Are palms truly trees?
By Sheri Shannon
There certainly is a lot of healthy debate out there about whether palms are “true trees.” What constitutes a “true tree?” Does it have to be of a certain height and girth? Does the crown spread have to be the equivalent of a wide-spreading southern live oak?
Trees vary in shape and size and grow in very different environments. There may be national champion trees that are more than 300 feet tall, while the largest trees of other species are only 30 feet tall.
This year’s Ultimate Big Tree, Hawaii’s national champion coconut palm aptly nicknamed Coco, is no exception to the ecological services trees provide. The Hāwea Heiau Complex and Keawawa Wetland that Coco calls home contains nine of the remaining 300 endangered Hawaiian common moorhen, as well as other wildlife, including the black-crowned night heron, Hawaiian hoary bat and giant Hawaiian dragonfly.
Coco is a great example of the environmental and cultural significance of big trees and the efforts communities take to protect special trees. Coco’s wetland was recently saved from development by a community nonprofit that understands the role trees play in sustaining a healthy environment. The National Big Tree program helps educate the public about the key role all trees and forests play in our lives.
From a technical standpoint, palms fit American Forests’ current definition of trees, as they are woody plants with an erect perennial stem, or trunk, at least 9.5 inches in circumference at 4.5 feet above the ground. They also have a definitively formed crown of foliage and a height of at least 13 feet. American Forests has made an effort to make sure that native trees from all 50 states and the District of Columbia are included on the National Register of Big Trees. For many years, Hawaii’s native species were excluded as eligible species because American Forests used an outdated publication as its primary source for species eligibility.
The current list of eligible species is based on the USDA Plants Database and the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) which qualifies the current listing of Hawaii’s endemic species, including the coconut palm. In addition, our Eligible Species Working Group is a panel of experts that helps us continuously revisit and revise the list as needed.