We all know a palm tree when we see one, but what do we know about them? They are an essential symbol of the tropics, from lush resorts to the image of a deserted island with its iconic lone palm. A palm tree gently swaying in the breeze as waves lap up on the beach is an almost universal image of ultimate relaxation, whether it is on a poster or a dazzling palm tree pendant. But these stunning trees are so much more than an image. They’ve been an important part of the earth’s ecosystem since the time of the dinosaurs.
Research published in 2012 detailed evidence that more than 50 million years ago, when what is now Australia and Antarctica were one land mass, palm trees grew there. Yes, Antarctica at the South Pole, one of the coldest places on earth, once had moderate temperatures and palm trees. Some experts have concluded that triceratops dinosaurs ate palm leaves, somewhat like giraffes eat tree leaves. If nothing else, palms are durable and hearty plants!
Palms also have significance in different religions. In ancient Rome, palm leaves symbolized victory and were given to winners in war and sport. Palm Sunday is an important occasion for many Christians around the world celebrating Jesus arriving in Jerusalem. The gospels say people greeted him by throwing palm leaves, small branches and pieces of cloth in his path to honor him.
Today’s Palm Tree Crisis
Palm trees grow in tropical regions of Africa, Australia, South America, Asia and parts of southern Europe. They are part of the Arecaceae family, which includes climbers and shrubs as well as the classic trees. Coconut trees are one type of palm tree, but not the only one. The palm most in the world’s spotlight right now is the oil palm.
This plant is the source of palm oil, which has become a popular ingredient in a dizzying range of commercially mass produced foods and cosmetics. It’s in cakes and candies, soaps and lipsticks. Palm oil has become so widely used because it is cheaper than other vegetable oils, can be used in a variety of products with different consistencies and influences the melting point of the product.
Demand for palm oil is growing, and the problem is that the lush rainforests and other critical wildlife habitats are being destroyed. The complex mix of different plants that support a range of animals and birds are being replaced by palm tree plantations, pushing more and more species into danger of extinction. Environmental and wildlife advocates are urging consumers to check the ingredients when shopping and avoid palm oil where possible and chose products that use palm oil from ethical, sustainable sources if they can’t avoid it.
British grocery store Iceland gets credit for raising awareness of the crisis last year when they used a video by Greenpeace as their Christmas ad. The video, narrated by Emma Thompson, is the story of an orangutan moving into a little girl’s bedroom after his home was destroyed by a palm tree plantation. The was promptly banned in the UK for being too political, ensuring that it got widespread attention. Iceland continued its campaign encouraging customers to have a palm-free Christmas.