“Marking the Spear” – Is your palm alive?
Marking a palm spear can help you recognize if a palm tree is sick and dying, or just having a hard time, can be more difficult than you think. Because some palms are slow growers, especially in marginal climates, a palm may appear to be suspended in time – without noticeable change in its size, or without new leaves/fronds for long periods of time. It is not uncommon for a palm to only open two new fronds a year. And in between these events, it can be difficult to notice if your palm is growing at all.
After cold weather, or after planting or transplanting, a palm can slow down its growth considerably. Its older leaves can even start to brown and dry up. These can be anxious times for the owner, especially if it is a rare, valuable, or favorite palm in a prime location in your garden.
Palms can also be perplexing because they can appear to be alive, when in fact they are dead. Well, not technically dead, but they have stopped growing and are destined to die. But at times this can be hard to recognize. And a palm may continue in this condition for well over a year, while the owner is still holding out hope that it is just “resting” and will make a comeback once whatever trauma it is suffering from passes.
At times palms can be remarkably resilient – coming back from fire, physical injury, freezing weather, and insect attack. But it can be very difficult to determine when it is time to throw in the towel. And wasting a year or more, only to have it eventually die, is to be avoided when that time could be better served with a new healthy replacement in its place.
Here is the best technique to determine if your palm can make a comeback, or if it is going through a long drawn out death spiral. In general, each stem (trunk) of a palm has one growing point originating from a small area beneath where the new frond emerges, known as the meristem. If this tissue dies, the palm is as good as dead – despite the fact that the rest of the plant can stay green and appear healthy sometimes for an excruciatingly long period of time – only to very slowly wither and die later.
But there are times when a palm will start to look sick and begin withering, but can still be saved. How can you tell if your palm has a chance for a future? You can “mark the spear.” Use a Magic Marker, Sharpie, or similar “pen” and place a line across the base of an already mature frond, and the newly emerging spear (see photos). After a day or two you should notice that the spear has grown. If it has moved, even a tiny amount, good news – your palm is still alive. If there is no change – bad news – and your palm will most likely not survive.
You may not believe it will. The rest of the palm looks okay. You may think you can revive it. But chances are your palm is as good as dead. But if it is moving, even a little bit – despite how bad the rest of the plant appears, you still have a chance to bring it back.
So, just for practice, go out and mark a spear and see for yourself how much a spear grows in a day or two, even though you may not notice. Sometimes it’s just good reassurance that your ultra-slow beauty is still alive and well.
This technique can also be used to observe how sensitive your palm is to cooler or cold weather. Some palms will laugh at the cold, while other more tropical species will slow considerably in marginal climates. This is important to recognize because palms that slow their growth substantially in cooler weather will be more susceptible to fungus and bud rot – and may benefit from prophylactic treatments. More on this in another article.