A few years ago I developed a feeling for the Canary Island Date Palm. I liked its looks, the splay of its fronds, its horny bark. I said to myself, I want to grow these things. Raise them. And sell them.
So I rode around town, finding good-looking adult palms that were ready to drop berry. I sawed some berry-branches out of a tree. I collected the dates off the ground. I must have had two big buckets-full of the things. I shaved pulp from seeds and planted them in moistened zip-lock bags of soil, as per the internet instructions. And I was not disappointed, for in a matter of weeks the green-and-white shoots were worming their way out and calling to me with all the tender poignancy of newborn babes in a cradle. It was time to move them into the nursery.
Accordingly, I built a large box of cedar pickets and treated pine, buried the seedlings just below the surface, and waited. And was aghast, over the next few days, to see bird tracks and rodent tracks and uprootings galore. I had created a big feeding-box for the neighborhood.
Quickly I put together a screen top, quite attractive, and hinged it to the box along one side and let it down. The plants were saved, and over the next month I watched them grow and reach upward till they touched the screen. Now it was time to transplant. I had been saving 24-oz polyurethane soft-drink cups and had quite a supply.
The seedlings took root and grew quite encouragingly, stretching big blades up and looking for all the world like the hardy roadside grass that I left behind in Arkansas. How long would it take, I wondered, for the trunk to develop and the long leaves differentiate into fronds? That still, incidentally, has not happened. But what has happened is tragedy and nightmare.
One by one the big healthy plants began to die. I’d collected two species of palm; one, a minority species, was not the Canary Island variety but another --- I forget what. Its fronds were less attractive, but what the hell. Every one of them died, in rapid succession, after seeming to prosper for a few months. I thought: is it the soil? Is the soil too acid or too base for this species? Well, at least I had my darlings, the future pride of my porch-deck. I took a piece of plywood and hole-sawed a dozen receptacles for a few of the 24-oz polyurethane cups, put it on firm legs, painted it a pale blue, and set my babies out at the front porch. One of them, on the far left, withered up and died.
And then the one next to it did the same thing. The plague seemed to move from left to right, transmitted by touch. The same slowly moving death zone infected the rest of them, plainly transmitted by proximity.
From all my hundreds of plants, only a few dozen remained. No big-money nursery bonanza for me. I figured I had better transport the few left uninfected to another location and hope the plague did not carry with them. I’m doing that right now.
Let me describe the creeping death. You start with big healthy plants --- broad leaves, green as a jungle hell. Then --- ! Starting at the bottom of each stalk, the broad leaf begins to narrow as it appears to be sucked toward the stalk; then it curls and folds over into a soda-straw-like tube, each side curving toward the front, until at last the whole stalk is nothing but a narrow tube; then it turns brown. It’s all over. This is bizarre. Does anyone have an answer?
At the very least, this points out the dangers of monoculture. In the orchard I plan --- on my dream-land --- I intend to plant six species of fruit tree, surrounding like with unlike on all sides; we are far enough south that I do not have to worry too much about killing frosts, but I’m working on warming technology anyway. Because surely one will happen each season. Apples, avocado, peach, pear, plum, nectarines, with a few walnut trees to space out the mix. You lose a little --- a very little --- in harvesting efficiency, but you gain by insulating your trees from communicable disease.
Now: what happened to my date palms?