Are your Florida palms in trouble?

May 27, 2014 Idea of the day – “Perhaps we all are part of God, facets of divine spark that resulted when a bored First Source exploded Himself into a spiritual jigsaw puzzle for the fun of it to learn new things. Could the game be putting us back together?!”

Today, following up the property manager’s request to look at a large Canary Island Date palm that wasn’t looking good, I drove up to the entrance of a gated community of million dollar homes and told the guard the address of where I was headed to look at a Homeowners’ Association palm on common grounds.

I knew palms aren’t even trees, more of a grass, and I much preferred working with hardwoods. But since they look a little like trees, people expect arborists to understand how to take care of palms. So we learn the basics and hope we can occasionally help. Because they are so labor intensive to prune (and often full of thorns!) many arborists would rather leave the palm pruning to landscapers.

I have heard that back in the 1980’s and 90’s Disney representatives used to drive around the Tampa Bay area – Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa – looking for large Canary Island Date palms, some say the most majestic palms in the world. Apparently these “palm hunters” would offer homeowners up to $5000 for their Canary Island Dates because they needed them for the landscaping at Disneyworld in Orlando and they were too expensive and/or too rare at the wholesalers. They’re native to the Canary Islands and give a grand, exotic look to any landscape.Canary Island date palm full of dates

Of course today Disneyworld has finished their palm landscaping and the economy has changed. Although that dollar amount still might represent close to the investment that homeowners have in a large Canary Island Date palm over the years, they aren’t in demand at that price any longer. But the species is still grand and majestic when gracing a large front lawn, a city park or in front of a hotel or golf club entrance gate.

Currently there is a different challenge to these prized palms staying in the local landscape. A disease of their species, Phoenix, called Texas Phoenix Palm Decline (TPPD) because it was first spotted in Texas, is moving north through Central Florida attacking the Canary Island and its cousin date palms. The disease kills their flowers and fruits, rots the roots, makes the lower fronds go yellow then brown or fall off and causes the top center spearhead leaf that generates new growth to die and fall over. It’s like the dramatic death of a king in a Shakespearean tragedy.

If you start to see any of these signs in Canary Island date palms in your yard or neighborhood or city, you should have an arborist look at it quickly as there might still be a chance to save it if caught early enough. The sole saving ingredient known at this time is an antibiotic called Oxytetracycline (OTC for short) and if injected into the palm soon enough can catch and kill the bacterium that causes the disease. But it has to be early. Then after that, if you want to save the palm, you have to inject it again on a regular program every 4 months until the day it dies.
It isn’t horribly expensive except for the time an arborist or nursery person has to charge to come out to do it – unless you are up to doing it yourself.

This community I had driven into was the most far north site I had heard of this problem by twenty miles. Previously mid-county had been the northern perimeter for years. It wasn’t a good sign.

As I drove up to the address, I recognized the distressed palm right away. It was a sad sight. The once beautiful, grandiose palm had lost almost all its top middle fronds, its lower fronds and half of the new season’s bright orange flower stalks had already died prematurely and turned brown. It was probably too late to save this one. But there was still work to be done.

If you can’t save your palm that has TPPD, it becomes a potential source of infection to the entire neighborhood and needs to be removed right away. Certain insects suck the infected sap of the palms and then spread it to other Phoenix date palms such as Medjool dates, reclinata, sylvester dates and even the state tree of Florida, the sabal palmetto whose common name is “cabbage palm”. There is concern this disease could dramatically damage the familiar traditional look of the semi-tropical Florida landscape.

So it becomes important to identify quickly whether it is TPPD or not. Since the disease is carried by a bacterium without a cell wall, it can’t be cultured, and the only way it can be identified is through a DNA test of some of its core fiber.

I had brought my handy mobile drill and charged batteries with me for just such a possibility. I also had a grill lighter which I clicked on and ran over the large 5/16″ drill bit to sterilize it so the palm’s DNA wouldn’t be contaminated. After squirting some water on it to cool it off, I went to the rear of the palm down low where drilled holes wouldn’t be seen as much if the palm could be saved. I drilled a deep hole with my foot long bit, first hitting the outer dead bark, then the sap filled inner bark that seeped with its water. That layer transports the water and minerals to the palm and its fronds. I kept going and felt it give as I reached the softer, inner fiber core. After going in 12″ or so, and still keeping the drill running, I drew it back out slowly. With one hand I placed a zip lock freezer bag under the hole to catch the bright yellow-white core fiber shavings in the bag.

I did this over and over until suddenly the drill stopped working and I was stuck deep in the palm, unable to pull the bit out! I checked the charge-light button and sure enough, the battery was already dead. At first I was momentarily worried. I had just bought this nice drill bit and I didn’t want to lose it stuck in a palm. It definitely didn’t budge when I tried to pull it out, even with a vice grip!

Fortunately I then remembered I had a spare second battery, so having unlocked the bit from the drill brace, I attached the second battery to the drill, locked the drill back to the bit, turned it on and pulled it out with more core shavings to add to the bag. I stayed alert not to touch any of the shavings as that could contaminate the sample with my own DNA.

I zipped the bag closed, happy with my little sample, enough to fill an old 35 mm film canister. To keep it cool until I could ship it, I put it in the ice chest I had brought along. I drove down to the Fedex outlet right away because the sample had to be overnighted that evening to the DNA lab in Ft. Lauderdale to be a good sample.

I sent it off with descriptive notes to my friend at the lab, Dr. Elliott. In about 7 to 10 days I’ll know if this entire community’s date palms and sabal palms are in danger of being fatally infected. This was a big deal and I was the only one monitoring it for the entire community of maybe one hundred half-million to multi-million dollar homes. I felt a little like Paul Revere to be, except on an iron steed. 🙂

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