THREE PHOENIX PALMS
Phoenix is a genus 14 palm species that occur over an area as far west as the Canary Islands, across Africa as far south as Namibia and South Africa, northwards to the extreme south-east of Europe (Crete), and across southern Asia from Turkey to southern China and Malaysia in the east.
Most Phoenix species occur in semi-arid regions, usually where the groundwater levels are high and near rivers or springs. All Phoenix palms have pinnate rather than palmate leaves. Typically there are sharp spines on the basal portion of the fronds - these are leaflets which have changed, taking on a protective function. Palms across the Phoenix genus readily hybridise with one another resulting in naturally occurring variations. This makes identification problematic and in De Waal Park there is at least one unidentified Phoenix palm. Trees from the Phoenix genus often host other plants on their stems, and this is also the case in the park.
SA22 Phoenix reclinata (Wild date palm, Wildedadelboom)
This palm is native to tropical Africa, Madagascar, the Comoro Islands and occurs naturally as far south as the Eastern Cape, hence its South African tree number. P. reclinata can tolerate salt-spray and moderate drought where the water table is permanently high, as is the case in De Waal Park, where there are 12 specimens.
The wild date palm mostly grows in clumps with multiple stems and its name refers to its reclining growth habit. The stems can reach a height up to 15 m and the foliage can grow to 4.5 m long. The plants are unisexual and florets appear at the top of the palm stem. Male florets are a dirty, pale yellow and fall off after blooming. The female flowers are small, globose and yellow-green. This species grows small, edible, oblong fruit, orange in colour when ripe. The fruit are borne in large, pendant clusters. Each fruit (date) contains one seed. In its natural habitat birds, monkeys and baboons eat the ripe fruit. Bushpig, nyala and bushbuck feed on fallen fruit and the leaves are eaten by the palm-tree nightfighter butterfly caterpillar.
Phoenix reclinata fruit
In Africa, the leaves are traditionally used to make mats, baskets and hats. Brooms for sweeping around rural dwellings are made from the dried inflorescences. The midrib of the frond is used to construct fish enclosures. Special skirts made from the leaves are worn by Xhosa boys when undergoing their initiation rites. Palm wine is made from the sap (true to the reclinata name, this palm wine may put the user thereof in a 'reclining' mode).
Phoenix canariensis (Canary Island palm, Kanariese palm)
As the name indicates this Phoenix species is a native of the Canary Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa. This large solitary palm generally grows 10 to 20 m high. The trunk can reach a diameter of more than a meter and is covered with an attractive, diamond-shaped pattern from old leaf scars. Up to a 100 leaflets grow on each side of the central rachis. The yellow to orange fruits are oval-shaped and contain a single large seed each. The fruit is edible, but only a very thin layer covers the seed, not making it worth harvesting.
On the Canary Islands P. canariensis is sparsely and unevenly distributed on all seven islands and the conservation status is different on each of them. The main threat seems to be hybridisation with P. dactylifera.
Phoenix canariensis hosting a Harpephyllum caffrum (wild plum)
P. canariensis is widely planted as an ornamental plant in warm temperate regions. It thrives in Cape Town and readily grows from seeds, as the many trees on empty tracts of land or neglected properties testify. In New Zealand it has invaded a range of habitats and is considered a ‘sleeper weed’ – a plant that spreads slowly and goes unnoticed until it has become widespread.
Phoenix canariensis inflorecence with some fruit
Phoenix dactylifera (Real date palm, Egte dadelboom)
It is not known exactly where Phoenix dactylifera originated, but this species has been a staple food in the Middle East for at least 4000 years. Date palms are medium-sized, growing singly or forming a clump with several stems from a single root system. Although tree-like in form, they do not grow woody tissue, and are able to support themselves with fibrous, stout, overlapping stems that grow to a height of 15 to 25 m.
The date palm is dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants that are cross-pollinated by wind. In commercial production the flowers are often hand-pollinated for better fruit production, and propagation is by cuttings to minimise the number of male (non-fruiting) trees. The leaf rachis is 3 to 5 m long, with about 150 leaflets that are 30 cm long. The gender of the sole specimen in the top part of the Park near the bandstand has not been positively established.
The name date comes from the Greek for finger as the fruit is oval-cylindrical. The ripe dates range in colour from bright red to bright yellow, depending on the cultivar. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the world’s largest date producers. In South Africa dates are grown commercially in the Northern Cape Province.