Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Palm trees adjusting to climate

Study challenges tradition

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        OXFORD — Miami University botany professor Dr. David Francko didn't know a lot about palm trees when he bought a little one in Florida in the mid-1990s.

(Michael Snyder photo)
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        He brought it home, planted it and watched it grow at his home near Oxford.

        “Plants don't know what side of the Ohio River they're on,” he said. “The Mason-Dixon Line makes no difference, as long as plants' needs are met.”

        Using this approach, he has been monitoring and conducting research on various subtropical plants, including needle palms, dwarf palmettos, cabbage palms and Chinese windmill palms. With only some leaf tip damage and margin burns, they survived the winter of 1998-1999, the third-coldest winter of the '90s, he said.

        Much of the thinking about where plants will — and won't — grow come from our region's culture and tradition, Dr. Francko said.

        “If you talk to people about bald cypress trees, they'll tell you they won't grow around here,” said Dr. Francko, who also serves as chair of Miami's botany department. “It's true that the trees are typically found in warm wetlands, but they can take a tremendous amount of cold. Some people grow them in Minneapolis. They're perfectly happy in northern climates.”

        Of course, some plants are unsuited to colder climates. But many surprise even botanists.

        “We're evaluating plants that are thought of as subtropical, testing them for suitability in Southwestern Ohio,” he said. “We're challenging some conventional wisdom, and other times making up (the rules) as we go along.”

        Dr. Francko, colleague Dr. Ken Wilson and a number of student researchers work with about 110 plants on campus, in Oxford and in nearby rural areas. Miami's Hardy Palm Project also grows various crepe myrtles, yellow groove bamboo, young banana trees, Southern magnolia and others.

        “There's a growing market regionally for such plants for ornamental purposes,” he said, “but it has been difficult for gardeners to find them. But I think that's slowly changing.”

        Miami spokeswoman Claire Wagner said she didn't realize that Dr. Francko had planted so many exotic plants on campus until one day she saw a palm near the arch at Upham Hall.

        “He's so enthused about the plants,” she said. “He's really tickled that these things are growing so well.”

        He and his colleagues have planted various kinds of palms on campus. In 10 years, he predicts, they'll stand at least 10 feet.

        “Let's tinker on the genetic level and see how we can improve them,” he said. “We're not worried about creating Frankenstein plants. It can't happen with these plants.”


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