Princes of Plants, Trees of Life: How People Use Palms

Lecture | September 14 | 10-11:30 a.m. |  UC Botanical Garden

 Botanical Garden

Palms are the third-most economically important plant family, after grasses and legumes. But you'd never know it living here near the 38th parallel. Jason Dewees, palm expert at Flora Grubb Gardens and author of the award-winning Designing with Palms (Timber Press, 2018), will talk about the rich economic and cultural relationships between palms and people. In addition to their fascinating and myriad uses, palms also grow amid the roots of Western cultural history. Among the earliest plants depicted by people, in petroglyphs and later on coins, the date palm symbolizes for inheritors of this tradition, from Iraq and India to Spain, California and Australia, water and bounty and culture in arid lands.

It was not just for their majesty that Linnaeus named palms the princes of plants. The litany of their uses often comes as a surprise to inhabitants of higher latitudes, who know them better as ornamental plants connoting leisure -- not as workhorses providing grains or timber. Yet people who live among palms use palms -- a lot. From palms people make crafts, artwork, religious objects, writing media, and clothing; food and drink from dates, coconuts, and hearts of palm; construction materials for buildings and boats; and the fourth-most widely used psychoactive substance on earth (600 million users) from the fruit of the betel nut palm, Areca catechu, combined with Piper betle and other ingredients.

Palms -- trees, vines, shrubs, mangroves, understory plants -- are most diverse in the tropics, as are their uses, and thus their utility goes unrecognized in colder, drier climates like ours. Nonetheless, the centrality of the palm in Western tradition is rooted in the agriculture of the Fertile Crescent, at the origins of Western agriculture and home to the date palm, one of the earliest domesticated fruit trees and a sign of ample water and fecundity in arid lands.

  $15,$10 members; price includes Garden admission (a $15 value)

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 gardenprograms@berkeley.edu, 510- 664 -9841