Sandy’s Garden ... Coccothrinax Argentata

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I was awakened one morning recently by the sound of the wind battering the trees in, and near, my garden.

I realised after I had risen and dressed that, although the trees in my garden were still intact, a tree on Network Rail’s property had lost a significant branch which, fortunately, had fallen well clear of the actual railway lines. And I have literally no idea of why my mind’s eye chose that moment to conjure up a picture of palm trees bending to the force of a storm in the garden of the splendid home in St. Lucia … the property of our now-late best man … in which my wife and I enjoyed a super holiday quite a number of years ago.

My often-fallible memory thinks that Kenneth told us that the elegant, small palm trees which decorated his garden were commonly known as ‘silver palms.’ And if my memory is right on this occasion, they must have been Coccothrinax argentata to a pukka botanist, ‘argentata’ meaning ‘silver’ and ‘Coccothrinax’ being, as far as I can gather, an invented botanical name based around the Greek word ‘kokkos’ meaning ‘a berry’ and ‘thrinax’ meaning ‘a fan’, as in ‘ventilator’ and not ‘enthusiast’. So now, gentle reader, you can make an intelligent guess as to the appearance of these trees – trees with fan-shaped clusters of silvery-green leaves at the tops of their trunks which produce berries in season rather than dates … as in fruits rather than appointments … or coconuts. You also know now that this particular species of palm tree is native to the Caribbean; and I can tell you that it is also native to southern parts of Florida, to south-east Mexico and to Colombia. Its natural habitat is rocky, calcareous (chalky) soil in coastal scrubland and hammock communities, I learn from Wikipedia. (Hammock communities are, apparently, stands of hardwood trees growing on slopes between wetlands and drier uplands.)

Silver palms, or Florida silver palms, as they are also known, have slender trunks covered with fine brown fibres, closely woven at the top. The large leaves … between 12 and 18 in number, with something around 50 leaflets at their ends … radiate from a common stalk and vaguely resemble an open hand, with silvery-grey lower surfaces. The mature tree can be as little as 2 metres in height, although most will aspire … very slowly … to nearer 6 metres, so that’s a range of between, say, 7 feet and 20 feet in old money. In their nice, warm conditions silver palms will flower all year round, the white or yellow fragrant flowers being followed by smallish, dark purple berries. Their description reveals why these trees are often planted in gardens, their year-round attractiveness tempting many a gardener to introduce them into his or her patch.

The other big attraction to gardeners of low-growing, decorative palm trees is their ability to survive tropical storms, which probably accounts for my linking a Scottish gale and a tropical storm in the first place. Their dense network of wide-spreading roots secures lots of soil around the root ball, creating a weighty anchor to keep the tree upright. Their trunks are unlike the trunks of most of the trees which grow in Scotland with a series of concentric rings visible when a trunk is cut through. Palm trees trunks are much more like bundles of thin wires, very strong and very flexible – excellent for bending before the force of the wind. And, as if these attributes were not enough, their giant-feather-like foliage tends to close up in high winds, offering a mere fraction of the wind resistance of the trees in, and near, my garden.

So why don’t I avail myself of the facility to buy seeds or even young palm trees? Well, just think of the differences between Scotland and St. Lucia and you have the answer.