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  • Writer's pictureAmy Christmas

A Hawaii Artist discovers beauty and more in Island Sourced Materials!

Cuban Royal Palm -Roystonea regia

-4 things you may not know about this Kauai plant

Forest & Kim Starr, Starr Environmental

1. What is it? The Cuban Royal Palm is a fast growing, large, majestic, single trunk palm. It is true centerpiece in any setting often used to line driveways or as an accent. It is a member of the Palm family. It can reach a height of 66-98' tall or more with a trunk diameter of about 20". It’s trunk is smooth, concrete grey and has a bulge just below its crownshaft by the green leaf base. There are typically be up to 15 pinnate leaves, each with more than 100 leaflets present at anytime. Leaves average 13' long are green and arranged alternately on the stem in a plumose or fluffy appearance and hang in a way to give the overall crown a rounded habit. As the leaves age, they are shed from the tree and due to their size, can be heard from inside the house! The danger of them injuring bystanders or property, is the reason you will typically see them banded around the green sheath of the leaf, especially in parking lots, resort pools, and other publicly frequented areas, making it common to see both green and brown leaves on the trees until carefully removed. The multitude of small diameter roots of the Royal Palm like most other palms are in the top 3' of soil but can grow outward of up to 50'. This palm loves heat and full sun but surprisingly will tolerate temps as low as 25 degrees F and some shade. It, like many palms, has both separate male and female flowers which are borne in large clusters. The fruits are about ½ inch dull red to purple and seeds are reddish tan. The seeds are often spread by birds who eat the fruit and deposit the seeds elsewhere. The Royal Palm abundance of fruit, spread by birds. and easy germination have helped to make this tree somewhat invasive.

2. Where did it come from? The Royal Palm is native to Mexico, parts of Central America, the Caribbean, and southern Florida, where it is best known as an ornamental. It is the national tree of Cuba and plays a religious role where it is used in Palm Sunday observances. The Cuban Royal Palm leaves have been used as a source of thatch, the trunk as construction materials. The fruit is eaten by birds and bats and used as hog feed . In Peru, the leaf is used to prepare a decoction aiding in nervous and digestive disorder in both veterinary and human medicine. The arrival of the first seeds in Hawaii has been attributed to Gerrit Parmele Judd-a former missionary who representing King Kamehameha III, sailed to Europe to recover damages caused by the French to Hawaiian government property in a dispute over unmet demands. Judd got the seeds on the trip back to Hawaii from Europe via the Caribbean. Quite innocently, Judd’s wife was shaking out his clothes and found the seeds which Gerrit explained he had asked a young boy in Jamaica to climb the palm to retrieve for him. She planted them on the grounds of Judd’s sister, Mrs. Asher B. Bates at the corner of Bates and Nu’uanu in 1850. One of them grew and later was confirmed in 1916 to be the first on the islands.

3. When is the best time for collecting?

We collect the fronds, the branch wrappers and fruiting branches all year long. Luckily, the ones we collect have fallen to the ground naturally, and are often still green. We rarely take any that are harvested from the banded trees due to the fact they are often torn, less colorful due to constant exposure to the weather, and have lost much of their integrity. We air dry the parts and stored in open air containers and where they can be kept until we are ready to use them.

4. How are the collected plant parts used?

I have seen the fronds painted, shaped into vessels of all sizes and shapes. We use the fronds for our hanging pouches, Tree topper Angel body, and hanging bud vases. The branch wrappers and fruiting branches are used as decorative elements on baskets and pouches.

*Amy is a University of Hawaii Certified Master Gardener Emeritus, has a Bachelor of Science-Landscape Horticulture degree from Ohio State, has been a volunteer tour guide at NTBG, and is a self-proclaimed "plant nut"! She and her husband Ron have been making and selling their baskets for more than 20 years.



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