A Gardening Journal

Today in Key West: Giant Yarey Palm

One of the indelible thrills of tropical horticulture is a palm whose beauty is even more startling than its rarity. Last year, I raved about one of the giant, blue-leaved fan palms, Bismarckia nobilis. This native of Madagascar is grown world-wide, and to name it "noble" is to damn it with faint praise: it is overwhelming, gobsmacking, headspinning. Then again, Bismarckia gobsmackii isn't a latin name that would describe this palm any better.

 

This is one of the so-called copernican palms, and it says "See you and raise you" even to the bismarck.

 

Copernicia fallaensis closer 030617 640

 

Most of the species in the Copernicia genus are native exclusively to Cuba, which accounts for their rarity in the US. But rarity (and politics) aside, it's the visuals of this particular species, Copernicia fallaensis, that make it the star even amid such stiff competition.

 

This youngster is in the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, and to have been in its presence was one of the highlights of my visit this year.

 

Copernicia fallaensis long view 030617 640

 

Copernicia—say "cope-her-NICE-ee-uh"—fallaensis is challenging to photograph. The startling blue-silver of the leaves didn't show well in the glaring sun during my visit (but see the professional photograph farther on in this post). Plus, the size of the tree's unusually structured leaves, let alone the scale of the tree's overall canopy and its mature height can defy easy demonstration via such amateur photography. 

 

Copernicia fallaensis w building 030617 640

 

In the picture above, the wood steps of the quirky building at the back are about six feet wide. The oval leaf blades of giant Yarey palm are nearly that wide, and easily two feet or more longer. Add the length of each leaf's petiole—several feet more—and you can understand that the distance, tip to tip, from one frond to another on the opposite side of the canopy could be over twenty feet.

 

Below, a vastly more accomplished shot from an impressive authoritative source for seeds of rare palms. 

 

Copernicia fallaensis adolescent 640

 

The oval leaf blades are solidly pleated for most of their length before dividing into (it is said; I didn't count) 120 stiff segments. Where one leaf overlaps another at an angle, the layers of pleating and segments create a startling moiré effect that is intensified as the fronds shift positions in the breeze. Whether in still air or stiff winds, the canopy is a coup de théâtre.

 

The fronds are also striking, as below, when experienced close-at-hand. The pleated portion of the leaf blade emerges with awesome precision from the end of the petiole. As if it were a knife point about to pierce between my thumb and index finger, the petiole extends into the bases of the central pleats with a woody shaft known as a rachis. In case you need to distinguish C. fallaensis from an otherwise very similar and much more often seen palm, Copernicia baileyana, remember this rachis: fronds of C. baileyana lack it—and are also more nearly round in overall shape.

 

 Copernicia fallaensis frond hand 030617 640

 

Mature specimens of either species are staggering in their horticulture-as-sculpture presence. Below, the famous grove of C. baileyana at Miami's Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. Remembering that a given frond could be ten feet or more from the base of the petiole to the tip of the blade, get a load of the enormous frothy flowering stems projecting far beyond the canopy. Is each of these stems fifteen feet long? Twenty? They function like giant baby's breath, fluffing the canopies up into enormous nosegays.

 

Copernicia baileyana fairchild gardens 640

 

These remarkable palm species are suited for only the largest settings. A grove of either could command any expansive space as surely as a beech would the hundred-acre lawn of a great estate in Great Britain.

 

Two mysteries: Why are the fronds of these mature specimens less blue than shown in the photograph of the adolescents? (The foliage of individuals of both species, at any age, is often quite blue in other shots.) And—given that C. baileyana is known as Yarey palm, and C. fallaensis as giant Yarey palm—what or where or who is Yarey? (Fallaensis refers to the last substantial surviving grove of mature giant Yareys in Cuba, near the town of Falla.) I've just queried the folks at Rare Palm Seeds; it will be an honor to report back with their answer.

 

 

Here's an in-depth profile of Bismarckia nobilis. Its hardiness and handling are very similar to Copernicia palms, with the notable exception that both of the Yareys mentioned above are more adaptable to higher soil moisture. Bismarck palms require soil that is well-drained at all times, and often quite dry, whereas Yareys accept soils with a wide range of moisture content. Their native Cuban habitat even includes low-lying savannah that can become seasonally flooded. Elsewhere, it is wise to restrict this rare species to sites that are always well-drained.

 

 
 
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