Nothing can quite match the magnificence of the blazing maple, oak, beech and elm trees decorating Chautauqua County woodlands in the fall. But, once that brilliant season is over and the colorful leaves have fallen, the forests lose their appeal until spring rolls around again.
Here in Florida, maples and other deciduous trees provide only a rare highlight in the landscape. Instead, the tropical scenery is dominated by hundreds of varieties of frond-topped palms.
These exotic trees always strike me as an accent dreamed up at the Disney studios. It's as though palms were developed specifically to adorn Florida post cards. Combine a stand of these gracefully swaying trees with a sunset and a stretch of beach and you have a picture with that irresistible "come-on-down" allure.
My palm tree guidebook tells me there are about 3,000 species of palms. Some grow to be only two feet tall while others reach a hundred feet or more.
One of the most impressive - and my personal favorite - is the majestic royal palm. The streets of nearby Fort Myers are lined with these towering trees, partially through the efforts of Mrs. Thomas Edison.
The Edisons, who made their winter home in Fort Myers, spent their summers at Chautauqua. In fact, Thomas Edison's wife, the former Mina Miller, was the daughter of one of the founders of the Institution.
Both of the Edisons were deeply interested in plants of all types. This included the tropical palms.
In her beautification efforts, Mrs. Edison presented the City of Fort Myers with their first royal palms. The community has since become known as the City of Palms and boasts more than 70 species of these regal trees.
The first royal palms I ever saw were not in Florida, but in my Texas hometown of Fort Worth. During my growing-up years, I often admired the two specimens of the towering royals that stood in front of one of the city's wealthy estates. Although Fort Worth was much too far north to support such tropic-loving trees, the owners of the property had transplanted the palms there as small seedlings. Somehow loving care and determination had seen the trees through some chilly north Texas winters. When I was a kid, the pair had already held their place for more than 25 years as the city's only palm trees.
But, though rare in north Texas, palms are very much at home here in southwest Florida. In addition to the royal palm, dozens of other members of this vast family keep the area ever-green.
One of the most impressive varieties is the pineapple palm, so named because of its pineapple-shaped trunk. This plant is used as an impressive specimen accent. The trunks of well cared for pineapple palms are trimmed to look like the upper half of a mega-sized pineapple from the garden of the Jolly Green Giant.
Another popular palm is known as the "petticoat palm." The tree, if left untrimmed for years, develops a "grass skirt" of old fronds. On a windy day, these trees make me think of aging Hawaiian ladies, still dancing the hula.
The exotic banana palm is grown as an attractive ornamental plant by many homeowners across the southern states. While only for show in cooler climates, in the tropical environment of southern Florida these palms produce fruit. Recently a neighbor brought us a few small bananas from her tree. They are coarser than their grocery-bought cousins, but have a delicious flavor.
These and hundreds of other members of the huge palm tree family can't match the fall beauty of northern maple, oak, ash and elm. But when it comes to those alluring picture post cards of sunsets and beaches, palms are the perfect accents to invite visitors down to the Sunshine State.