It’s seed starting time — and by now, I should have flats of impatiens and petunias and geraniums planted in my Long Island potting shed, with dahlias, cosmos, and gazanias scheduled for the weeks ahead. But as I’ve said in previous posts, this is a season of a different kind — in so many ways.
For starters, I’m away from the potting shed. Instead, I have south Florida — and as my northern garden and gardening friends have shivered and shoveled during this winter’s harshness, south Florida has enjoyed exceptional warmth. By northern standards, it feels like summer.
And so I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place, or rather, between my usual pre-spring rituals in the northland and what I’m told is the approaching “end” of the growing season in the southland. (Extreme heat and humidity are not kind to many vegetables and flowers.)
Nevertheless, there is the urge to recognize the miracle that is a seed — so much promise locked up inside, just waiting to emerge — and I can think of no other way to celebrate seeds than with the biggest seed I’ve ever planted, the seed of Cocos nucifera — better known as the coconut.
In my south Florida yard there are 17 coconut palms of various heights and maturities. What this really means is that Joe is cuckoo for coconuts — and if he had his way, he would gladly plant coconuts throughout south Florida — a Johnny Appleseed for the subtropics. Or, as we like to joke, “Joey Coconuts.”
It also means that in addition to garden pests and weeds, I also have to be aware that at any moment I could be hit on the noggin with a coconut falling from a tree — especially since Joe and I are both convinced that my head seems to have its own gravitational pull.
Still, it’s a nice feeling to witness a seed’s sprouting without the need of a magnifying glass — especially when that seed is as important as the coconut.
According to Dr. T. Ombrello, a biology professor at Union County College, the coconut palm is considered to be one of the most useful trees in the world. Parts of the tree can be converted into roofing, fencing, alcohol, shoes, soil amendments, mulch, and so much more. In fact, a recent study indicated 360 uses for the tree, half of which were for food. Even Marco Polo had something to say when he first came across this tree: “One of these nuts is a meal for a man, both meat and drink.”
The first step is to determine if the coconut, which more than likely fell from a tree, is viable for planting. If a simple shake results in a sloshing sound from inside the coconut, then there is a very good chance that that coconut will sprout.
And when it comes to coconut planting, nothing could be easier to handle. Simply dig a shallow hole and place the coconut so that three-quarters of it can be buried, either horizontally or vertically. Add heat and moisture and more heat. It can even be covered with sawdust to really turn up the heat.
In time — and this could mean months — a tender green shoot will be strong enough to break through the coconut’s hard shell and a tap root will descend into the earth. Eventually, the new palm will look like this.
When a coconut palm is about five years old, it begins to produce both male and female flowers. The pistillate, or female, flowers, are large and spherical. The staminate, or male, flowers are smaller. Initially, the flowers are hidden by a sheath. When the sheath begins to split, it seems to resemble a corn husk.
Within a day, the cream-colored flower branches, or inflorescence, have emerged — and bees love it!
As the inflorescence is exposed to sunlight, it turns a vibrant green.
Don’t be fooled by the frail-looking flower branch. Eventually, it will hold the weight of a whole lot of coconuts. In the course of a year, each coconut palm tree can produce between 25 and 75 coconuts — that’s a lot of potential seeds.
Coconut palms may not be for everyone. They can be somewhat labor intensive — primarily because of the damage potential to a car — or a head — that might be beneath the coconut’s canopy. As a result, homeowners either self-cut or hire professionals to remove the coconuts before they have a chance to drop.
I guess it’s like they always say: Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t.