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CICLY · Lethal Yellowing Disease of Coconut Palm

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The House With the Coconut Trees   Message List  
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CICLY members who wish to respond to this message should go to the blog (URL

The House With the Coconut Trees

Our first, brief trip to South Florida was for a job interview. We
immediately took to the subtropical environment, the cosmopolitan
setting and the overall ambiance. When my wife was hired, we were
thrilled. We came down again to tour houses with a realtor, seeing
dozens of properties. We found many in our price range needed a great
deal of work or were in bad locations. We were tired on the next to
last day of our visit and beginning to think the trip was a wash. I'm
sure the realty agent was about to give up on her commission when she
took us to the house that was to become our home. It was a little more
expensive than we had planned, but it had many positive qualities, not
the least of which was a decent yard with six big coconut palms.

Well into the 70's, South Florida had many thousands of coconut palms,
mostly of the "Jamaica Tall" variety. Due to the spread of Lethal
Yellowing disease from Jamaica through the Florida Keys, practically
every one of these majestic beauties had died by the early 80's.
Hybrids were developed, particularly a combination of Malaysian and
Panamanian varieties, called the "Maypan." Since then, coconut palms
have seen a resurgence in South Florida, although about ten percent of
the resistant hybrids still succumb to this virulent bacterial disease.

When we moved into our house, these coconut palms were all in excess
of twenty-five feet to the base of the crown, the tallest perhaps
forty feet, making them quite old for this type of tree in Palm Beach
county. One of our neighbors told us that they were originally in a
yard across the street from us. When they reached adolescent height,
the homeowner had tired of them, having a somewhat small yard for such
potentially large trees. The previous owner of our house had paid to
have them moved to this yard, a costly affair. We were, of course,
grateful at his foresight as they were beautiful, productive specimens
of one of our favorite palm varieties. They were the tallest trees on
our block, except for solitary Norfolk Island pines in two yards,
which had grown to gigantic proportions, because this part of Florida
had been spared hurricanes for 20 years.

We've gotten quite a yield from these trees. We've befriended a
Jamaica-born groundskeeper who works in our area and he harvests green
coconuts from them at least a couple of times a year. I've given him
the bulk of them, usually keeping a dozen to use. There is nothing
quite as refreshing as green coconut water straight from the source
and the unripe meat yields a jelly when scraped that is delicious, as
well. We harvest some mature coconuts, too. Fresh coconut meat isn't
as sweet as the grated variety in stores and we could eat it all day,
if not for practicing some restraint. The dry, brown coconuts that
fall to the ground are actually the best ones for seeding and we know
another Jamaican expatriate down the street who plants them on his
land near Lake Okeechobee. I'll leave a couple by the curb every so
often and I'll see him stop to pick them up as he passes.

Having coconut trees in your yard has its hazards. When mowing or
gardening, I keep an eye out while underneath the tree and I
occasionally have to remind the neighborhood kids to avoid them. A
coconut falling from around thirty feet is not unlike a cannonball and
could pretty easily crack your nut. Also, the largest fronds weigh
fifteen pounds or more. Fronds are very woody and rigid at the base.
One of those falling on you would definitely wake you up, or more
likely, knock you out. All in all, the tradeoffs are worth it and
we've quite enjoyed keeping them.

Unfortunately, this is were the story becomes a tale of woe. After
about a year, the production on one tree dropped off and we worried
about it. Noticing that a new frond sprouting from the top was pale. I
contacted a palm tree expert and he confirmed our sneaking
suspicion–it had contracted Lethal Yellowing. If we had known more
about this disease and noticed the tree not flowering properly, it
would have been easier to treat with a series of antibiotics. As it
was, the chances were the expensive treatment would be in vain. So,
our only real option was to cut it down. At least we still had five of
our prized trees.

We escaped our first year without a hurricane, but then our luck
turned. Two major hurricanes a year for two years and a couple of
tropical storms later, the landscape in our area had drastically
changed with many large, old trees down, including the Norfolk pines
and a staggering number of huge ficus trees. Our yard took damage each
time, not the least of which was the loss of a small mango tree. A lot
of coconuts blew down in the first three major hurricanes and the
coconut fronds looked like hell after each storm, but Hurricane Wilma
was the one that hurt. It hit the west coast first and traveled a few
hours across land to arrive here, but it strength didn't diminish and
we experienced a low-end category three storm. We took major damage to
our roof, screen enclosure and fence, but the most heartbreaking was
that another of our coconut trees was killed. When we came out after
the storm to survey the damage, we were pretty sure the top of one
tree was critically twisted, but we held out hope. Unfortunately, not
many days later, the entire crown fell out of the tree and we were
down to four.

Of the remaining palms, the tallest was alone on the far side of our
driveway. The other three are directly in front of our house. One
morning, during a brief spring thunderstorm, I sat at my computer with
a front window to my side. I heard the thunder in the distance move
closer, but thought little of it. Just as rain started, lightning
struck so nearby, my eye nearest the window filled with blue-white
light and my ears rang. It obvious the strike was quite close, but it
was a week later when I realized how close.

On my way to my truck one day, I noticed the tallest coconut tree
seemed odd. The fronds were all suddenly hanging lower than the day
before. Within another day, the trunk began oozing rusty, red fluid.
The next morning, I went outside with binoculars to study the crown of
the tree to get an idea about the health of the newest growth. A
neighbor's visiting uncle told me what I was beginning to suspect–this
tree was where the lightning had struck. He had been working on a
landscape crew and they watched lightning hit a similar tree. The
symptoms were the same. Just as he told me it would, within a couple
of days the fronds begans falling off the tree in great numbers. Our
coconut trees are reduced by half and we hope this tragic tale is over.

Our friends know we are long-time environmentalists and avid
gardeners, so I'm sure they have some idea of how devastating this has
been for us. Of course, these three trees represent literally thousand
of dollars of loss and a real source of pride in our property, but
these are minor parts of the sadness we've felt. It will probably
sound silly to most people, but the only thing I can compare losing a
palm tree like this to is losing a valued pet. Your heart is sick and
your spirit diminished for days. This beautiful, nourishing thing gone
after surviving so much for so many years. It reminds you of the
fleeting, fragile nature of life itself.

We do try to focus on the joy they brought us and we will continue to
appreciate the remaining palms for as long as we have them. And we are
glad to know that a grove of their offspring are growing out by the
lake. Yet I still remember the first day I saw them all together with
great clarity and fondness, but now, not without a little sadness.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 28th, 2007 at 12:46 pm and
is filed under shabby dee, gardening. You can follow any responses to
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Thu Mar 29, 2007 7:48 am

"hugh.harries" <harrieshc@yahoo.com>
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CICLY members who wish to respond to this message should go to the blog (URL below). The House With the Coconut Trees Our first, brief trip to South Florida...
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Mar 29, 2007
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