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WEEK ELEVEN - Cabbages and Dwarves

March 24, 2017

      On the windowsill in my bedroom on the island, I have a small but growing natural history collection. I fully intend to curate this collection, providing it with dates and locations as befitting a proper museum (because I'm a great big nerd). In my magnificent little menagerie, there can be found: a blue crab shell, several seashells, the bird's nest I found when I was lost, part of an armadillo spine, various mushrooms, woodpecker feathers, a sweet gum seed pod, and a curious brown lump. When I first picked up the curious brown lump (CBL for short), it was on the seashore and I thought maybe I'd found a strange rock with fossils in it. It could have been a chunk of cooled lava with miniature mollusks clinging to it. It could have been a rare composite stone or a colony of lumpy sea creatures. That was before I'd spent eleven weeks on St. Catherines. I may have been a bit naive.  


     When I get around to creating labels for my collection, I'm afraid that the label for the CBL will need to say "scat." One great big clue as to the proper identification of the CBL came from my roommate, who pointed out that the small round objects lodged in it were seeds. As it turns out, they are dwarf palmetto seeds. This small palm is abundant...nay, ubiquitous...on the island, choking out roadways and making off-trail wanderings a challenge. Often sprouting right out of the soil rather than from visible trunks, the dwarf palmettos can be found in great bit clusters six feet or more across.  Since it does so well here, my first thought was that it might be an invasive plant - an offshore import gone crazy - but it is one of our two native palm species. The plant owes its success to its ability to deal with a bit of salty marine spray and temperatures down to negative five degrees (F). Though it is a bit obnoxious to try and hike through, the dwarf palmetto is an important food source for raccoons, birds, and bees. I wouldn't be surprised if the pigs eat it too, because I can't imagine any smaller creature producing my CBL. 

      The other native palm we have here on St. Cats is the cabbage palm. It's much taller than the dwarf, but the tree is very slow growing. In fact, it can take over thirty years before it develops a trunk. As it does, the older fronds drop off of the lower parts of the trunk, leaving a distinctive criss-cross pattern behind (which you can see in black and white in my photo gallery). Like the dwarf palmetto, it tolerates cold and salt well. Unlike the dwarf palmetto, it steers pretty much clear of the roads and grows a bit more sparsely. Deer eat the fruit, birds nest in the branches, and baby butterflies (a.k.a. caterpillars) eat the leaves. Humans can eat the cabbage palm too; it gets its name from the flavor of the young, edible shoots. I haven't tried it myself yet, so I can't vouch for the taste. I haven't tried thatching the roof of my hut with the leaves either, for that matter.


    Once upon a time - shortly after moving to California - I was so enamored with palms that I had a photo collection dedicated exclusively to them (yes, I have a collecting "problem"). They seemed so exotic; a postcard illustration advertising tropical getaways. In fact, everywhere I've lived voluntarily has been hospitable to palm trees. That speaks to my affinity for warm climates if nothing else, but these days they seem as commonplace as oaks or pines. I do, however, regularly collect the branches of the cabbage palm for the lemurs. It's not that they crave cabbagey goodness, but instead use the thick petioles (or stems) to scent mark. Lemurs hold onto these palm pieces and scrape the glands on their forearms against them. Once in a while, for fun, we switch these branches between the lemur enclosures so that they can sniff each other's stink marks. What does lemur stink smell like? Well, I honestly couldn't say. Even though our free-rangers mark the truck I use to deliver their meals every day, it's not a particulary funky ride. Lemur stink will just have to be the topic of a future post. :)

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