by Jorge Monteverde, Buenos Aires,
© January 2005
Reprinted with permission from the
and Water Gardening Society's
Water Garden Journal (ISSN 1069-5982). www.iwgs.org
Click images to enlarge
Photo by Michael Calonje
Some time ago I had the opportunity to read a very interesting
article(1) by the expert Betsy Sakata (Hall of Fame IWGS 2001)
from Hawaii, USA, in which she told about one of her favorite
aquatic plants, Cyrtostachys renda Blume (sealing wax
palm). She mentioned that there were other aquatic palms, but
left discussion of them for another time, adding that their beauty
and potential as water garden plants merited further study and
Photo by Michael Calonje
Taking her passing comment as a challenge, I began to explore
palms with the close attention suggested by Ms. Sakata. As the
result of my curiosity I ended up investigating these monocotyledons,
and realized they would contribute greatly to water gardening
if I could precisely identify the aquatic species of this vast
family of plants. The Family Palmae (Arecaceae) comprises over
1880 species, not counting varieties, distributed in 191 genera
that grow all around the world, mainly in tropical and subtropical
WHAT BOTANISTS TELL US
I immediately checked the indispensable reference by Dr. Christopher
D.K. Cook, and got a little surprise: the renowned specialist
says that the taxonomical Order Arecales (within which the Family
Palmae resides) does not include any families that have aquatic
species. That statement directly contradicted Ms. Sakata's respected
opinion, and piqued my curiosity even more.
But not everything is on the Internet yet, and for a
long time bibliographic research will be necessary. In this manner,
from the different documents consulted, more species slowly came
forth, some of them with a subtle differentiation that science
has made within what we as water gardening aficionados would
consider aquatic plants.
With the help of the internet, I was able to quickly update the
information in Dr. Cook's book, which was first published in
1974, with a revised 2nd edition published in the 1990's. Two
species are considered aquatic in the scientific literature available
on the internet: Nypa fruticans Wurmb., native to the
mangroves of Southeast Asia and Australia and naturalized in
Trinidad and West Africa; and Ravenea musicalis Beentje,
a freshwater palm from the ever-surprising island of Madagascar.
Nypa fruticans Photo
by Jody Haynes,
Montgomery Botanical Center
We know that plants which live all or part of their lives
in close relation to an aquatic environment are called "hydrophytes"
(C.D. Sculthorpe expounds on this subject; its reach, inaccuracy,
and subjectivities). When we speak together as enthusiasts we
don't usually get down to the details regarding whether the environment
of one or another plant is what we call "lentic", of
calm water, or "lotic", of moving water. But those
who dedicate themselves to the study of Palms make the distinction.
It is common to find the term "rheophyte" in their
writings which refers to plants (palms in this case) which live
all or part of their lives in moving water, be it fast or slowly
moving, and which have adapted strategies to deal with the difficulties
of growing in those surroundings. We can conclude then, those
plants which are categorized as rheophytes, are hydrophytes,
but with a particular specialization.
Dr. Henk Beentje (pers comm.): "Dypsis crinita
usually grows along riversides, so not really in the water; many
seedlings do start in fairly fast flowing water (as rheophytes
- with pliable underwater leaves) but I believe that when they
grow larger they either are carried away by the current or collect
stream debris around them and so become riverside plants!"
Ravenea musicalis Beentje is one of those, as are Areca
rheophytica Dransf., Chamaedorea cataractarum Mart.,
Geonoma linearis Burret., Hydriastele rheophytica
Dowe & M.D. Ferrero, Pinanga rivularis Becc, Pinanga
tenella (H. Wendl.) Scheff. var. tenella, and perhaps,
though lacking full study, Dypsis crinita (Jumelle &
H. Perrier) Beentje & Dransf., Geonoma brevispatha
Barb. Rodr. and Pinanga subintegra var. beccariana
Photo by Gastón Torres Vera
Not mentioned as rheophytes, but certainly existing in fully
aquatic environment, we should add Dypsis aquatilis Dransf.
and Raphia taedigera Mart.
So up to this point we have, according to the scientific literature,
just 9 species and 1 variety of palm which are proven to be aquatic,
with 2 species and 1 variety which are very likely to be aquatic,
but lack full certainty botanically speaking.
I have not found additional references with sufficient scientific
footing or coming from distinguished investigators, except a
mention of Phoenix paludosa Roxb. (Scott Zona) in a context
not thoroughly scientific. This palm, like others which I will
mention later, thrives not only in aquatic environments, but
also grows well in very different conditions, such as on dry
ground in the Botanical Garden of Buenos Aires where there are
two trees nearly a hundred years old.
BEYOND SCIENTIFIC DEFINITIONS
As of now, the scientific evidence shows a small group of
species of palms that are truly hydrophytes and rheophytes. But
for our interest as aquatic gardeners, there are certainly others
that fall into that category, though outside the strict criteria
for scientific classification as aquatic. Cyrtostachys renda,
the sealing wax palm, which started this article, is not technically
aquatic but still fulfills our water-gardening needs, and so
it could be called aquatic for our purposes.
Photo by Rich Sacher
While the previous portion of this article is clearly backed
by scientific literature, the following does not presume the
same rigor. It is the result of some investigation, some conversations
with specialists, and quite a lot of compilation of pieces of
information that were buried in various resources. My objective
is to offer the widest possible range of information in an organized
and useful manner to stand alone, as a base for other investigations,
or to help us confirm personal experiences which will then permit
us to delve more deeply into the potential for palms as aquatic
WHY HAVE PALMS BEEN OVERLOOKED?
What are some of the reasons we haven't thought of these elegant
plants as ornamentals for our ponds and wetlands? Without thinking
too hard, some ideas come to mind, and I am sure there are others:
· Lack of knowledge about
these palms and their characteristics.
· The difficulty involved
in obtaining seed or in growing some palms in temperate climates.
· The fact that many are
difficult to grow under even the best circumstances.
· Nurseries don't offer
In addition, the majority of the literature regarding aquatic
ornamental plants and water gardening is from, and for, countries
with rigorous climates such as the USA, Canada, and Northern
Europe, so the specialized publications have not included palms.
Photo by Gastón Torres Vera
It is also probable that the omission of palms from the water
gardening literature is due to the ultimate size of the majority
of the possible palms and the impression that they are too big
to incorporate into the landscape of a pond. Some mature leaves
can reach more than 8 meters in length! (and then there's Raphia
taedigera at more than 18 meters!) Others are not easily
adapted to the climates where most enthusiasts live. But from
my point of view, that shouldn't impede our botanical curiosity.
We should learn as much as can and embark on the adventure!
Even taking into account the truly enormous mature size of many
of these species, they tend to grow quite slowly and can offer
us much pleasure while they are young. There is also the possibility
of managing the young plants with bonsai techniques, some of
which are published on the Internet. However, not all of these
palms are big, and some of the species mentioned could actually
be considered small.
When we as water gardeners speak in general of aquatic plants,
we think of those members of the plant kingdom which thrive in
"watery environments", not just those plants which
depend on flooded or completely saturated conditions, as would
be the case with true hydrophytes. As gardeners, we would include
those palms which are essentially terrestrial but which grow
under conditions of long-term seasonal flooding, as well as those
species that grow on the borders of permanent bodies of water.
These plants are called helophytes. We also include species that
in our experience seem to have adapted well in plantings in extremely
Seeing palms from this point of view, removing the rigorous
lens of science, we widen our range and find a significant number
of additional species which, in their natural habitats, are associated
with permanent or seasonal wetlands. Of the species that I mention
below, many are known as bog plants while others are at least
Photo by Michael Calonje
In this investigation I have identified 136 palms (131 species
and 6 varieties) belonging to 51 genera. Eighty-three are from
the Americas, 42 from Asia and Australia and 12 from Africa,
including Madagascar. Expert review of the article previous to
publication brought new species to light that I had missed. I
have made an effort to make this list as accurate and complete
as possible, but even so, there may well be species I have overlooked.
Photo by Michael Calonje
I have purposely left out many species that are considered
climbing, vining, or leaning because they aren't interesting
from the point of view of this article. Most of them belong to
the large genus Calamus, the genus Daemonorops, with a few from
the genus Korthalsia.
Click here for an alphabetical list
detailing the species. Additional characteristics are
included when possible, such as common names, origin, form of
the leaves, mature height, trunk characteristic, habitat, etc.
Photo by Gastón Torres Vera
We have seen the palms which are either truly aquatic or at least
adaptable to wet environments. But I don't want to end without
briefly mentioning the most ancient living group of seed plants,
which often go hand-in-hand with palms: the cycads. To the uninitiated,
they look something like palms so I include them, but they are
distinct and distant from the palms. These remarkable Jurassic
survivors can also contribute to our water gardening enjoyment,
particularly Zamia roezlii Lind. and Zamia chigua
Seem. both from the wetlands of Colombia and Ecuador, and Zamia
purpurea Vovides, J.D. Rees & Vázquez T. from
Mexico. These plants must be considered moisture loving.
in Panamá, who generously agreed to translate this article
from Spanish, and Ángel Rodriguez, her husband,
who introduced me to Dr. Jody Haynes.
Dr. Jody Haynes,
Cycad Biologist at Montgomery Botanical Center, Coral Gables,
Florida, for his generous and selfless technical revision, his
immediate availability, and his contribution in providing indispensable
information on the species, which in many cases had been mentioned
only by name and origin. He also provided photographic illustrations
and was always available for consultation.
Dr. Henk J. Beentje
FLS, Editor Flora of Tropical East Africa, Royal Botanic Gardens,
Kew. Botanist, recognized scientific authority in palm trees.
For his generous and fast technical final review and valuable
comments and corrections.
Executive Director of IWGS; one of the first people to be interested
in the article, and who encouraged me to continue working on
for his willingness to provide bibliographical information which
was difficult for me to find in Argentina. He didn't have it
either, but made the effort to get it.
Dr. Gastón Torres Vera, Córdoba - Argentina, Argentine member of
the International Palm Society. He gave me the first list of
palms which I used to begin this work. He also provided photographic
(1)Pondkeeper Magazine (Jan-Feb 2003).
Oct-94. In Search of Phoenix roebelenii: The Xishuangbanna
Palm. Principes Vol. 38(4) 177-181.
J. Oct-93. A new aquatic palm from Madagascar Principes
(Now Palms), Journal of the International Palm Society. Vol.
37(4) pp. 197-202
D.K et. al. 1974. Water Plants of the World. SPB Academic
Publishing, The Netherlands. Reprinted and revised 1990-1996,
changing the title to Aquatic Plants Book.
J. 1978. Enciclopedia argentina de agricultura y jardinería,
Tomo I, 'Descripción de las plantas cultivadas'. Editorial
ACME. Buenos Aires.
J. 1992. Observations on rheophytic palms in Borneo. Bulletin
de l'Institut Français d'Études Andines. 21(2)
- Galeano, Gloria & Bernal, Rodrigo. 1995.
Field Guide to the Palms of the Americas. Princeton University
C. Duncan. 1967. The biology of aquatic vascular plants.
Edward Arnold Ltd. (London).
Uhl, N. W. &
Dransfield, J. 1987. Genera palmarum: a classification
of palms based on the work of H.E. Moore jr. Kansas: The
International Palm Society & the Bailey Hortorium.
C. G. G. J.. 1981. Rheophytes of the world. Netherlands:
Sijthoff & Noordhoff.
Justiniano. 1994. Plantas acuáticas vasculares de Venezuela.
Universidad Central de Venezuela, (Colección estudios).
2002. Morphological and ecological diversity of Palms.
Fairchild Tropical Gardens.
Detailing the Species
Aquatic Palms & Cycads Galleries
by Michael Calonje in WGI ONLINE Journal
Also by Jorge Monteverde
Search For Irupé
The Hardy Victoria Waterlily Of Argentina - Part II
By Jorge Monteverde - English