Dear Mr Postman - yesterday's letter was so interesting, I hadn't realised how important the date palm was to the rise of the human race, as we explored and expanded our horizons from our ancestral beginnings, through the "old" world and into modern times. I wonder what today's letter will be about ...
There are, believe it or not, around 2,600 species of palm, most of which grow in tropical, subtropical or warm temperate climates - of which the date palm is just one! It would appear that when Gondwanaland split apart creating today's continents the early palms went too .. allowing these numerous species to exhibit an enormous diversity of physical characteristics, as well as inhabiting nearly every type of habitat within their range, from rainforests to deserts.
Palms have great economic importance across the world and include - coconut products - milk, flesh, coir (used in doormats, brushes, mattresses and ropes); rattan stems used extensively in furniture and baskets; palm oil; palm sap can be fermented to produce palm wine or toddy (an alcoholic beverage) common in parts of Africa, India and the Philippines; "Dragon's blood", a red resin used traditionally in medicine, varnish and dyes; Sago Palm (a palm like cycad) provides a major staple food; palm leaves are also valuable to some people as a material for thatching or clothing; while date palms continue to provide a concentrated energy food.
Palms are notable for having individual trees with ........ the largest seed - the Coco de Mer (40 - 50 cms in diameter and weighing 15 - 30 kg each); ...... the largest leaf - Raffia Palms (25 m long and 3 m wide); ....... the Corypha species having the largest inflorescence of any plant, up to 7.5m tall and containing millions of small flowers; ...... while Columbia's national tree has the tallest monocot in the world, reaching heights of 60 metres. (The monocot is the simplest of the taxonomic orders and other than palms, includes irises, grasses, bamboos, daffodils etc).
Palms are also valuable as ornamental plants in gardens and on the streets of our towns and cities, and feature in botanical gardens or as indoor plants. However the southeastern state of South Carolina nicknamed the Palmetto State after the Cabbage Palmetto has another claim to fame ... during the American Revolutionary War these palm logs were invaluable to those defending Fort Moultrie, because their spongy wood absorbed or deflected the British cannonballs!
Palms however are an endangered species .. being threatened by human intervention and exploitation e.g.: heart palms in salads, as harvesting kills the palm, extensive use of rattan furniture has caused a major palm population decrease - which negatively affects local and international markets as well as biodiversity in the areas. Palms rarely reproduce after great change - e.g.: destruction of their habitat for urbanisation, wood-chipping, mining and conversion to farmland.
We have so much to learn about our biodiversity before we destroy it all and it is wonderful that there are global organisations researching, protecting, storing, recording, educating, as well as teaming up with various organisations around the world - both large, small and very local - to spread the word that we must protect and care for our environment.
Thank you Mr Postman that was most interesting .. palms are obviously so important to so many peoples and play their symbolic role during this Holy Week - will you be bringing us a letter on Maundy money tomorrow .. you will - oh good!