Gardens of the Cross Timbers: The Rosewood palms

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
View from my hotel room

The swampy area contained concrete foundations, palm trees, a patch of yellow blooming coreopsis and white shorebirds moving briskly about. The large rectangle with green grass and pools of standing water was surrounded by multi-story hotels, condominiums and restaurants. This was the view from our Galveston hotel window.

I was intrigued by this patch of nature and decided this was where to start my morning walk. The sign said Rosewood Cemetery. In 1911 several African American Galvestonians purchased over eight acres of land past the west end of the seawall in the Greens Bayou area. Until then, African Americans could not be buried in the city cemeteries. Individual plots were sold for $10; children plots were $6.50 and grave digging charges $2. The cemetery was in use until 1944 and held over 400 graves. In 1951 Galveston extended the seawall, blocking the outflow from the Greens Bayou and the cemetery often flooded. Parts of the cemetery were sold to developers until 2006 when the remaining one acre was donated to the Galveston Historical Foundation for preservation. The Texas Historical Commission erected the marker in 2011. Had the business establishments even searched for human remains before building over the seven other acres of the cemetery?

Rosewood Cemetery

The brilliant shorebirds with curved bills were American Ibis busy searching for food. Grave borders were defined by short concrete walls but marked by few stones. Very robust healthy palm trees grew in the marshy cemetery.

Palm trees all over southern Texas took a major hit during the February cold snap. More than twenty species of palms live in Galveston. The various palms are tall or short with horny, hairy or smooth trunks! They have weathered severe storms and hurricanes, but the February Winter Storm Uri hit the tropical palms hard, immersing them in well-below freezing temps for four days. Palms may handle frosty mornings, but Siberian temperatures? Houston dropped to 13 degrees.

If the palm is totally brown, it very well may be totally gone. The crown is dead. Any green means the palm has a chance, but it may take six months to a year to recover. The iconic palms that grow along Galveston’s Broadway, the main road, reflect the microclimates around them. Some were a little green, some a lot brown. Crews in buckets were hoisted high in the air and busied themselves cutting away the dead fronds using chain saws. The manicured palms were left with bristly trunks and top knots of green leaves. Other trunks had no green leaves. Goners. Mountains of palm debris lined the road.

Goner Palm

Texas Sabal Palms (Sabal mexicana) are slow growing. They take over ten years to go from a seed to clump that eventually produces a real trunk. The new little tree then grows 6 inches a year. It will reach 50 feet in height, can live 200 to 300 years and handle temps down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit or USDA hardiness Zone 8. It is a native Texas palm. That said, the last native stand is the Audubon Society’s Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary south of Brownsville, Texas. Texas Sabal palms are some of the most common and widespread palms in Mexico. They grow as far south as both seashores of Nicaragua. The palms can thrive as far north as Dallas/Ft. Worth.

The Texas Sabal Palm produces a thick round crown of fan-shaped leaves, although the leaves sprout from the trunk, not the crown. A few dead leaves hang down underneath the canopy, embracing the trunk. The seriously spikey leaf stalk can be five feet long; as long as the frond (leaf) itself. After the fronds die off, the remaining frond bases, called ‘boots,’ form a crisscross pattern on the trunk. As the palms mature, the boots drop off, revealing a smooth gray ‘bark’. The Texas Sabals were in better shape than many palms. Rosewood cemetery had Texas Sabal palms.

Where does the word ‘boot,’ referring to frond bases, come from? Story #1: New World Spanish conquistadors used them as shoe horns. Story #2: U.S. Army soldiers hung their boots on them to keep out snakes and other crawling things.

The Queen palm, (Syagrus romanzoffiana) quite popular, is much faster growing. Once established, it soars upward six feet a year. This palm also gets 50 feet tall. The single smooth trunk has a 25-foot canopy of glossy green leaves cascading down from the top. It blooms in summer and forms orange fruits in winter. Quite the landscape palm, but only in USDA Zones 9b to 11. No lower than 25 degrees F to 40 degrees F. In Texas, they would be fine in South Padre Island. Needless to say, the Queens were decimated.

Depending on the species (there are 2,600 species), palms produce coconuts (surprise), dates, acai berries or bananas. Palms are not actually trees. Botanically speaking, palms are large woody herbs; monocots with fibrous stems and roots, the leaves with parallel veins. They are evergreens. Their cousins are grasses, sedges, bamboos, lilies and orchids!

Trees have an organized vascular system (food and water conducting cells) from roots to leaves. Tree trunks are thicker at the base and taper to the top. Trees add rings for each season of growth. They have bark, layers of thick tissues outside protecting the living tissue.

Baby palms first sink roots down to water. They then grow upward, generating leaves from the top or crown of the stalk. Older leaves below enlarge to maximum size. Some palms add scattered vascular bundles, but their thickness doesn’t change explaining why palms are cylindrical. Leafstalk bases are built one on top of another. Palms have no rings with the same tissues inside and out! Their ‘bark’ is a thick lignified fibrous epidermal covering. Older palms may produce aerial roots at their bases for support. These giant herbs are very susceptible to freezing to death if temperatures remain below 32 degrees for hours or days.

The irony is the healthiest palm trees I saw in Galveston Island were those Texas Sabal palms still alive in the Rosewood Cemetery.

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.