Hybrid Palms: The Future of Horticulture

by Justen Dobbs (justen.seabreeze@gmail.com)


Hybrid palms have been a fascination of mine since I began experimenting with Dypsis decaryi in 2006.  I had the opportunity to move to south Florida’s sub-tropical climate in 2007 in order to further my experimentation and research with hybrids.  Since then, me and my company have produced a few existing hybrids and a few brand-new hybrids and continue to experiment with new species with our active breeding programs.

Many growers, botanical gardens, and institutions altruistically endeavor to perpetuate pure species through careful documentation of the progeny of specimens in their collections while other forward-thinking horticulturists and profit-driven breeders are capitalizing on lucrative opportunities that hybrids pose in their respective industry.  This dichotomy has evolved over the past couple of decades and neither school of thought can ultimately be debunked.  Preserving endangered species by propagation in cultivation is essential to preventing extinction while at the same time producing new species through hybridization is environmentally beneficial with regard to drought-tolerance, sun-tolerance, and aesthetic distinction.

All palm trees are either monoecious (a single tree can reproduce on its own) or diecious (separate male and female palms must mate).  My experience is with the former which is the trickier of the two because it requires more work.  First, one must emasculate the inflorescence by removing the staminate flowers before they reach anthesis (get rid of the guys).  Then, you wait until the pistillate flowers begin anthesis (the girls ovulate) and then pollinate them with pollen from another palm that is compatible.  (Compatibility involves the number of chromosomes each species possesses at the genetic level.  Interspecific hybrids (Syagrus x Syagrus) are usually always compatible while intergeneric hybrids (Butia x Syagrus) are usually only compatible if they fall within the same sub-famly (e.g. Cocosoid).)  Are you with me so far?  If the male pollen grain makes it down the fallopian tube to the ovary, the miracle of plant life begins!  The inflorescence (flower cluster) becomes an infructescence (fruit cluster).  In my experience, the majority of these fruits fail to mature properly while some do mature and gestate to a seed with a viable embryo.  I have found this success rate to be as low as obtaining one true hybrid seedling from 3,300 manually cross-pollenated flowers.  Thus, this time-consuming and intrinsically-frustrating process usually results in high costs in hybrid seeds and seedlings.

Me and my company were the first in the world to produce Dypsis leptocheilos x decaryi by manual cross-pollination and name it the “TriBear Palm”.  While both parents prove slow-growing in cultivation, this hybrid is one of the fastest-growing palms we have ever grown!  These characteristics have been attributed by some to a phenomenon called heterogeneity in which the offspring of two distinctly-different parents inherit the best traits of each parent (growth-speed, cold-tolerance, drought-tolerance, and aesthetic beauty, to name a few).  Insomuch as the horticulture industry is concerned, such hybrids provide clear benefits to the end consumer and also increase the return-on-investment from a fiscal standpoint.

As already evident in agriculture, viniculture, and nutraceuticals, hybridization has established its prominence in the world of botany and I would contend that it is still in its infancy with regard to Arecaceae.  As this article goes to print, the Mule Palm (xButiagrus nabonnandii), the Coco Queen (Syagrus xMontgomeryana), and the TriBear Palm (Dypsis decaryi x leptocheilos) are all being commercially grown in Florida for domestic use and export.  These hybrids are ostensibly utilized in many cold, dry, inland areas where either of their pure “parent species” would otherwise struggle or fail completely.  I believe this will ultimately save money on replacement costs, fertilizer, irrigation, and pest control which will contribute to a positive net effect on the environment and thus ultimately benefit the residents of Florida and beyond.  I am 12 years into my own research with hybrid palms and I still have much to learn and many projects in the pipeline.  I hope many more will join me in this exciting journey into the future of horticulture.