The palm – tall, slender, graceful, and picturesque – is found in the tropics as well as in many other world ecosystems. Because of its “noble and impressive shape,” it was dubbed “the prince of plants” by Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. Usually called a tree, its structure is more like that of herbs and grasses. It has no wood, doesn't produce growth rings, and has no bark on the outside. Among the nearly 3000 species, the palm holds many plant records. The longest leaf, at 25+ meters (82 feet), belongs to the African raffia palm; the largest number of flowers on a plant is the 24 million miniature flowers in a cluster on the stem of the talipot palm of India; and the largest seed is that of the coco de mer palm, which checks in at 30 kilograms (66 pounds).
Palm fossils extend back 100 million years, and a great diversity has evolved. Besides the typical stem with a crown of leaves, there are also palms that grow along the ground. Some grow in the mud of rivers and other aquatic settings, while others attach themselves to trees and climb to forest canopies.
The date palm, one of the most familiar palm species, was domesticated thousands of years ago in the Middle East. It has been significant in trade development and the spread of civilization in the Fertile Crescent. Its dried fruit, loaded with 80% sugar content, was useful when carried on lengthy journeys across desolate deserts. The sap of the date palm can be used to make wine, and this wine was even used in ancient Egypt to prepare bodies for mummification. Date palms have significant connections to major world religions. Palms represent righteousness, honor, and grace and are a peace symbol in Judaism. In Christianity, the branches of the palm trees were used to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem before the crucifixion. Islam teaches that the palm was actually created by Muhammad and it was the Garden of Eden's tree of knowledge.
The coconut palm, one of the top 10 crop trees in the world, has an interesting history. Jean Barbot, a commercial agent in the African slave trade, noted that the coconut was valuable because it provided Africans with “meat, drink, clothing, houses, firing and rigging for their ships.” Feeling that the milk had culinary and medicinal value, he believed that coconuts should be conveyed on the ships carrying slaves across the Atlantic.
Among the many products of the palm, its oil is widely used throughout the world, being found in many goods such as hygiene, cosmetic, and cleaning products, as well as foods. Unlike other vegetable oils, its use is enhanced because of its stability, which enables it to have the consistent characteristics maintained for long periods of time and throughout a range of temperature.
The palm is found as a symbol in many cultures. Often used in the décor of buildings, it appears in the Baroque monastery church in Zwiefalten, Germany, which contains palm tree confessionals. Gilded columns representing palm trees decorate the Chinese Teahouse in Potsdam, Germany. The palm tree frequently appears in cartoons set on a desert island with just one or two of them sheltering castaways pondering their situation. Robert Louis Stevenson's classic children's story Treasure Island only mentions the palm once, but illustrators later added palms in their pictures. In William Golding's Lord of the Flies, palms are used to create mood and tension: “A flurry of wind made the palms talk and the noise seemed very loud … with an evil speaking.”
For anyone wanting to learn more about the palm, there is not much, including trivia, that the author fails to include in this well-written, detailed, entertaining, and intense analysis of the biology, history, geography, diversity, economic significance, cultural impact, and symbolism of this beautiful plant.
Part of Reaktion Books' ambitious Botanical series, which presents various plants from a natural and cultural history perspective, this exhaustively researched volume is appropriate for adult, college, or advanced high school readers. It would be a valuable addition to a classroom library. Profusely illustrated with captivating photographs, it also includes a timeline of palms, extensive endnote documentation of the text, a bibliography for further reading, a list of associations and websites, and an index.