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The Case of the Tabby Cottage* Allagopteras
by John Kennedy

About 12 years ago a palm-visitor who had been civil about the scanty Kennedy palm collection stopped in mid-pleasantry, gasped, and pointed. "You have an Allagoptera!" "Yes," I replied, wondering at his strong reaction. After all, didn’t everybody have one? I was quickly made to realize that this was an unusual treasure. At the time, living in Vero Beach meant isolation from the many palm enthusiasts north and south.

"Actually, there are two plants," I said. The visitor was much more impressed than he had been. If only I had exhibited any real knowledge of Allagoptera arenaria, he would have been even more strongly impressed. Since that visit, I’ve learned quite a bit through more attentive observation.

The two Allagoptera were bought, I believe, in one-gallon pots in 1979 for $3.00 each at the annual private sale of Bill and Moffie Bidlingmayer in Vero Shores. Their sale--which sometimes skipped a year--was by invitation only. The fortunate received postcard invitations to attend. Bill sold palms raised from his own seed and which he placed under a mature plant of the same species. His wife sold bromeliads. (Their 32-acre place is now the site of the Garden Grove subdivision, still full of palms, which was toured by the Central Florida chapter in March, 1994.)

I can only recall one sizeable Allagoptera at the Bidlingmayers’, though I think there was another. The source of these was Fairchild in the late Fifties or early Sixties. The two palmlets that Ann and I bought, then perhaps two years old, languished in pots for another year or so, growing not at all. I finally asked Bill (my mentor in palms) who told me to plant them, that Allagoptera hate pots and should be put in the ground, however puny or small the plant may look. (A year ago I dug up, by hand, an Allagoptera seedling from under a shrub: two simple leaves, 4 inches long, attached to 2 inches of scallion-like base. There were three roots, each 12 inches long.)

So--I planted one tiny Allagoptera (Allagoptera One) in the summer of Allagoptera One1981 in an island in the lawn 30 feet beyond the front door, at the north property line. I also planted, lined up in the same island, a one-gallon Serenoa (from Bill B.), a small Tabebuia umbellata (gift of Gordon and Pat Smith of Orlando), and a wax myrtle (later mattocked for its attempt to take over the lawn, possibly the world, and replaced with a banana shrub, Michelia figo). All these plants were small. As a big-city boy (Philadelphia) planting his very first garden in early middle age, I had no idea of how large everything might (and did) get.

On the northwest corner of the lot, I planted another island: a second Tabebuia umbellata, the second Allagoptera (Allagoptera Two), a Carissa, and a Feijoa. Everything was small, the Allagoptera smallest of all.

Allagoptera One grew oh-so-slowly and, after five years in the ground, flowered for the first time with the smallest flower stalk imaginable. This was 1986. I didn’t pay much attention to it; Allagoptera Two didn’t flower at all. I wrote to Chuck Hubbuch at Fairchild three years later to ask why some fruit were quite large and others very small. He replied that uneven pollination was the reason. This made clear to me that each pollinated flower on the crowded stalk--which looked something like a pineapple--should produce a fruit about the size of a large grape.

Bernie Peterson showed me, some time later, how to assure efficient pollination: when the male flowers at the top of the stalk are full of pollen to fold my hand around the top and bring it down over the female flowers. I don’t know whether the female flowers are receptive then or that they open slightly after the males and the male pollen is still on them; I’m inclined to believe the former. The male pollen is only available for a few days before the male flowers dry up and disappear. With any flower stalk on which I’ve performed my function as pollinator, the resulting fruit (usually ripe in three or four months) are uniformly large. If I miss the strategic moment, the fruits are uneven in size, most being smaller than average.

I had let the fruit fall on the ground for a couple of years before I noticed that Allagoptera arenaria wasn’t on the IPS Seed Bank list. I wrote to the Seed Bank offering seed; after a short time I was directed to send seed to Fairchild which was briefly--a year?--the East Coast depot for the Seed Bank before this was closed down. For the last several years I’ve been sending most of the seed to a palm nursery, trading seeds for palms. This summer I gave some seed to the CFPCS for chapter fund-raising. Since Allagoptera arenaria is somewhat susceptible to Lethal Yellowing, and though the disease is not transmitted by seed, seed from a non-LY area is welcome elsewhere.

I know when the fruit is ripe--it stinks with a pungent aroma only tropical fruit lovers can appreciate. I have hated cleaning the slippery, slimy fruit (my family can smell it on my hands three rooms away). Bernie has suggested an easier, non-messy way of dealing with the fruit, which I am about to try. Last year rabbits cleaned some of the fruit for me; it is fibrous and thin over a large seed. Presumably the rabbits don’t mind all the little weevils that conduct a lively sex life on the ripe fruit. A regular size stalk can contain at least 100 fruit/seeds. In a good summer, Allagoptera One may mature as many as ten fruiting stalks.

Ordinary Florida summer showers don’t seem to faze Allagoptera One which continues to flower and fruit. With excessive rainfall, however, everything stops: no new flower stalks, no ripening of fruit. In March of this year, we received something over 10 inches of rain, more than three times the average. At the end of May, there was only one emerging flower stalk when five or six would be the norm. Three stalks produced in earlier heat are ripening normal size fruit. I’ve learned that the fruit definitely need heat in which to ripen; fruit produced in September or October come too late in the season to receive sufficient heat to amount to anything. If there is any heat at all, flower stalks continue to appear year-round but the fruit is undersized. The leaves of Allagoptera One stretch 6 feet high; their spread is 8 feet. The plant is 3 feet across at the base.

Allagoptera arenaria clearly needs full sun and very good drainage in which to prosper. Allagoptera One is partially shaded by a thin, small Tabebuia umbellata that casts a thin, high shade. I hack back the adjacent banana shrub every year to allow more sun to the palm, which sits 18 inches above a swale 3 feet to its north. I’ve learned that its leaves live about three years from opening to brown.

Allagoptera Two, in deeper shade, never flowered until two years ago when I trimmed the tree to allow more sunlight to reach it. (The Palm Dervish from Grant would have me cut down the big Tabebuia umbellata--impossible, of course, for its wheels of 3-inch luminous yellow flowers make it the most spectacular sight in the neighborhood when in bloom.) Allagoptera Two is darker green than its fellow, and its leaves reach high into the tree to catch the sunlight. The leaves of Allagoptera Two, constricted by its location, reach 8 feet high; the plant is about 3 feet across at the base. Both plants have seven stems/suckers.

I haven’t fertilized either Allagoptera very frequently or on a regular basis. In the past, when I did so more conscientiously, I didn’t see much response. And I stopped fertilizing the grass 10 years ago, so there’s no residual effect. I have no irrigation system and don’t water Allagoptera except in real drought. However, both Allagoptera are situated slightly downslope from the drainfield.

Occasional frosts, and freezes down to 23 or 24F have left both plants almost unmarked. The Great Christmas Freeze of 1989 (18F in my yard) badly damaged Allagoptera One, with perhaps 70% of its foliage destroyed. Yet, in the summer following, it came back strongly and was almost fully recovered by year’s end, though no flower stalks were produced in the next summer. The little Tabebuia over it could muster only three or four flowers instead of its usual hundreds. Allagoptera Two, sheltered by the big Tabebuia which did not bloom at all, was damaged though not nearly as badly, and recovered in the following summer.

My attempts at germinating seed have not been very successful. Bill Bidlingmayer just told me to lay them on top of the ground and cover very lightly. Bernie Peterson referred me to Eric Fowler in Fort Pierce as someone who had successfully germinated Allagoptera. His method, I learned, was to put seeds under a shrub so that you know what it is when first leaves appear, maybe a year later. I’ve been told by several people that 10-15% is the usual germination rate, though the percentage may be higher as seeds continue to sprout sporadically for several years.

Mike Dahme says he had almost 100% germination from about 100 fresh seeds I gave him several years ago, but squirrels got into his greenhouse, and ate all the seeds that had just begun to sprout. Mike also thinks that squirrels are the reason I got not one palmling from 75 seeds that I put in an open spot in the shrubbery. What’s inside the seed is very tasty, reminiscent of coconut: obviously a squirrely treat. Remarkably (or maybe not so remarkably), there have been very few volunteers from Allagoptera One, perhaps five or six over the years, in a location offering too little cover for squirrels’ peace of mind. There have been no volunteers from Allagoptera Two, which produced its first normal size fruit last summer.

I have three very small Allagoptera elsewhere in the ground. Patience is required (and a long life?) for this palm. One of these toddlers has now, in its third year in a sunny, dry location--and at least five years old-- just issued its first, very small divided leaf. The second has achieved three simple leaves, 6 or 7 inches long; the third palmlet has two similar leaves.

Thus, the story of My Favorite Palm. I would be interested in knowing how far north Allagoptera arenaria has been grown. Perhaps anywhere that doesn’t drop regularly to 18F?

*Tabby Cottage--the name of the Kennedy homestead, the external material being tabby--the unpainted stucco containing pieces of seashell (mostly oyster shell here) used on many houses on the Georgia coast and also around Jacksonville.

Note: This article first appeared in the Central Florida Palm & Cycad Society newsletter and is reprinted here with permission from the author/editor.

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