Madagascar Palm: pachypodium lamerei

by Ellen LaForge

The Madagascar palm is not really a palm tree at all. It looks more like a cactus, covered all over with needle-sharp spiny thorns up to three inches long. It has a single straight trunk and in its native land, it grows up to eighteen feet tall. The word palm in its name refers to the long green ovoid leaves that erupt out of the top of the trunk during spring growing season like the metal spokes of a naked umbrella. Outdoors in its native habitat, you may even see a delicate white flower among the leaves. In a northern climate, you would never see it flower and normally it would only grow to five or six feet even in the best of conditions. It cannot survive a frost and must be kept inside all winter. If you could touch the trunk without being painfully thorned, you would feel the dark green skin covering a juicy trunk—succulent like others of its class of plants. No wonder it needs all those thorns to protect itself.

Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island and has distinct biodiverse ecosystems that range from tropical rainforest to arid shrublands. The island broke off from the Indian subcontinent 88 million years ago, and over millennia, it drifted to its current location off the coast of southeastern Africa. Its plants and animals evolved in isolation, so that 90 percent of its wildlife is native to Madagascar and nowhere else on the planet. And of its people, 90 percent earn less than a dollar a day. They speak French and Malagasy and became a constitutional democracy after the French colonial government left in 1960.

My connection to Madagascar was though a friend—a free-spirited French artist who grew up near Paris in a family with two sisters and a brother. The mother was bipolar and would switch between smothering and abandoning—so the kids never knew what was coming next. They spent a few years of their childhood in an orphanage when it became too difficult for mom to cope with them. Like the Madagascar Palm, the girls grew defenses and managed to survive. They got jobs, had children and relationships, and thrived in the suburbs of Paris. The boys had a more difficult time—my friend, a talented artist but a difficult person whose mind swung from grandiose schemes to dark moods, and his brother, who wanders the island of Madagascar shoeless and often homeless.

When I bought my Madagascar palm, in a small gift shop with assorted plants and knick-knacks, I was single and twenty-five years old. It had a perfectly straight, six-inch tall trunk with a spray of glossy dark green leaves at the top. It was fairly easy to take it along the next time I moved, and the next, and the next. It went with me through relationships, jobs, and graduate school, becoming a little harder to move every year. When it reached four feet in height, I had to carefully wrap the trunk in a blanket to cover the inch-and-a-half-long thorns and place it horizontally in the back of my station wagon, barricaded with pillows each time I moved.

By the time the Madagascar Palm was fifteen years old, I had married and had a three-year old child. I was moving again, this time for a new teaching job and some space away from my husband—six states away. Although I had been warned about his anger, I didn’t feel it directed at me until our values and hopes for the future diverged more and more over time. I began to fear for the safety of our daughter and myself. I thought of strategies for making sure there was always someone else, a friend or neighbor, nearby when I had to go to work and leave my daughter alone with him. I found excuses to occasionally bring her with me to classes and to keep his time with her short and filled with activities in public places. In the public eye, he could keep his eruptive impatience in check. I knew that he would not want to move from the Victorian house we had bought in New Jersey, and the new job in another state gave me some breathing room to start building a life away from him.

For this move, I found that the Madagascar Palm had reached five feet in height and it was impossible to fit it in the car. I left it with my husband at our house in New Jersey while I rented a house near my new job in Georgia. The New Jersey house had a porch and the palm could be left outside in the summer. When my husband came to visit us in Georgia, he would find someone to water the plant while he was away.

Six years passed that way, with me visiting the New Jersey house during Christmas break and summer vacation. As the relationship with my husband drifted, the visits were fewer. We spoke about divorce and the visits became acrimonious as the battles over custody and assets became more common. One winter, when the Madagascar palm was twenty-one years old, he left it outside on the porch during a frost.

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