|"palmera sabal mexicana", ver explicación|
Texas has two native palm species, and a reproducing natural hybrid. The most widespread is the dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor), found from the Carolinas to deep in the Texas Hill Country. The other species is Sabal mexicana, formerly Sabal texana. Commonly called sabal palm, it is Texas' only tree-size palm species, and is native from Central America through Mexico to southern Texas. It's Spanish name is palma de mícheros, after its sweet, date-like fruit, called mícheros.
In presettlement Texas Sabal mexicana grew along rivers from the Rio Grande to the San Ber-nard. For decades botanists believed it was native no farther north than the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but in 1989 a wild population was discovered in Jackson County, 200 miles north of the Rio Grande, and his-torical records, clear back to LaSalle (who in 1685 established the first European colony in Texas) attest to the presence of palm trees on the central coast. Even 19th Century botanical greats Ferdinand Lindheimer and George Engelmann reported palms with trunks of 20 to 40 feet along rivers draining into the central coast. The most striking report of these palms came from LaSalle colony survivor Jean-Baptiste Talon, who eventually made his way to France. Asked by French officials to describe the Guadalupe River, he replied that it has "a great number of palm trees…along the banks and in the surrounding area." Contrast that with the Guadalupe today.
The most impressive scenes reported by early travelers, however, are of the Rio Grande. It was described as lined with palm trees, with the palms forming forests in which they were the dominant trees. Only one such palm forest remains, the Sabal Palm Grove Audubon Center and Sanctuary, on the Rio Grande near Brownsville. There the National Audubon Society protects this forest in a preserve that at-tracts visitors from around the world who come to see the species of birds associated with the special habitat represented by the palm forest. The Society is in the process of planting seedling palms on newly acquired adjacent agriculture lands in hopes of recreating additional palm forest for future generations.
Sabal mexicana's downfall was its value. Its trunk is immune to the shipworm, a clam that eats other woods when immersed in water. This meant it was in demand for use as pilings for wharves. Also the species was a prized ornamental, and transplantation from the wild began as early as 1875. Planted over half of Texas, these palms and their progeny can still be seen today, usually in older neighborhoods. And the species is still a good choice for landscaping. A native Texas tree, it is extremely hardy, withstanding the worst of northers, and its fruit attracts wildlife. But while Sabal mexicana flourishes in cultivation, its north-of-the-Valley wild population was so nearly extirpated that botanists forgot it had ever existed, and in the Valley itself it came close to suffering a similar fate.
Our other palm tree, believed to be a hybrid of Sabal mexicana and Sabal minor, occurs nowhere in the world but a small, heavily wooded area of Brazoria County, south of Houston. Up to 27 feet tall, these palms are the only known hybrids of the Sabal genus, and the only known naturally occurring and reproducing palm hybrids in the continental United States. Although the Brazoria County palms appear to be hybrids, a botanist who has done genetic tests on them believes they could be a new species.
At present 46 acres of the Brazoria palm site are protected as a part of the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, and the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to acquire more of the site as neighboring tracts come up for sale. With two preserves 240 miles apart, each protecting a different kind of palm tree, Texas has a richness of palms few are aware of.
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