Palm Trees–Not Trees After All!

I once heard, many years ago when I lived in Florida, that a palm tree is not really a tree;  it’s a grass!  I had never investigated the truth of that statement.  But spending time recently in San Diego and admiring the many tall palms towering high over houses and even over other trees, made me want to find out whether it is, in fact, true that palm trees are actually grasses.

Even though palms seem like trees, with their height, their leaves, and what seems to be a trunk, it turns out that those traits are not enough to make them trees.

In fact, there are important differences between actual trees and palms.  For example, unlike trees, palms have no bark or woody tissue.  Palm trees do not produce a cambium layer–that part of a tree between the bark and the interior, that produces new growth each year.  A horizontal cut through a tree’s trunk would show growth rings;  a cut across a palm’s would not.  A palm’s ‘trunk’ is simply a mass of spongy, hardened material that expands as the palm grows taller.

And palm trees lack a key ability trees have–to resist death from disease or injury.  A tree can ‘seal off’ a damaged portion, entirely separating it from the tree’s healthy part, so that the tree can continue to live and grow.

In addition, conventional trees experience a secondary growth phase, when functioning tissues are replaced with younger cells.  But palm trees do not undergo such a process of cell replacement.  Instead, a palm tree’s individual cells endure for the plant’s entire lifespan of 100-740 years.

Palm trees, of which more than 2,000 species exist, are grouped botanically with grasses, sedges, bamboo, grains, lilies, onions, and orchids.  In fact, as it turns out, a palm tree has more in common genetically with turf grass or corn than it has with an oak tree!  A palm tree is truly a grass giant!

Palm trees are indeed amazing.  But, as it turns out, they’re amazing grasses, not amazing trees.–April Moore

 

14 Responses to “Palm Trees–Not Trees After All!”

  1. Diane Artz Furlong Says:

    Well, that’s fascinating! I had no idea. I guess I never really thought about it, just assumed they were trees. Thing is, I planted a palm tree here, in my zone 6 garden in Virginia, last summer. A windmill palm for my husband’s birthday. He loves palm trees. I researched them online and found that the windmill palm can withstand really cold temps and has even been grown in northern Russia. Wouldn’t you know its first winter in the ground would be one of the coldest we’ve had in decades? I don’t know if it is going to survive or not. Will know in the spring.

  2. Priscilla Says:

    Very interesting, April! Never would have guessed this!

  3. E Says:

    Balmy, Palmy.

  4. Tanya Says:

    Very interesting and timely, too, as we are currently in Florida admiring the palm trees here!

  5. Joan Brundage Says:

    Most interesting! We have a palm tree but now I will look at it through different eyes! Thanks, April.

  6. Linda Shaw Says:

    Hi April.
    I have to share a bit of history about the Palm tree with relation to South Carolina. South Carolina’s state tree is the Sabal Palm, also known as the Cabbage Palm. During the Revolutionary War, Colonel Moultry built his fort on Sullivan’s island (near Charleston) out of Palmettos. The walls of the fort repelled the British fleets cannon attacks because the spongy part of the “tree trunk” actually absorbed the cannon balls force and caused many of the balls to bounce off. This could happen because as you said.. the Palmetto tree is not actually a tree.

    Linda Shaw
    Summerville S.C.

  7. Top palms Says:

    Palm trees are amazing for their uniqueness. Thanks for the information.

  8. Camille Says:

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but after I
    clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr…
    well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just
    wanted to say wonderful blog!

  9. Bonnie Jean Says:

    You Are correct that Palms are Not trees. But don’t be confused by those who claim that Palms are actually grasses. Among flowering plants (Angiosperms), palms are indeed classified as Monocots, along with grasses, onions and lilies. But, Palms (Araecacae) are a distinct separate family from grasses (Poaceae). The other Angiosperm category are Dicots, which include Some trees, but also many plants that are Not trees. In addition, non flowering plants, known as Gumnosperms Also include some trees ( such as pines).
    The confusion occurs when one tries to equate a botanical term (tree) with taxonomic categories, e.g. Monocot and dicot.
    A tree is distinguished by a)bark, b) secondary growth and c) the ability to heal wounds

  10. Bonnie Jean Says:

    You Are correct that Palms are Not trees. But don’t be confused by those who claim that Palms are actually grasses. Among flowering plants (Angiosperms), palms are indeed classified as Monocots, along with grasses, onions and lilies. But, Palms (Araecacae) are a distinct separate family from grasses (Poaceae). The other Angiosperm category are Dicots, which include Some trees, but also many plants that are Not trees. In addition, non flowering plants, known as Gumnosperms Also include some trees ( such as pines).
    The confusion occurs when one tries to equate a botanical term (tree) with taxonomic categories, e.g. Monocot and dicot.
    A tree is distinguished by a)bark, b) secondary growth and c) the ability to heal wounds.

  11. Elvis Cruz Says:

    As a long time palm aficionado, I can tell you that there are two terms used by the general population that are loosely defined in the botanical world:

    1. Tree

    2. Weed

    “Tree” is defined by the botanical dictionary as: A tall, woody perennial plant usually with a single trunk

    https://www.ibiblio.org/pic/botanical_dictionary.htm#T

    As such, palms are indeed trees. What the writer of this blog post was perhaps wanting to express was that palms are not dicotyledonous. That is true, they are monocotyledonous, but both are angiosperms (flowering). And palms can certainly be tall and have wood.

    Again, the term “tree” is more colloquial than botanical.

    As for “weed”, that word is not even defined in a botanical dictionary. It is simply a plant in a location that the observer doesn’t want to be there.

  12. Lori Skulski Says:

    There is no single, accepted definition for the term “tree”. The notion that “palm trees aren’t trees” isn’t based in there being some standard botanical qualification that someone has suddenly realized palms don’t meet. Why this idea is being promoted wildly across the internet is actually quite baffling.

    From a readily-available source, Wikipedia, which presents a summary of various definitions:
    “Although “tree” is a term of common parlance, there is no universally recognised precise definition of what a tree is, either botanically or in common language.[2] In its broadest sense, a tree is any plant with the general form of an elongated stem, or trunk, which supports the photosynthetic leaves or branches at some distance above the ground.[3] Trees are also typically defined by height,[4] with smaller plants from 0.5 to 10 m (1.6 to 32.8 ft) being called shrubs,[5] so the minimum height of a tree is only loosely defined.[4] Large herbaceous plants such as papaya and bananas are trees in this broad sense.[2][6]

    A commonly applied narrower definition is that a tree has a woody trunk formed by secondary growth, meaning that the trunk thickens each year by growing outwards, in addition to the primary upwards growth from the growing tip.[4][7] Under such a definition, herbaceous plants such as palms, bananas and papayas are not considered trees regardless of their height, growth form or stem girth. Certain monocots may be considered trees under a slightly looser definition;[8] while the Joshua tree, bamboos and palms do not have secondary growth and never produce true wood with growth rings,[9][10] they may produce “pseudo-wood” by lignifying cells formed by primary growth.[11]

    Aside from structural definitions, trees are commonly defined by use, for instance as those plants which yield lumber.[12]”

    In summary, by many definitions (and in the absence of any “standard” definition), palms may indeed be considered trees.

    Usually included in the same sites or blogs that proclaim “Palms aren’t trees!” is the additional inaccurate statement that “Palms are grasses!”. This, as Bonnie Jean has noted, is completely false and represents a misunderstanding of the basic concepts of botany and of taxonomy in general. (Both of these falsehoods are being propagated across the internet by a number of low quality sites that ignore factual science in favour of pumping out easily digestible, if incorrect, articles about plants and gardening; while these articles may be entertaining to read, the inaccuracies are truly enough to make botanists weep. Propagating nonsense helps no one.) The fact that palms are monocots does not make them grasses; it would be just as erroneous to claim that lilies are palms, or palms are onions, or daffodils are bamboo, or vice versa, because “they are both monocots” in each case.

    Why are palms NOT grasses? Here’s how the taxonomic system works. It is, in simplest terms, a system that describes how closely related organisms are. The most basic division of life forms is the kingdom. Plants, Kingdom Plantae (and likewise the other kingdoms), is divided into Phyla (singular: Phylum); Phyla are divided into Classes; Classes are divided into Orders, then Orders into Families, then Families into Genera (singular: Genus); then Genera into Species. Monocots are a very high level division, comprised of a number of Orders.

    Species “A” and species “B” may be said to be “closely related” if “A” and “B” are different species in the same genus. If “A” and “B” are in different genera in the same family, they are much less closely related. If they are in different families, similarity (i.e. relationship) becomes more and more tenuous, and at increasing distance, they become “related” only in the sense of being in the same Order, or more distantly yet, in the same Class, or even more distantly, in the same Phylum.

    Palms and grasses are not even in the same order, let alone in the same family. Palms are in the Order Arecales, and within that, in the family Arecaceae. Grasses are in the Order Poales, and within that, in the family Poaceae. The fact that they are different orders within the larger division of monocots indicates that they are very dissimilar and not closely related at all.

  13. Lori Skulski Says:

    There is no standard, precise definition for *tree*.

    The Wikipedia entry provides a useful review of various, sometimes conflicting definitions of the term:

    **Although *tree* is a term of common parlance, there is no universally recognised precise definition of what a tree is, either botanically or in common language.[2] In its broadest sense, a tree is any plant with the general form of an elongated stem, or trunk, which supports the photosynthetic leaves or branches at some distance above the ground.[3] Trees are also typically defined by height,[4] with smaller plants from 0.5 to 10 m (1.6 to 32.8 ft) being called shrubs,[5] so the minimum height of a tree is only loosely defined.[4] Large herbaceous plants such as papaya and bananas are trees in this broad sense.[2][6]

    A commonly applied narrower definition is that a tree has a woody trunk formed by secondary growth, meaning that the trunk thickens each year by growing outwards, in addition to the primary upwards growth from the growing tip.[4][7] Under such a definition, herbaceous plants such as palms, bananas and papayas are not considered trees regardless of their height, growth form or stem girth. Certain monocots may be considered trees under a slightly looser definition;[8] while the Joshua tree, bamboos and palms do not have secondary growth and never produce true wood with growth rings,[9][10] they may produce “pseudo-wood” by lignifying cells formed by primary growth.[11]

    Aside from structural definitions, trees are commonly defined by use, for instance as those plants which yield lumber.[12]**

    Palms can indeed be considered *trees* since they *qualify* under various definitions (in the absence of any single, precise definition).

  14. Joe Says:

    Just reiterating what Bonnie Jean said above: Palm trees are monocots along with grasses. Monocots are the group that you mentioned in the last paragrah of your article. But it is inaccurate to say that palm trees are grasses because they have more characteristics in common with grasses than conventional trees.

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