2011-09-29 / Arts & Entertainment News

palm maniacs


IF YOU’VE EVER VISITED A FOREIGN COUNTRY AND DIDN’T SPEAK THE language, you’ll feel right at home on a tour through hundreds of homegrown palms cultivated by Punta Gorda friends and neighbors Gordon Bower and Dr. Jeff Joffe.

These two speak the palm language so fluently it’s easy for a visitor to feel lost in translation. However, those who take heed and take note can discover a world of more than 200 palm species.

Mr. Bower is the former editor of the Punta Gorda Herald and still contributes to the publication.

Dr. Joffe heads a dental practice in Punta Gorda’s Towles Plaza.

The men live minutes from each other, but it wasn’t until about five years ago that they became friends, brought together by their mutual passion/obsession for cultivating palm species on the grounds of their homes.

These men read palms better than any soothsayer and impress immediately with their combined encyclopedic knowledge of palms.

Above, Latania lontaroides, is called the red latan palm for obvious reasons. 
KATHY GFEY & COURTESY PHOTOS Above, Latania lontaroides, is called the red latan palm for obvious reasons. KATHY GFEY & COURTESY PHOTOS And so it was with awe and a bit of trepidation that Florida Weekly toured the flourishing homesteads owned by two respectable men addicted to the care, feeding and knowledge of the world’s vast array of palm tree species.


Dr. Joffe grew up on the lush tropical island of Sanibel, inspired by the beauty of the environment. But it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that he discovered his green thumb and developed a fascination with palm trees.

By the time he moved to his current home on 13,000 square feet of land in Punta Gorda 10 years ago, his palm mania was in full bloom. Today, the estate is covered in a mind-boggling 250 species of palm trees, each with its own growth rate and life cycle — and each as singular as a snowflake.

Left, Gordon Bower adjusts the weather station in his back yard. Left, Gordon Bower adjusts the weather station in his back yard. A few blocks away, Mr. Bower’s growing grounds are home to 210 palm varieties — pretty impressive, considering that his palm fixation launched just about five years ago and his property is about 10,000 square feet smaller than Dr. Joffe’s.

“Vertical layering is what I’m trying to do at my house because of the lack of space,” Mr. Bower says. “Jeff doesn’t have that problem on his more spacious palm plantation.

“Basically (with layering), you can (get) more palms in if you mix tall, fast growers with shorter, slow growers so the leaf crowns don’t get all mixed up together.

“It’s a creeping addiction,” Mr. Bower says.

“It’s a healthy disease,” Dr. Joffe seconds.

Nourishing the young

These two gents care for and feed their palms as they would their own children. Mr. Bower talks to his palms during his daily perambulation along his 3,000-square-foot property. “My neighbors think I’m crazy,” he says.

Dr. Joffe wakes up thinking about his copious palm brood, considering their welfare one by one as they thrive on his sprawling land.

“You can’t just plant a palm anywhere,” Mr. Bower says. “Each has its own specific needs.”

The men’s passion for palms enriches their lives. They exhibit pride in accomplishment in the beauty and majesty of a tree well planted. As for work therapy, there’s plenty of it. It takes hours a day — easily 20 hours a week — to tend to their palm families.

“Sometimes you miscalculate growing speeds, meaning you then have to thin out your herd,” Mr. Bower says. “Jeff has dug up more palms than I’ve planted.”

Still, the sweetest fruit of Mr. Bower’s labor is the sound of rustling palm fronds in the sultry Southwest Florida breeze.

Growing up

Early on, Mr. Bower discovered an impressive array of palms available at Home Depot. “There are more palm and other plant species at Home Depot than you’d expect,” he says. His passion for more exotic species has also taken him to exclusive destinations in the state and across the Internet.

Dr. Joffe gives a nod of approval to Home Depot for its assortment and quality. Both men see it as a valuable place to learn for those with a budding interest in palm varieties.

It’s interesting to note that there are only two types of palms indigenous to Southwest Florida: the palmetto (“cabbage palm”) and the saw palmetto. Only 11 species are native to the state of Florida.

And while palmetto and saw palmettos are available for landscaping, Mr. Bower contends, “Why would you plant cabbage palms in your garden when they grow out of cracks in sidewalks?”

Good point.

The men have their favorites. Though it’s a slower-growing variety, Dr. Joffe likes the Bailey palm because of its “massive number of leaves and solid, concrete trunk.”

There’s so much to know. The Cuban petticoat palm takes five years to grow from seed. Coconut palms take five to 10 years to reach full height. The canuba palm’s crushed leaves are used to make car wax. The Afghanistan Fairchild palm is a great choice for its clumping growth, and the triangle palm from Madagascar makes up 40 percent of all palms planted in the world.

Mr. Bower loves the Bismarck palm — “big blue,” he calls it. Native to Madagascar, the Bismarck is bold and dramatic with soft bluish leaves that stand out among other plantings.

Neither man is a fan of the queen palm. Dr. Joffe lost several during Hurricane Charley and says the storm did him a favor. He replaced the messy queens with sturdier, cleaner varieties, including the vecchia palm, which both men admire for its strong, straight trunk.

Garden variety

Mr. Bower has a succulent garden and a mini-rainforest to complement his palm village, and both men use bromeliads and crotons to add color and dimension with relatively little maintenance.

“Palms whose leaf bases adhere to the trunk make a great place to stash air plants like bromeliads, tillandsias and orchids,” Mr. Bower says.

“I built a shady rainforest area at the top of my driveway where I have planted several species of smaller rainforest understory palms. The little guys like shade, acidic soil and lots of water, so I planted taller growing plants for shade and added lots of topsoil, peat moss and pine bark mulch for acidity. I give them plenty of water, including the condensate from the air conditioning drainpipe.”

Commuters — pedestrians in Mr. Bower’s neighborhood and boaters along Dr. Joffe’s waterfront property — often stop to chat with the men about their palm-filled properties. Friends and neighbors encourage their habit for various reasons, including the privacy and beauty the plantings afford and the likelihood of receiving sage advice — and a plant or two.

Mr. Bower has presented at area garden clubs, including the Master Gardener clinic, Burnt Store Isles Garden Club and the Extension Service’s major event at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center.

One palm clinic drew 70 students, who thirsted for more knowledge at class’ end. Mr. Bower — known as the “Palm Ambassador” — invited interested students to take a tour of his property at a later date. When that day arrived, he was stunned to open the door to 60 students milling about his property, cars parked as far as the eye could see.


As the years have progressed, neither man’s ardor for palms has waned. They still exhibit a kid-like thrill when they make a new discovery. And they enjoy a friendly bit of “palm envy” when one trumps the other in cultivation or knowledge. Still, the work entailed in keeping their plants and trees flourishing can be taxing.

Of his mega palm farm, Dr. Joffe admits, “I’m tapering off a little.”

Mr. Bower has his own way of expressing what could be his twilight years in palm cultivation.

“I’m out of space.” ¦

in the know

Recommended reading
 Florida Gardening magazine
 Palm and Cycad Societies of Florida (www.
 International Palm Society (www.palms.org)
 Palm and Cycad Societies of Austrailia (www.
 Encyclopedia of Cultivated Palms
 Betrock’s Cultivated Palms of the World
 “Ortho All About Palms” — available at Home
Internet palm sales
 www.palmtalk.org/forum/index.
 palmguide.org/index.php
 www2.junglemusic.net/gallery2/default.
 www.ramcort.com/ms/index_ files/index.html
 www.plantapalm.com/vpe/vpe_ toc.htm
 www.palmpedia.net/wiki/index.php/Palm
Mag_ Online
 eunops.org/en/content/glossary-palm-terms
 www.palms.org/palmsjournal/2001/growth
Diagnosing problems
 http://flrec.ifas.ufl.edu/KeyToPalmDisorders
 http://www.upf.com/news/palmsolutions.html
 http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/EP273 — nutrient
 http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/EP263 — disorders
 http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/EP261 — fertilizer
Other useful sites
 http://bizmark.8m.com/custom2.html — cold
 http://www.pacsoa.org.au/palms/Coldhardy
 http://www.junglemusic.net/articles/HowTo
 http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/EP262 — fertilizing

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