Living Sanibel: The royal palm symbolizes the tropical nature of south Florida
The name fits the tree perfectly, “Royal Palm.” With a tall, stately trunk that resembles poured concrete while the canopy displays long, dark green palm fronds that rustle in the slightest breeze, this palm symbolizes the tropical nature of south Florida. Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard and McGregor Boulevard in Ft. Myers are both lined with hundreds of these towering palms. The northern portion of McGregor, from College Parkway to the Edison Estate near downtown is the most beautiful boulevard in Lee County, in large part due to the planting of hundreds of these magnificent palms that tower high above the roadway.
There are two species commonly found in Florida. The native species, Roystonea elata, can still be found at Collier Seminole State Park ( which is located approximately seventy miles south of Sanibel on Highway 41. The Florida species differs only slightly from the more popular Cuban tree, Roystonea regia, in that its trunk tends to remain more symmetrical than the Cuban species over time. Most of the trees along McGregor are Cuban royals.
On Sanibel and Captiva, all royal palms are naturalized trees. They did not grow in this environment originally but adapt well to both islands and are not invasive. The coconut tree is another prime example of this. Royals are salt tolerant and very well adapted to living with hurricanes. In major storms, the royals utilize their “break-a-way” palm fronds, allowing the tree to avoid being uprooted by strong winds through the release of all of its foliage long before the storms powerful winds can topple the tree. The living bud remains safe inside the dark green cap of the royal, called the crownshaft and new fronds began appearing within weeks after the storm has passed.
Finding royal palms on the islands is much easier than it used to be. After the destruction of all the large Australian pines down Periwinkle Way by Hurricane Charley in 2004, the City of Sanibel replanted with native and naturalized species. One of those chosen was the royal palm.
Look for them scattered along Periwinkle Way on either side of the road. Although still immature, royal palms grow quickly on the islands and within a decade will tower over almost every other palm or tree planted. There are hundreds of fully mature landscape royals planted throughout both islands as well.
Their fruit is covered in an edible exterior, known scientifically as a drupe, which is readily eaten by birds and other wildlife, with the internal seed passing unscathed through the digestive tract of the animals and dispersed accordingly. This method of propagation is fascinating in that primitive trees do not produce edible seeds, fruits and drupes. These adaptations came only after the arrival of land animals some 400 million years ago during the Devonian period. Today, this relationship is so entwined that most trees, palms, shrubs and plants, lacking birds, mammals and insects to pollinate and disseminate their seeds, would perish.
This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.