A new book by Robert Lee Riffle is cause for celebration among tropical gardeners. Riffle's last book, The Tropical Look, (1999) won accolades and awards worldwide including the prestigious American Horticultural Society Book Award. His latest book, An Encyclopedia of Cultivated Palms, is co-authored with Paul Craft and has just been published by Timber Press.
Palms epitomize tropical gardening and are arguably the most beautiful trees on earth. There is no such thing as an ugly palm silhouette. Nor are there any ugly palm pictures in this book. With over 900 color photographs, this book is an absolute delight. It's a rare encyclopedia that can double as a coffee table book. I've seen The Tropical Look gracing many coffee tables and I expect to see this one as well. There is often more than one photograph of a particular palm. This is especially helpful when the palm has deadly-looking spines which are not noticeable in a view of the entire tree.
Palms come in many forms --- shrubs, trees, and even vines, but only one palm genus has naturally branching trunks (Hyphaene.) Some palms are almost aquatic (Cyrtostachys renda) and can be grown in ponds. There are pioneers like the coconut and those which are definitely not pioneers. The breathtakingly beautiful leaves of Licuala cordata are perfectly round and unsegmented. They would be quite damaged by strong breezes.
The authors describe almost 900 species of palms in detail, including water needs, height, and special requirements. However, the highly collectible variegated Rhapis are not included. For those interested in these marvelous and lucrative palms, I recommend The Miniature Palms of Japan by Okita and Hollenberg (Weatherhill, 1981.) Also not included are the dwarf coconuts. I was a little surprised that not even the common Samoan coconut was there. There are several wonderful dwarf coconuts including Hawaii's own "Molokai Super Dwarf" which does not exceed 15 feet at maturity. The omission of these palms is apparently not an oversight. Riffle and Craft state early on that they do not intend to include sports, cultivars, or mutations.
No book can have everything but this book has almost everything, including some of the most poetic descriptions I've ever read. In describing the above-mentioned Cyrtostachys renda they state, "This is one of the most beautiful palm species; every part of the plant is choice. The slender diaphanous trunks are heartbreakingly beautiful and so thin and lissome as to often bend as if they were the long stalks of big blossoms in a bouquet."
Timber Press, Portland, OR, 2003, 0-88192-558-6, 528 pages, color photographs, hardback, $49.95