Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I've got a lovely bunch of...

Species name: Cocos nucifera

Common name: Coconut palm

Location: Dominican Republic

To me, this image represents one of the most iconic views of Caribbean countries: a vast beach of white sand dotted with palm trees and beach chairs. Sitting in my office marking tutorial assignments and re-marking midterms, there’s nothing I wouldn’t give to be on that beach right now! Anyone want to run away on vacation?!
Palm trees are actually not trees. They’re more closely related to the grass that grows in your front yard or the corn you eat for dinner than they are to any true tree. Their strength comes from cells that are specialized for support called sclerenchyma. The palm family of plants (Arecaceae) contains about 2600 species. Different species occupy almost every inch of land in tropical and subtropical areas, with different species being able to tolerate very dry or very wet conditions. Many species of palm are critically endangered due to land use change and deforestation, so preserving their environments is becoming increasingly important.
Most people don't realize that when you eat a coconut, you're eating the food stores that the mother plant has put away for her developing babies. That coconut you cracked open was actually a seed of the coconut plant, and given enough time would have developed into a new coconut palm. To do this is incredibly difficult, and would rarely (if ever) happen in a lab. Coconuts need to be exposed to very long periods of partial submersion in salt water (only partial, since coconuts actually float with their husk still intact). When a coconut falls onto the beach and gets swept away in a hurricane, it will be deposited on a new beach where it can grow and develop into a new coconut palm. A pretty neat method of dispersal, while not very efficient. The smaller the coconut fruit, the more heavily it relies on animal dispersal--small date palms rely on birds eating them in order for their seeds to germinate. Without the seeds having passed through the digestive system of a bird, they will not grow. How's that for a plant-animal partnership?!

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