April 16, 2008


One of my favorite of all tropical trees is this, often called a sago palm, but wrongly: it isn't a palm at all. It's something more ancient... a cycad.

Cycads date back at least 200 million years, one of the oldest of seed-bearing plants, probably originating in the early mesozoic era. It has left fossils on every continent of the planet.

The stem along the interior of its frond is laced with huge needle-sharp spines, thought to deter ravening dinosaurs.

A beautiful one, just two stories high, though more than thirty years old, grew just outside the lanai off my bedroom some years ago. Its gorgeous head, fifteen feet across, spanned the entire breadth of the lanai, plunging the west end of my home into tropical splendor. It was killed in a thunderstorm a few years ago... I suspect by one of the small tornadoes that often accompany, like lethal courtiers, tropical storms in this part of the world. I awoke that morning to a flood of oddly unfamiliar light pouring into my bedroom. Nearly a minute passed before my brain could absorb the heartbreaking sight before me... the majestic old tree was snapped in half. It has since been replaced by a fan palm, an amiable companion, though lacking its predecessor's grandeur.

I was trimming the cycad in the front yard one day, years ago, when the tip of one of its spines poked into, and broke off in, my index finger. There it sat, stubbornly lodged, and harassing the knuckle, for almost a year. I finally managed to coax it out; it emerged every bit as sharp, pointy, and unassailed by any solution that my mere mammalian metabolism could muster, as the day it went in.

I think now that I should have saved it. It deserves a place of honorable mention, at least, alongside my kidney stone, its painfully (although, admittedly on a whole different scale) extruded cousin.