Sunday, December 25, 2022

Why do coconut palms lean?

Coconut palms commonly grow along tropical coastlines
in a zone of salt-tolerant vegetation, but not directly in
saltwater. Coconuts may fall onto the beach and be carried
away by high tides, but not usually directly into the water.
 Coconut palms have a distinctive, arching growth form, which is somewhat unusual among palms. Most solitary, tree-like palms grow straight upward rather rigidly. The reason for the coconut palm's graceful arch has led to much speculation online, some of it rather goofy, such as that they lean out over the shoreline in order to drop their coconuts into the water for dispersal. Slightly more plausible is that they lean toward the light, or that they are bent by the coastal breezes. 

While these factors may contribute somewhat to the ultimate shape of the mature palms, I'd like to point to a more fundamental factor: the phase of development that all palms go through after germination called establishment growth.  This is something peculiar to tree-like monocots, which have neither a taproot system nor layered secondary growth. In dicotyledonous trees, stem thickness increases gradually throughout the plant, and the root system branches to keep up with it. (See The Root of the Root Problem)

While coconut palms may appear to all lean toward
the ocean (to the left in this picture), they in fact may lean
inland as well, at least at the beginning. Only a few
at the far upper left of this photo are actually leaning
toward the ocean. Note that the bases of the stems emerge from
the ground at a distinct angle. This is the result of the
early phase of horizontal establishment  growth. 

Most monocots keep their main stems underground as rhizomes, corms, or bulbs, and produce adventitious roots. Leafy shoots and/or flower stalks typically arise directly from these underground stems, and die back after their reproductive cycle. Becoming trees, as in palms, screwpines (Pandanus) or traveler's "palms"  (Ravenala), was an evolutionary afterthought, for which new ways to develop trunk thickness and a sufficient root base had to be invented. (See also The Invention and Reinvention of Trees.)

Monocot trees do this by developing their full stem thickness, along with a mass of permanent adventitious roots, at, below, or close to the ground before beginning their vertical growth. The trunk base can widen only by extending more roots into the soil. This is what we call establishment growth. 

The underground stem of a cabbage
during establishment growth 
is shaped 
roughly like a saxophone, with 
the mouthpiece representing the seed,
and the 
opening of the bell
representing the ever-widening shoot
apex. You have to imagine 
sprouting along the body of the
and leaves emerging from the
open end of the bell.
Drawing from
There are several ways to do this. In cabbage palms (Sabal spp.), for example, the shoot apex first grows downward into the soil, sending up its juvenile leaves  and sprouting adventitious roots as it goes. The stem tip gradually widens and then turns upward. The overall shape of the stem at this stage resembles a saxophone. By the time the shoot apex (stem tip) reaches the soil line, it is as wide as it is going to get, and begins forming a an upright trunk. This takes some 25 years for a Sabal palm.

The production of s series of aerial stilt
roots allows this palm to increase the
thickness of its stem while growing upward.
Other palms, as well as screw pines, begin growing upward immediately out of the seed, as very slender stems that widen as they grow upwards and produce adventitious roots that remain for the life of the plant in the form of stilt roots

The horizontal establishment growth of the coconut
palm stem will proceed to the right in this example.
Photo by Vencel, CC attribution 3.0. 

It appears that the coconut palm follows a third model by establishing its basal thickness along with  a mass of adventitious roots, through a period of condensed horizontal growth, with the lower side of the trunk remaining in contact with the soil. Once it achieves full thickness, the trunk gradually curves upward to achieve a more-or-less upright growth, though it often continues to lean. Since a coconut seedling sprouts out of one end of the coconut, the direction of the horizontal growth phase and the eventual upward curve, will depend on which way the coconut is facing when it sprouts - not so much for any functional reason. 

This is my hypothesis anyway. Those of you who have grown coconut palms from seed can perhaps verify or correct it. 

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