Palm trees in Florida weathered Hurricane Ian’s wrath just fine

FORT MYERS, Fla. — When a hurricane hits the coast, as Ian did in Southwest Florida, turn on the television and the images the cameras must show are palm trees being tossed by the angry winds. The obligatory footage is meant to be visual evidence of nature’s fury. And that’s it. But a palm tree that withstands a hurricane is also a symbol of life’s resilience, especially in Fort Myers, the city of palms.

I’ve finally got them listed: Ian is the 20th hurricane I’ve documented for NPR—either the big hit or the aftermath. My first was the monster Hugo whose gaze went right over me in 1989 in Charleston, SC.

How many times have I sat in a muggy hotel room with no electricity, talking to the news desk, and the iconic palm trees outside the trembling windows, their trunks stretching in the storm, their fronds flapping wildly behind them like the hair of a damsel in distress.

But the palm trees rarely break!

“The palm tree gets as much wind as any other tree, but it knows how to bend, it knows how to bend,” says Megan Kissinger, a naturalist and Floridian native who lives in Fort Myers and paints palm trees. “And I think Floridians, when you’ve lived here long enough – and I’ve been through a few Category 5s, they’re pretty scary – but you wake up the next morning and you count all your family members and you say everyone’s here. OK, let’s get to work and clean up.”

Resilience – human and treelike.

Coincidentally, the graceful Gulf town of Fort Myers will now be known for taking a direct hit from Category 4 Ian. But it’s also a fitting setting for an ode to the palm tree.

“Fort Myers’ nickname is the City of Palms,” says Karen Maxwell, meeting me at the back gate of the Edison-Ford Winter Estates. She works there as a gardener and teaches a popular course called Palm Reading. The lush grounds are home to the stately winter residences of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, as well as a research laboratory, botanical gardens, museum and garden shop. The property borders the Caloosahatchee River.

There’s one too Palm tree. “Think arboretum,” says Maxwell, “but with palm trees.”

“Foxtail palm, bottle palm, corsair palm, straw palm…” she intones while taking inventory of the young trees in front of her. “Christmas Palm, Pembana Palm, Seaside Palm, Macaw Palm, Black Palm. And they all did well.”

The state tree of Florida is the sabal palm. But the most famous species in this city is the royal palm. Maxwell stands next to a stout king that must be 6 feet in circumference.

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“This is our royal palm, and if you thought of it, you’d think you were tapping on a pillar of solid cement,” she says, tapping on the trunk. “What makes these trees outstanding in a hurricane is that this tree can bend almost 40 to 50 degrees and not break. Because he has no branches. He’s not rigid.”

The palm is a monocot, closer to the grass family than deciduous trees. It grows from above. The inside is not hard and there are no growth rings. It’s a collection of thousands of vascular straws that carry nutrients and water from the bottom to the crown.

Palm trees come in more than 2,500 species, mostly found in the vast warm regions between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. They love a good storm.

“All of them are suited to wind, many of them are suited to flooding, and many are suited to salt as well,” says Maxwell. In short, millennia of natural selection perfectly adapted the palm to an event like Hurricane Ian. “You have the tools to survive,” says Maxwell, with an appreciative grin.

After a hurricane, the ground is often littered with brown palm fronds. While it’s a chore for the city, it’s a good thing for the trees. The wind has pruned the dead fronds. The live, green fronds are tough and aerodynamic and rarely break off. When they do, they grow back.

Amid raked heaps of dead fronds, Phil Buck sits on the trunk of a massive king that has fallen in the storm. He is a board certified master arborist responsible for the tree department at Crawford Landscaping, based in Naples. It overlooks McGregor Avenue in Fort Myers, famously lined with royal palms.

“As you can see, they’re pretty screwed up,” says Buck. “But they are still standing.”

McGregor Boulevard — lined with some 1,800 royal palms, some more than 75 feet tall — has earned Fort Myers the name “City of Palms.”

“Some of these trees along McGregor, I don’t know the exact date, but they can live to be 100 years or more,” says Buck. “And we’ve had countless storms, none as violent as Hurricane Ian. But obviously they are still here.

The English statesman and philosopher of science Francis Bacon made an observation that fits well with the palm tree’s brilliant adaptability: “We cannot rule nature except by obeying her.”

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