Palm trees are extraordinary plants, and they have become an iconic symbol of vacations, beach paradises, and days spent in the sunshine. They look completely different from every other tree, but have you ever wondered why they get as tall as they do?
The major reason why palms grow so tall is that it gives them an advantage in gathering sunlight, especially if they are growing near other trees. They can get their leaves above the other nearby plants, capturing the maximum amount of sun, and photosynthesizing at a greater rate – which fuels more growth.
Why Are Palm Trees So Tall?
Palm trees are tall because this helps them to outstrip the other plants around them and get their leaves close to the sun. Palms need direct sunlight in order to photosynthesize effectively, therefore, they need to ensure that their leaves are higher than the leaves of other trees in the vicinity – and this means they need to be tall.
Although you may often see palm trees growing in isolation, many of the tallest palm trees naturally occur in forests, where height would make all the difference in getting enough sunlight. It has been an evolutionary advantage for them to get very tall.
This is true of palms like the Quindio wax palm, which is the tallest palm and can reach 180 or even 200 feet tall. It naturally grows in forests, where it would be competing with other trees to capture the light overhead. It has an amazing array of fronds that crown its top, spreading out to soak up as much sunlight as possible.
The need for height may be partly because the palm does not spread branches out to distribute its foliage – all of its leaves are at the top, so the position of the top is critical.
Most trees can rely on broad crowns with widely spread leaves in order to capture the sunlight at all different levels, but a palm tree is mostly a trunk with just one bunch of leaves.
This is because a palm tree is not a tree at all; it is actually a kind of grass. Hence, it does not split into branches the way a real tree does and it needs to focus on getting as much light on its crown as possible.
How Fast Do Palm Trees Grow?
Amazingly, some palm trees can grow as much as six feet in a year (although others grow much more slowly), so they can quickly outstrip the trees they are competing against. Their swift growth may be partly because they don’t build their trunks up the way that true trees do.
If you cut a palm tree down, you won’t find rings that tell you how old the tree is; you will just find a mass of tightly packed fibers. These give the tree many useful properties, and it may be able to build on them more quickly than an ordinary tree can.
Growth rates also depend heavily on the environment that the palm is in. Things like nutrients, soil type, water availability, and sunlight will all affect the speed at which a tree can grow. You can have a fast-growing palm gain height very slowly if it is in the wrong environment.
In the right conditions, many palm trees can shoot up – just as the grass of your lawn can grow extremely quickly. However, if the conditions aren’t ideal, the palm will grow much more slowly and may struggle to outgrow any competitors.
What Are The Other Advantages Of Being Tall?
As well as additional sunlight, the palm enjoys a secondary advantage that comes with being tall; it blocks out its competition. No plant wants other plants growing too close to it, as these will compete with it for nutrients, space, and water.
However, most plants cannot do much to prevent the competition, except by making the space as inhospitable to other growth as possible. If you look at a natural palm forest, you will see that this is exactly what the palm does.
A palm forest grows very densely, with the trees packed in close together, allowing almost no light to filter down to the ground between them. This makes it difficult or perhaps even impossible for other plants to root and start competing with the palms.
They therefore can dominate spaces by shading the ground too heavily for other plants to grow, assuring that their species survives and maintains its territory, while other plants die back.
Are All Palm Trees Tall?
No, many palm trees do not grow very tall, and the shortest of them, the dwarf palmetto, only grows to about seven feet at the most. Many other palms are also short, so it’s definitely not a universal feature of palm trees to be tall – it’s only some that achieve great heights.
It’s quite likely that those that do grow very tall evolved to live in forests, while the shorter specimens probably grew in more open spaces with less competition for light.
You might be wondering why palm trees that grow on their own often still seem to reach great heights, but the answer is that the plant has evolved to grow this way irrespective of its actual conditions. It will not grow significantly shorter just because it isn’t directly competing with other trees.
This often leads to palms looking excessively tall, because we aren’t viewing them in their natural environment. They are out of context when grown in cities and gardens, thus, their height looks extraordinary, even if it would look fairly standard in a forest.
Why Don’t Palm Trees Blow Down?
One of the biggest disadvantages that trees face in growing very tall is that they become increasingly vulnerable to strong winds, and they are at risk of being blown down when the winds are fierce.
However, palm trees are much less vulnerable to strong winds than other trees are. Their trunks are fibrous and flexible, and often contain a lot of moisture, which makes them bend in strong winds, but keeps them from breaking.
Unlike a normal tree’s trunk, which is tough and fairly inflexible, the palm’s is like fibrous grass – only much thicker. Like grass, it can simply bend when the wind blows, bowing to the strength of the gale without breaking. When the wind stops, it will spring back to its normal position.
Palm trees also have a big root structure, which keeps them in the ground even when the tops bow to the wind.
This is coupled with a low profile, with serrated leaves that minimize wind resistance. The wind can simply slice through them, reducing the force that is applied to the tree. There are no branches to increase the drag, so overall, the wind does not affect the palm tree the way it would any other kind of tree.
Palms are therefore very resistant to winds and don’t suffer from one of the biggest disadvantages that prevents other trees from gaining too much height.
How Long Do Palm Trees Live?
It might surprise you to learn that palm trees have quite short lives.
Many of our tallest trees take a long time to reach such heights. For example, the bristlecone pine takes decades to achieve its full height, being a very slow-growing plant. Even things like oaks can take a long time; they put down strong foundations and invest lots of energy into stabilizing themselves and building solid root networks.
These trees also have long lifespans; oaks can reach 1000 years in some cases, and bristlecone pines may be able to reach over 5000 years. Their height is a result of their slow, steady growth.
However, palm trees generally have much shorter lives. Some can live up to around 100, but most only reach about 70 or 80 years old before they die. They have to grow more quickly if they are going to reach impressive heights because they don’t have nearly as much time as most true trees do.
Palm trees can reach some amazing heights, and it is thought that the biggest reason that these trees grow so tall is to allow them to capture as much sunlight as possible. They do not have a broad crown of leaves to grab sunlight at many different levels, so it’s really important for them to get their fronds above the tops of other plants.
Not all palms are tall, but those that are can reach astonishing heights, without incurring the risks of being pulled down by winds that other tall trees face.