Like Charlie Seabrook, my fellow contributor to “likethedew,” I’m a tree-kisser, too. Some of my fondest memories are of climbing the magnolias at my grandmother’s family place in Mississippi, and of the tree house my brother and I built in the spreading pecan tree in our backyard in Tuscaloosa, a tree planted by my grandfather around the turn of the last century. Even as an adult, I’ve never lost my boyhood love of trees. One of the most fun assignments I ever managed to weasel out of my employers when I was a newspaper reporter was a feature on Peter Jenkins’ recreational tree-climbing school in Atlanta, something you can check out at www.treeclimbing.com.
But as much as I love trees, I’ve drawn a line in the sand down in sunny Florida where we live. I now hate palms. Our yard is full of them, and they are devilish, evil things, sent here by Lucifer to torture anybody foolish enough to mess with them. The several varieties in our yard have poked me, stabbed me, rained nasty debris into my eyes and routinely mocked me by littering the yard with their messes on a weekly basis.
Palms don’t make a neat mess like oaks or pecans: leaves, attractive nuts and the occasional branch. Instead, they rain down a constant blizzard of tiny winged seeds, goo-filled nuts, splayed, fraying branches and seed stalks, broken “boots” — weird, stiff, sharp-ended crosses where the fronds attach to the tree — and fronds of great length and weight that can be the devil to cut down. But leave them on the tree dead and your landscaping looks terrible, forlorn and abandoned. Cutting them too late is next to impossible: dried and lifeless they flail when you try to saw them, the blade’s teeth never gaining purchase because the target won’t stand still.
I, for one, won’t dignify palms by calling them trees. Once I removed one after a storm had destroyed its living top, and I was stunned at what the chainsaw revealed. They are not trees, they are giant weeds pretending to be trees. They have no neat, intricate rings or layers: inside they are just millions of long stringy strands of fibers, nothing like the elegance and symmetry inside an oak or a hickory, a real tree. I have to admit this makes them wonderfully adapted to withstanding hurricanes. But palms also don’t have a nicely spreading system of roots beneath the ground mirroring the branches above; beneath the surface they are a rigid single column made up of a million tiny worm-like sprouts, a Medusa’s-head impossible to chop or cut without ruining your tools.
And as a family they are armed with more spikes, daggers and thorns than almost anything else I’ve encountered in nature. Even their seed pods are insidious: They pop open and spew forth a zillion tiny winged seeds that are like so many cluster bombs aimed at taking out your swimming pool pump by clogging up your filter baskets.
The spikes on one of our palms are as hard and sharp as a steel needle. If you trim a branch you better leap out of the way before it falls. I have been speared, repeatedly, and it is intensely painful, almost as if the needles were dipped in some kind of mild poison. The wounds ache for hours afterwards, prompting my wife to remark that men are just whiners and know nothing about bearing pain since we don’t birth babies. (I didn’t hazard to point out that we have no children).
The outer seed pod husks on a queen palm can grow to five feet in length and weigh up to 25 or 30 pounds, even after they split open and separate from the stalk holding the seeds inside. But the husks are topped by a wicked point, and, when trimmed, they turn over in mid-air as they fall and become medieval javelins hurtling from the sky. A neighbor was speared by one and had to go to the hospital for stitches. Without question, they can take out an eye.
Even the relatively innocuous Chinese fan palms — no spikes or daggers — are aggravating: They have long wispy strands on the ends of their fronds, which, when you try to drag them to the street after trimming, invariably slip beneath your feet — intentionally, I’m convinced — and send you stumbling.
Yet another variety of palm in our yard – I hate them so much I don’t even want to know the name – has incredibly hard and sharp protrusions on the stalk near the base of the frond. They look like shark’s teeth, but are small enough to be easily overlooked. The first time I trimmed them and casually picked them up to drag them to the street, my hand slid up the stalk and caught on those protrusions, which dug painfully into my skin, making a surprisingly deep, jagged wound. But of course I’m just a wimpy guy.
And there is nothing like trimming a tall palm with a “pole saw,” a gizmo on a long fiberglass pole that appears designed to break your back as well as cut high limbs. Our trees are so tall I have to stand on a six-foot step-ladder and then use a 12-foot pole saw to reach them. I have given up on some of the trees because it would take a 12-foot ladder — and the long saw — to span the distance. But no matter where I place the ladder on the ones I can reach, the blinding Florida sun is always directly in my eyes and the wind direction is such that a steady stream of sawdust and stringy debris filters out of the treetop directly into my face, my eyes, my hair and down my shirt. I can hear the palm laughing with a smirking, evil tone every time this happens.
We are also lucky enough to have a gorgeous spreading laurel oak in our backyard. It is a wonderful tree, a real tree, one with branches and leaves, not fronds and fibers, and it offers a world of shade all afternoon long beneath its delightfully pleasing profile. Best of all, it demands attention only once a year when its leaves must be raked.
You may love seeing palms silhouetted against a salt marsh or a stunning beach view in the sunset, but I’m telling you: they are evil, nasty things. They are sentient beings out to get ……. me.