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  • Writer's pictureAmy Christmas

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

Pygmy Date Palm-Phoenix roebelenii

-4 things you may not know about this Kauai plant

Forest & Kim Starr, Starr Environmental

1. What is it? The Pygmy Date is a popular cultivated ornamental member of the Areca/Palm family. The Pygmy Date Palm is a tropical and subtropical evergreen and generally grows to a height of 6-10 feet. It typically has a single slender trunk and is topped with a dense crown of gracefully arching fronds. The lustrous leaves can range from 24"-47" in length and are divided pinnately into approximately 100 6"-10" long linear leaflets arranged oppositely on the stem. The base of leaf stem is heavily armed with 3-5" spines, so the plant is as treacherous as it is beautiful. This palm looks remarkably similar to a Cycad which it is often confused with, because of the way the leaves top the trunk, but they are not even distantly related. This palm’s trunk has fibrous material between the leaf bases at the top of the tree and when both dead leaves and fiber are trimmed, it truly resembles a pineapple. Once cleaned the trunk reveals its knobby appearance, which is just another reason to love it. This palm has gained popularity due to its small size, attractive flowers, fruits, and the fact it doesn’t drop fronds like many of its relatives. The multi-stemmed panicles of more than 100 flowers are either a male or a female with the female flowers are followed by red then black 3/4" drupe fruits. This plant is easily grown. It is tolerant of drought, temperate winter temperatures, clay soils, can flourish potted indoors, is fairly pest resistant, slow growing, can tolerate partial sun, and is relatively small in size. It is often planted in groupings for a fuller effect. This plant has been planted all over the world and received the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit for its beauty.

2. Where did it come from? The Pygmy Date Palm is originally native to southeastern Asia, from southwestern China, northern Laos and northern Vietnam. Log entries indicate seeds of various plants were purchased from a company in Paris, France in 1927 by The University of Hawaii, with this palm being one of them. Traditionally, the Date Palms have many beneficial uses including their nutritious fruit, the heart of palm is also eaten, the inflorescence used as brooms, roots chewed as gum, spines are used medicinally, and fibers used to make rope. This plant was originally named after a German Botanist Carl Roebelen who discovered it in Laos. Mr. Roebelen discovered this plant while collecting orchids for a plant exporter in a year long journey in wet and muddy forested areas. This plant has been planted all over the world and received the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit for its beauty.

3. When is the best time for collecting?

We collect the branch wrappers or bracts and the inflorescence or fruiting branches. We usually collect after the fruits have naturally fallen off and we have to carefully (with gloves) cut them from the trees due to the spines. They are available all year. They are airdried and are stored well in open air containers.

4. How are the collected plant parts used?

The branch wrappers are used in their entirety as decorative elements on both baskets and pouches. The fruiting branches of the Pygmy Date Palm are also used as a textural element on both baskets and pouches, trimmed to any length desired easily. I always think the inflorescence branches look like long, stiff, frizzy hair because of their naturally wavy appearance.

*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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