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Reading Palms

Even though we live in the Palmetto State, we probably hardly notice that we're surrounded by one of the earth's oldest life forms - palms. Palm trees, along with related climbing or shrub-like cousins, are all descended from a common ancestor that first appears in the fossil record 80 million years ago, well before the arrival of flowering plants and grasses. (Also in the palm family are lianas and saw palmettos.) Humans have been cultivating palms for thousands of years, relying on them for wood, food, and shade.

A cabbage palm

Our most common forms here on the island include the cabbage palm (Arecaceae livistona), the palmetto (A. sabal) and the royal palm (A. roystonea). Like all palm trees, these varieties lack the ability to grow rings the way deciduous trees do, resulting in the palm tree's straight trunks of uniform diameter. Nor do they sprout branches, but produce spikes from their crowns from which the fronds develop. With deep, single tap roots, palms can withstand gale-force winds, find water even in desert climates and live more than a century.

Anthropologists theorize that the rise of human civilization in Mesopotamia was due in large part to the palm tree, especially the date palm, which not only provided a high-energy, easily transported food source but also served as an indicator of potential water sources. Palms were being cultivated five thousand years ago, and their importance can be measured by their association in human culture with peace and fertility. The Bible mentions palm trees more than thirty times; the Quran, more than twenty times.

Dates ready for harvesting

Today, palms remain a key cash crop, providing among much else palm oil, rattan for furniture, thatching for traditional housing, açai berries, coconut milk, dates, a number of dyes, and even wine produced from the fermented leaves of a type of Chilean palm tree. Here in the Lowcountry, the wood of the cabbage palm was used to fortify Fort Moultrie during the Revolutionary War, since the tree's soft, spongy wood was able to deflect or absorb British cannon fire.

Ubiquitous they may be, but palms represent one of nature's longest-running success stories, rooted deep in Lowcountry soil.

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