Recently, I’ve heard that palm trees were a type of grass, and I was curious to learn more. So, I did some research. Here’s what I found.
Palm trees are not technically grass, but they are both families of the same group, called monocots. Grasses belong to the Poaceae family, while palms belong to the Arecaceae family. So, they are in equal standing, just in separate families. Palm trees are related closer to lilies and orchids than they are to grass.
So, while palm trees aren’t technically grass, what makes them similar, and why aren’t palm trees, well, trees? Let’s take a closer look.
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How Are Palm Trees Similar to Grass?
Palm trees are similar to grass in that they’re both grouped as monocots. While they are in separate genetic families, you can think of palm trees as really tall grass or flowering plants. On the other hand, dicots include most of the vegetables, fruit trees, and woody trees we typically know.
|One seed leaf||Two seed leaves|
|Lack a vascular cambium||Have a vascular cambium (woody stems)|
|Fibrous roots||Tap root system|
|Veins in the leaves are parallel||Leaf veins are net or weblike|
|Flowers come in ones and threes||Flowers come in ones, fours, and fives|
One of the biggest differences between monocots and dicots is that the sprouted seeds for monocots only grow one leaf (hence the name “mono”), while dicot seeds grow two leaves.
You might have noticed this when you seed your lawn vs when you seed vegetables. The grass in your lawn only sprouts one, vertical leaf, while the veggies sprout two.
Another example of this is wheatgrass vs microgreens. Wheatgrass grows one initial leaf when sprouting, while microgreens (baby versions of plants such as radish) have two initial leaves before they grow more.
Another big difference between monocots and dicots is their leaves. Palm trees have leaf veins that grow in parallel, while trees such as oak have veins that grow similarly to a spiderweb.
Other differences between palm trees and other “real” trees are fibrous roots, different flower sets, and the lack of a vascular cambium (what makes wood).
So, botanically speaking, palms are big grass. However, when discussing plants in the landscape, many palms are rather tall so they are designated as trees to separate them from shrubs and ground covers.Tampa Bay Times
In the end, palm trees are not a type of grass, but they are genetically closer than they are to woody trees such as oak. For simplicity, palm trees are often labeled as a grass.
For more context, here are the close relatives of palm trees:
- Grains (such as corn and rice)
Do Palm Trees Have Rings?
Palm trees don’t have rings, but instead have trunks with large, tube-like cells. This is because they lack a vascular cambium. As a result, instead of growing wood with rings, they grow fibrous, spongey, and wet trunks. This also makes them extremely difficult to cut down and dry out.
“Some monocots appear to be woody, such as palm trees, but the wood-like trunk is actually an accumulation of leaf bases.”Wisegeek.com
If you’ve ever pulled apart a piece of grass, you’d see that there’s no woody structure, but instead, one that is fibrous and wet. You might even be able to see the large plant cells inside of the grass. Palm trees are similar.
These large, tubular cells in palm trees are what help transfer nutrients and water up through the tree as it grows. On the other hand, the vascular cambium from woody trees is much denser and takes longer to grow.
The vascular cambium layer is the inner layer of cell growth between the tree’s bark and wood. Over time, new layers of cambium form rings in the tree’s trunk. Since palm trees lack cambium, they cannot grow rings or true “wood”.
Also, when a lawn is cut, the high amount of moisture makes the blades of grass stick together easily. This is a similar experience of taking a chainsaw to a palm tree—a wet, sticky mess.
Because of this, many landscapers often have to go through multiple chainsaw blades to successfully cut down palm trees.
What Supports the Palm Tree’s Height and Weight?
Palm trees grow as tall as they do due to support from their wide and shallow roots and large plant cells, which contain high amounts of lignin. While woody trees are rigid and can snap under enough pressure, palm trees remain flexible and can bend in the wind.
Palms rely on overlapping leaf bases, thickened enlarged cells, and prop roots to stay up. This strategy is also used by cycads and tree ferns.University of California Museum of Paleontology
Even though palm trees aren’t woody like true trees, their grassy nature and fibrous roots are key in how stable they are at such a large height.
Palm trees commonly reach 30-50 feet tall, and while this pales in comparison to trees such as oaks (commonly reaching 50-100 feet in height), palm trees grow much faster and are better suited to survive strong winds.
This is because the palm tree’s tubular and large cells greatly increase the flexibility of the tree. On the other hand, woody trees, such as oak, can simply snap given enough pressure (usually either from its own weight or the wind).
This reminds me of some cartoons when they’d jump on a palm tree, bending it over to the ground, only for it to bounce back and catapult them away.
Additionally, many trees such as pine, birch, and fir prefer to grow in forests where they can not only connect their roots and share nutrients but lean on each other in times of strong winds. Compare this to palm trees, which can thrive on their own as well as in groups.
So, while palm trees may not have “true” wood, their grass-like structure (containing plenty of lignin) and many shallow roots help them immensely at resisting wind and standing alone.
[Its] lack of conventional structure is what gives the palm its flexibility and makes it supremely adapted … to the gentle island breezes that periodically coalesce into ruthless hurricanes.Hope Jahren, Geochemist, Author of Lab Girl
In the end, palm trees are incredibly flexible and aren’t likely at all to break. Instead, it’s more likely for them to get uprooted from soaked, softened ground or flooding—removing the soil and exposing their shallow roots.
Where Are Palm Trees Native To?
Palm trees are native to tropical and subtropical regions including the Caribbean, South America, and some areas of the South Pacific and southern Asia. While they can grow in many climates, they prefer moist and hot regions, typically including wet, lowland forests.
You can trace palm trees’ origins back to areas of India, Northern Africa, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific islands.
Can You Burn Palm Tree Wood?
Palm trees can be be burned, but they have a high water content and quick burn rate, so they don’t make great firewood. For this reason, they create a lot of smoke and take a long time to dry out. Due to their grass-like structure, cutting palm trees down with a chainsaw can burn through blades quickly.
If you try to burn palm trees that aren’t completely dried, it will likely cause a lot of smoke. This is because of the high amount of fiber and water in the tree. What you get by burning palmwood is often the same result as if you burned grass–lots of smoke and short fuel.
For more information about using palm trees for firewood, check out my recent post: Can You Use Palm Trees for Firewood?.