart-of-palm eating crabs!) makes the timing right for the Christmas palms to be the perfect Christmas present—a present that might get even me to grudgingly budge away from being a Scrooge.

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