Even at my ripe old age of 63, arboriculture always offers new challenges, besides finding my boots. As an arborist in the Northeast, the only encounters I have had with palms (not a tree) have been recreational. I had imagined it would remain that way until I was asked to take a look at a Mexican fan palm growing in an atrium. The plant had impressed everyone with its growth, until it pressed against the glass tiles of the 30-foot ceiling.
Steve Flynn and I go way back. Owner of a garden center and growing operation for years, he also takes interest in caring for the small atrium filled with tropical plants and a meandering stream. I had been there before to cable a ficus tree, and enjoyed the atmosphere.
We observed the plant (I refuse to call it a tree), and figured I could spike it and remove it the way I would a pine tree, sort of. A series of delays prolonged the job to the point of it departing my memory completely. There is only so much room in the ole’ squash, and I need to keep track of essential stuff like where the toilet paper is stored.
Almost a year later, the palm had not receded in height, and removal became a bit more imperative. I returned to the site to reevaluate the job. The facility, previously a hotel, had changed hands to become a bio lab for providers of research and diagnostic products for the medical industry. COVID-19 was now a thing, and I guess a bio lab needs to be kind of clean. Although the atrium was sealed from the rest of the building, fumes and dust would be an issue.
I’m not sure what I was thinking, if at all, when I first looked at this job. For one, the trunk had a pretty good lean and was covered with the dreaded dead fronds, killer of many an arborist. Even more important, I had no experience with what I was dealing with. Oh well, I would have to learn about palms, and less essential data would need to be deleted. I may never find my roller blades again.
So, the basics: Hailing from the family Arecaceae, palms are defined as “large woody herbs” in botanical terms. The fibrous trunk pales to the strength and resilience of hardwood. Lacking secondary growth and wood, palms create a wood-like skin through primary thickening and lignification. They are far closer relatives to banana trees than to oaks. This fact would prove to be prophetic.
Aside from some great videos of palm removals, from hilarious to horrific, nothing of significance was available on the interweb regarding proper removal of a palm. I, therefore, reached out to Chuck and Dan Lippi of Advanced Tree Care in St. Augustine, Florida.
Dan responded: “Palms are a lot heavier and denser than one would expect, so plan to take off the fronds first (careful of the sharp teeth on the petioles!). Then piece it down from the top like a pine tree in relatively small sections at a time, using old-school notch cuts and rigging ropes.”
An associate of Dan’s contributed this advice: “Cutting down palms is really hard on the chain; it dulls it pretty quickly. Also, while you are cutting, the fibers expand and make it hard for the chain saw to continue cutting through the (palm). Recommend adding force/pressure on the (palm) while cutting.”
Armed with this information, plans were made and a date was set. Everything would be fine.
It was apparent that climbing was a bad idea. I would rent an electric scissor lift to do the job. The start of an ominous pattern began with a delivery snafu. After pacifying the irate driver, who called me from the wrong address, two lifts were delivered to the site the day before they were supposed to be there. After a communication smorgasbord, it was agreed that one would be dropped off for use the next day. Then, someone in Human Resources got wind of the project and shut it down.
When discussing the job, I had made it clear that power saws would be required. Apparently, no one told the folks at HR. They made it clear that it wasn’t going to happen that day, while people were in the building. We sent the two lifts back home, hoping they enjoyed the $200 joy ride.
A week later, we were a go. Then, I got the call. The driver who was to deliver the lift was the same guy as before. Apparently, there was an incident the previous week, and he refused to go back. I don’t know what happened. I miss all the good stuff.
Feeling outside forces at work, I was considering conceding. A call from Steve, another persistent type of fellow, convinced me otherwise. A third and final assault was planned for the next week.
As fate would have it, my second COVID shot was administered the evening before. I experienced some side effects from the first, but nothing serious. Everything would be fine.
Considerations of the tactics to take were exhausted. Every tool I could think of came along for the ride. There was nothing left to do but do it. Steve’s son, Brody, and Tao, another member of the burgeoning Flynn clan, would assist me. I felt a tad off from the shot, but didn’t give it much thought. Everything would be fine.
We met with some of the muckety-mucks of the establishment, who expressed their concerns. They were assured that electric power or hand tools would be employed as much as possible. Rigging to lower the heavy pieces would be installed, and our best efforts would be made not to destroy anything of significance. Two individuals would be recording the event for posterity. Everything would be fine.
Brody, Tao and I huddled up, masked of course, and developed a plan. I would first remove the fronds and then piece the trunk down as advised. A Port-A-Wrap was installed at the base. A sling and block would be installed on the trunk. A pull line on the piece to be removed would be primarily used to relieve pinching of the saw.
We then all gathered around the lift to become acquainted with its operation. After a little herky-jerky action, I settled in and moved it into position. I began with removing the fronds, and quickly realized how easily one could be ensnared and suffocated in a Venus-man-trap. I was thankful for the lift and for not being beneath a closing umbrella of fronds. The frond stems featured pointed, sharp spines, especially the dry ones.
Using the electric chain saw and pole saws the fronds fell and exposed the sun blazing through the glass ceiling. I sweated through the denuding until a leaning tower of Mexico remained. About then I began to realize that I wasn’t feeling quite right. Thirsty and sweating, my joints ached and my arm was throbbing where I had gotten the shot. There was still the matter of the trunk.
Fortunately, Tao and Brody were quite capable, and I had only to concentrate on my end. We installed the Port-A-Wrap and reviewed the plan. The first piece would be somewhat experimental. Tao would lightly pull on the tag line to relieve pressure on the saw, then harder when the piece was ready to fly. Brody would work the lowering line.
The first piece went without incident. I could sense the bar getting pinched, but slight pressure on the tag line relieved the pressure. The piece was lowered to the ground, and I began to believe that everything would be fine.
Feeling pretty confident, I rigged a 5-foot section of trunk to be removed. The trunk diameter would not allow for the electric saw. Noise, smoke and oil would be introduced to the sterile atmosphere. I checked and rechecked the rigging, made my cuts and let it fly. Everything would be fine.
Fine, as in Larry Fine of Three Stooges fame. It all happened in an instant, so I could not get my brain around the sight of a 12-inch by 5-foot hunk of solid, fibrous tissue (not wood) hurtling toward the retaining wall and floor below. It somehow missed the wall and bounced off the plywood we had fortunately put down. I stood on the lift, bewildered at the site of my rigging line still securely tied to the outside sheath (not bark) of the escapee. Like the plant it is related to, the tightening of the rigging and inertia squeezed that bad banana right out of its skin.
After a bit of nervous chuckling and assurances that the event was recorded for posterity, I gathered my wits and proceeded. Jolted into hyperawareness, I resolved not to repeat the mishap. Notches were made into the banana (not wood) and the rigging secured within. The following pieces were removed without incident. I returned home unscathed, primed for a Pfizer-induced COVID nap.
So, kudos to all you palm (not tree) workers out there. I have acquired a healthy respect for your endeavors and wish you well. As for me, the next encounter I have with a palm will involve fruity beverages with tiny umbrellas, ukuleles and sunsets. Aloha!
Howard Gaffin, BCMA, RCA and Massachusetts Certified Arborist, is owner of Gaffin Tree & Landscaping, a 10-year TCIA member company located in Rowley, Massachusetts.