The Palms of Cuba
by Paul Craft
Cuba is so close and yet so far away for us here in Florida. Perhaps because of its relative inaccessibility, Cuba maintains a mystique that extends to its flora, including its palms. Few Cuban palms have ever been cultivated here or anywhere else in the world. The few that have been cultivated here have appeared to do well and are some of the most beautiful palms in the world.
To understand the palms of Cuba, one must understand the land itself. Cuba is an island that is 720 miles long and averages 50 miles across. It is made up of chunks of land that broke off the top of South America and drifted north to its present location. Over the eons, land bridges formed at various times connecting Cuba to South America, the Yucatan, Central America, and Florida. These intermittent connections facilitated the migration of various types of plant life into Cuba to create the diversity that exists today.
Mountain ranges extend through different parts of the country, as well as lowland savannas, coastal swamps, and smaller hilly areas. The highest mountain is over 6000 feet in a range that features a montane habitat similar to what you would find in South America. The coastal cayes along the north coast are identical to what Florida was like before man built all those condos along the coast. The western end of Cuba shares several species with the Yucatan.
The mountains are high enough to interfere with clouds that bring the rain, so rainfall amounts can vary depending on the area. There are dry desert-like areas such as Guantanamo Bay, montane cloud forest areas in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, and everything in-between.
Soils can vary throughout Cuba as well. Mogotes (solid limestone hills) rise up from fertile red clay soils. Sandy areas, very poor in nutrients, are scattered generally close to the coasts. Black, heavily organic soils can also be found. But the most interesting land feature in Cuba is the serpentine areas found scattered through the length of the island, which give rise to the most unusual and diverse plant fauna. Serpentine soils contain toxic levels of the elements magnesium, nickel, and iron. Plants should have no business growing in such soil, but certain plants, including palms, have evolved and adapted to these soils making them the most interesting areas to study for their diversity. These serpentine areas vary in size and age, resulting in areas that contain a few of the same species, as well as endemics that are restricted to single small areas.
Temperatures remain fairly consistent throughout Cuba, but because of the elevation of some of the mountain ranges, temperatures can drop to as low as the mid- to high-30s some nights in the winter. Near the tops of these ranges, temperatures remain consistently lower year-round, which means the plants that grow there may not do well in hotter, lowland areas.
From all of this discussion, it is easy to understand why there is such diversity in the plant life in Cuba. It is a fascinating place to study plants and there is a great deal of study that needs to be done. As for palms, a list was compiled recently by the two top palm researchers in Cuba, Celio Moya Lopez and Angela Leiva Sanchez. Andrew Henderson, in his Field Guide to the Palms of the Americas, consolidated many species but admitted much taxonomic study needed to be done, particularly in the genera Coccothrinax and Copernicia. His treatment was not a full taxonomic evaluation so should be looked upon as only a guide and not absolute gospel. Moya and Leiva have compiled their list from the most recent taxonomic work completed. It should be understood that as more taxonomic work is undertaken, this list will change.
Here is their list consisting of 90 species and subspecies under 15 genera:
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