Palm gracing Solomons conjures a tropical breeze

Professor at Chesapeake lab tends exotic visitor

Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006

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Staff Photo by Darwin Weigel
Dr. Robert Ulanowicz stands in front of the windmill palm he has been raising at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomons Island.

Solomons isn’t a deserted island, but it does sport a lone palm tree.

The tropical windmill palm tree has been nurtured on the grounds of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory by Dr. Robert Ulanowicz, a professor there.

Ulanowicz has a passion for palms. In fact, it was his fascination with the trees that led him to work at the laboratory in the first place.

‘‘I’m working here at CBL mainly because in ’68 or ’69 I came to go fishing off the Solomons pier” and saw a palm tree growing. The tree attracted him to the lab, where he now works as a theoretical ecologist. He studies trophic interactions, which he explains as ‘‘who eats whom and how much [in food webs]. Boxes and arrows. You can mathematically analyze the interactions,” he said.

After the original palm tree at the laboratory died of neglect, Ulanowicz decided to replace it with one of his own.

Solomons Island is suited to raising palms because it is surrounded by water and sheltered from winds.

Even so, the tree needs special care. Ulanowicz fertilizes it heavily every spring and does what he can to protect it from frosts in winter, including wrapping the trunk of the tree in colder weather.

Surprisingly, Ulanowicz also uses snow to protect his tree from the cold.

‘‘Snow is an insulator. ... You pile the snow around it and it will come out fine,” he said. The snow keeps the area at about the 5 degrees Fahrenheit required for the tree to survive.

While he is not a plant breeder, Ulanowicz hopes to create a cold-resistant variety of windmill palm better adapted to Maryland conditions.

‘‘I put a number of them out and select the hardiest. ... I’m not that serious about it. I’m just playing around with it,” Ulanowicz said.

Despite recent concerns about the ecological effects of non-native plant species in Maryland, Ulanowicz is not worried, saying these trees are too poorly adapted to escape into the wild.

‘‘I just don’t see it surviving in the wild given its slow rate of growth. It’ll be out-competed by other things,” Ulanowicz said.

Ulanowicz’s fascination with the exotic extends beyond palms. His backyard is also packed with exotic flora like pomegranate trees, purple passion flowers, red spider lilies and Japanese apricot trees, among others.

‘‘I’ve always liked warm weather,” is Ulanowicz’s simple answer to the question of why he goes to the trouble of raising them here. He has fond memories of time spent in Georgia as a boy and makes frequent trips to Florida.

As for why he decided to raise a palm tree, his answer is even simpler.

‘‘Because it will grow here,” Ulanowicz said.

E-mail Erica Mitrano at