Thursday, February 13, 2003

Ah, the palms of Miami, swaying in Ohio's winter wind


No, really - Oxford prof finds tropical trees hardy enough

By Jon Gambrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

OXFORD - Palms. The plant conjures up visions of beaches, lapping waves and tropical sun, far removed from the snow and harsh temperatures of this winter in Ohio.

But in a small courtyard inside Pearson Hall at Miami University, you can find David Francko bent over a snow-covered palm plant.

"If you peel away the bark, you can see green underneath," the botany department chairman said one recent wintry day, a nearby thermometer reading 7 below zero. "That's how you can tell they are still alive."

Francko is the author of the recently published book Palms Won't Grow Here and Other Myths: Warm-Climate Plants for Cooler Areas, which uses data gathered by several years of research at Miami University to prove that certain tropical plants are more hardy than previously believed.

"In some cases, cultural information is incomplete or wrong," he said. "Some of these plants can grow in other areas."

Starting the project himself in 1998, Francko began to incorporate warm-climate plants into the landscaping of Miami University. Now, there are several hundred of these plants mingling with their cold-weather compatriots, thanks to the help of campus services and nearly 15 students working on the project.

One application of the project is teaching gardeners to plant warm-climate plants in cold areas and liven up their flowerbeds.

"It is kind of like when you're a kid and everyone had crayons," Francko said. "You start off with an eight-color box and your pictures look fine. As you got better, you developed a desire for the 32- or 64-crayon box. (With this data) now you don't have to use the same plants and can have a whole 128-crayon box you can grow."

The project also focuses on the genetics of cold tolerance in plants.

According to Ken Wilson, another member of the botany department at the university, there are certain "cold-shock" genes that respond once a plant is exposed to freezing temperatures.

"If we can take these genes and turn them on," he said. "We can have them survive cold temperatures."

Horace Hobbs, president of the International Palm Society, said that as more research into palm hardiness was released, more and more people were growing the trees in the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast.

"One of the more surprising things is that our European membership has grown, with people from Germany, France and England," Hobbs said. "A lot more folks appreciate the tropical look, to take a barren, old landscape and make it look more like Florida."

The fruit of Francko's work came to bear last month, right after the publication of his book. Miami's campus reached some of the coldest temperatures since Francko started his study. While some of the foliage was damaged, Francko said, the plants themselves had not died.

"If once every 10 years, we lose a lot of leaves, that's OK."




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