What’s a Walking Palm? by Andrew Street

Unless you are into palms and have seen them many times in books, or have traveled to the Central and South American tropics like Costa Rica, I think that’s a fair question. Even if you have seen this amazingly unique palm before, you still may not even know. But before we get into the common name and why it is so given, let’s give a general overview of the plant—the very plant we have right now, growing in our bog!

 walking palm at Miami Beach Botanical GardenLet’s start by saying this palm is rare in South Florida.

They seem not to like our general conditions, whether it be our rocky and calcareous soil or the occasional below freezing dips we can get—for some reason, Socratea exorrhiza is almost never seen outside of a small container. The first thing you notice when you first see a Socratea is the stilt roots; they are the most unique part of the walking palm and they are what all of the fuss is about. In habitat the palm grows to about 65 feet and the stilt rooted portion of the palm can be as high as 8 feet—possibly even taller. The large fat roots are spikey and act just in the same way as the buttress roots of a rainforest tree. There are some advantages in favor of the palm’s technique, over the larger dicots…
 

This advantage brings us to, why is it a walking palm?

Well, the best and least interesting reason would be to say these great big roots look like legs that the palm is using to walk with—a little bit of imagination required… being such an interesting palm, all sorts of theories came up to explain the unique habit; adapted to grow in the swamp, or that it helps if a tree falls on the palm—it can grow out from under what fell on top of it.

This last one, though true to an extent, really is true for any palm that gets knocked down. They all just reorient themselves by growing upward from that point forward—many nurseries do this for a unique look in the landscape. The advantage that I spoke of is my best guess for what the stilt roots of Socratea are for: these modified roots are stabilizers for the palm (just like those buttress roots) all the while, equating to much less vegetative material to have to devote to making.

Socratea can then, instead devote most of its time and energy into growing upward towards light—the number one limiting resource in the rainforest. Walking palms love full sun. They also love high humidity (they need it in order to grow the roots—they won’t grow in a low humidity environment)

Some palms use what’s called a saxophone root or heel to ‘travel’ to the best spot in order to grow the best. I have seen a Sabal mauritiiformis move nearly 3 feet from where it was planted. Without this modified root, the chances of a successful adult plant would no doubt go down. Stilt root palms can ‘travel’ too and actually further and more efficiently than a heel would allow. From the base of the trunk, roots can develop and reach out until they reach the soil. Once they do, they anchor and pull the palm forward. Simultaneously the roots on the opposite side can either loosen or be abandoned by the tree. Many Socratea growers can attest to the movement this palm can make, in the early stages of life.

Here at Miami Beach Botanical Garden, we were given a large plant by Montgomery Botanical Center (MBC) back in late April. MBC has been very generous in their plant donations to our tropical beach garden. They are a first class institution that is paving the way in botanical exploration and species conservation.

 

We here are happy to be partners with such an amazing organization and happy to display the incredible plants they so graciously give to us. Our Socratea is unique in that it is as happy as we are to have it! As I mentioned before, these palms are not often seen in our small part of the world. We hope it keeps growing and we can set some seed in the future.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          

photo left: Andrew with Walking Palm Roots

photo right: Walking Palm Leaves

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