A Gardening Journal
Talipot Palm Triumphant
- Published: March 31 2017
What an immense dead palm! Sizable, too, will be the project of cutting it down safely before it crashes to the ground on its own: perhaps fifty feet tall and several tons in weight, this tree could destroy a house as well as some vehicles if it toppled. The fall could even cause fatalities.
They would be a tragedy, of course—but from this tree's view, its own death hasn't been tragic at all: these creatures die in the saddle, as it were, and after a final performance that's nothing short of triumphant. This tree is a species of Corypha, all of which are massive. But to get back to the triumphant death-in-the-saddle thing, any given Corypha tree flowers just once, at its literal peak of life, when it is at its tallest. It then dies as it goes to seed.
While flowering, trees in this genus are easy to identify even at great distance. What you see in the close-up below is not a canopy of dead fronds. Corypha palms are all fan palms, and their fronds are termed palmate. These long feathery structures are the size and form of those of a coconut palm: a long central rib fringed by countless short side things. Leaves like this are termed pinnate.
But all Corypha palms are palmate, not pinnate, so these aren't the remnants of leaves at all. (Those must have have long since dried up and fallen off as the tree itself died.) These enormous frond-sized structures once bore the tree's flowers. What at first glance seems like the gigantic woody remains of a foliar canopy is actually the gigantic woody remains of a single, branched structure, known as an inflorescence, that bore this tree's flowers.
How big is "gigantic?" About twelve feet high and sixteen feet wide but, for Corypha palms, this immense inflorescence is just so-so. The biggest can be twenty feet tall and wide; one scientific source estimated that a single tree's infloresence could bear nearly twenty-four million flowers. These trees' flowering structures are the largest ever of any plant world-wide.
Below, a shot I found on the web of two Corypha palms at their peak of flowering. The floral display blows that of any other palm out of the water: you could spot one of these palms in bloom from a mile away. The floral and fruiting displays of other palms can be interesting—see Bismarck palm here—but only at close range. These so-called talipot palms would be showy in flower even if glimpsed at the far horizon.
Here's a drawing from a German botanical book published in 1913, showing a Corypha palm that's even taller, with an inflorescence that's even bigger.
Are the people really that small in comparison? Is the picture a distortion, as was all too typical of prior times, when portraits of foreign exotica—ruins, wildlife, plants, indigenous people—were exaggerated to impress the folks back home? Barely. Here's a contemporary photograph from the same authoritative source I cited for the giant yarey palm.
I discovered the dead talipot palm in the lead photo while walking in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Key West. I'm aware of two other Corypha palms on that island, both of which are the less-rare species in the genus, C. umbraculifera. It's difficult to determine which species this dead one is, because individuals of all the species are roughly as large, and all flower once, then die.
One possibility is C. taliera. This species is extinct in the wild in its native Bangladesh, but one of the last known survivors there was able to flower and set seed before dying; by 1991, some of its progeny were reestablished not just in Bangladesh, but across the globe at the Fairchild Gardens in Miami. Perhaps one also found its way to Key West. Although Corypha palms can live eighty years before flowering, shorter lifespans are known. If this now-dead specimen had been planted as a seedling in the early 1990's, it wouldn't have been too soon for it to have matured to flowering by 2015 or 2016—and to still be in place when dead—for me to have discovered it in late winter of 2017.
Their rarity, unusual size and lifestyle, beauty, and sheer size make Corypha palms very tempting for large-scale gardens anywhere in the tropics. As shown in the picture below (also borrowed from the web), the trees have overwhelming impact even when so young that their trunks are barely present.
With these two men for scale, consider again that the tree's inflorescence is typically as broad as its canopy of foliage. Now the reported potential for bearing twenty million flowers per tree seems stupefyingly realistic.
Talipot palm's floral display is an experience of a lifetime for any plant lover. For the tree itself, flowering is the experience of a lifetime, too. But it's also a sword of Damocles. How many years will a given talipot live before vegetative growth ceases in favor of flowering? A year or so later, the immense tree that had automatically been the star of its landscape would have then become a gaunt dead hazard to life and property within eighty feet.
Yet another consideration is the tree's prolific progeny. Plants that flower just once, then die, are termed monocarpic. Typically, a monocarpic plants sets enormous quantities of seed and, also, germinates enormous numbers of seedlings. From the plant's perspective, if that seed crop develops only once every few decades, no disease or hungry animal could gear its own life cycle to such a crazily erratic and extended schedule. And the number and, even, sheer volume of seeds ensures that, when opportunistic critters do gorge on the once-in-their-lifetime bounty, plenty of seeds are still left behind to germinate and carry on the species.
Every garden's flowering Corypha palm foretells several headaches for its human stewards. Even before the expensive task of having the soon-dead tree safely felled, there's the hassle of the months of "hail" of falling ripened fruits, which seem to be the size of chestnuts and hang in many clusters of many hundreds each. I can imagine that one kind of hell would be to live in a metal-roofed cottage shaded by a Corypha palm that is going to seed: wouldn't there be month after month of noise as the falling fruits bounced off the roof?
Yet another hell would be the countless seedlings that would be germinating all around the tree. Yes, you would transplant the few you wanted—but you'd need to yank out the thousands you didn't.
Corypha palms are valuable trees in climates and cultures where they are easily grown: the fronds, trunks, and young fruits all have uses. But in the ornamental landscape, talipots are suitable for planting only in the largest settings that can also ensure the necessary access, decades later, for the crew and machinery needed to safely cut them down after they inevitably die.
Note, also, that the tree's "once and done" many-decade life cycle means that the person who planted the talipot usually doesn't live long enough to see it flower—let alone be responsible for cutting the tree down when it promptly dies thereafter. Buying a property with a mature talipot would be bittersweet: what makes the tree so incredible at the time of purchase—its height and huge canopy—also indicates that flowering and death could begin at any time. Best, then, to buy a property with a talipot whose trunk is still very short: it is just a youngster.
These complexities make Corypha palms all the more rare outside their native agrarian habitats in south Asia—and, so, all the more worthy of pilgrimage and awed appreciation.
Monocarpic grasses make civilization possible: nearly all grains (think corn, wheat, and rice) flower just once, then die. Indeed, the very profusion of the seeds they set is what makes these species desirable as crops. (Alas, many weeds are monocarpic, too, such as crabgrass and chickweed.) To my knowledge, no trees or shrubs hardier than zone 9 are monocarpic, but all bamboos and biennials—and most vegetables—are. Take a look at these monocarpic ornamentals: Miss Willmott's ghost, big-leaved bamboo, blue-leaved cow parsnip, and fire vine.