Magazine article American Forests

A Place for Palms

Magazine article American Forests

A Place for Palms

Article excerpt

PLANTING ONE TREE A DAY on degraded land for almost 40 years, William Stanley Merwin, former Poet laureate of the United States, has seen his patience pay off. Little by little, tree by tree, he has created a lush grove of thousands of palms on the Maui hillside that he calls home.

Despite Maui's 12-month growing season and abundant vegetation, the agricultural developments of the last century have left some portions of Hawaii's second largest island in poor condition. The land Merwin would plant his palms on had originally been native forest, but--like vast swaths in Maui's valley and highlands--had been razed to become profitable sugarcane fields and pineapple plantations. The latter reached its production zenith in the early 1960s and then commenced a steep decline. By the time nutrient-depleted pineapple parcels in Haiku on Maui's northern coast were put up for sale as small 2-to 3-acre lots, they were listed on the Soil Survey Maps of1963 as "wasteland."

When Merwin purchased his initial lot in 1977, he planted a tree, though this first tree was not a palm. Intending to return the land to native species, Merwin discovered these species no longer survived in the poor soil. Some of his first plantings included evergreen trees of the genus Casuarinas. Given the invasive nature of some of the earliest species of Casuarinas planted on the islands, the genus had earned a mixed reputation in Hawaii and Merwin deliberately avoided these. "I was careful to plant species that had no such intrusive habits," he recalls in his 2010 essay, "The House and Garden: The Emergence of a Dream." With their ability to put nitrogen back in the soil and shed their numerous needles to form a moisture trapping, weed-smothering mantle, the Casuarinas made a noticeable difference in the health of the landscape within a few years. When Merwin tried planting native trees again, most still did not fare well, but thanks to the improved soil, the Hawaiian palms did. They settled in and grew, inspiring Merwin to plant more palms--both native and exotic varieties--as his revised route of re-vegetation.

"Only a forest knows how to make a forest," Merwin says, but that hasn't stopped him from lending a hand, devoting some portion of his day--and now life--to germinating palm seeds, nurturing the seedlings, identifying a spot, spading a hole and planting a palm, eventually establishing a living library of over 850 of the world's palm species. As a result of this diligent, incremental reforestation, now, when this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet enters his driveway, he comes home to a jungle.

The diversity of palm species on the densely planted 19-acre property is astonishing. Along the property's shaded, sinewy paths, exquisite palm varieties flaunt a potpourri of leaves and fronds. One has broad leaves that feel synthetic like nylon; another has crin-lded leaves like a venetian blind; another arrays its fronds in a fishtail formation. There are palms with suede-like fuzz, palms with coarse hair and palms with zebra stripes on their trunks. …

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