Florida whittles away at blight affecting curvaceous coconut palms

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

This winter, as vacationers here send back post cards to their friends and families up North, the cards they are quite likely to choose will show coconut palms.

For decades the coconut palm, with its tall, curving trunk and cluster of coconuts at the top, has been the symbol of Florida.

But during the past nine years, 95 percent of the coconut palms in Dade County (which includes Miami Beach and Miami) have been destroyed by disease. Statewide the loss has been approximately 50 percent.

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As a result, Florida is losing much of its tropical lool, says horticulturalist Henry Donselman, of the University of Florida's Agriculture Research Center at Fort Lauderdale.

But researchers are making significant progress in combating the disease (lethal yellowing) that continues to destroy the coconut palms, Mr. Donselman says.

Last year the carrier of the disease was discovered -- an insect that looks like a small grasshopper and has the fancy name of myndus crudus.m

A disease that destroys only this insect has been developed at the research center at Fort Lauderdale, but not tested. A spider that kills the insect has also been found -- "but we're not sure we can talk the people of south Florida into letting us drop thousands of spiders on them," Donselman says.

But, he notes, a small, stingless wasp from Mexico was released in Florida in gigantic numbers in 1977 to fight the citrus black fly, which was destroying citrus trees. "They're doing a beautiful job," says donselman. "We've saved the citrus industry millions of dollars."

In the process, the effort helped save another aspect of Florida's tropical look.

Meanwhile, some 800,000 Malayan dwarf palms, resistant to lethal yellowing, have been sold by Florida nurserymen since the early 1970s. They produce coconuts faster than the coconuts palms -- but have straight trunks and grow only up to about 60 feet tall -- shorter than most coconut palms.

But, Donselman cautions, "We don't want to put all our eggs in one Malayan dwarf basket." So other varieties resistant to lethal yellowing are being studied, he says.

Just how important are the coconut palms or their look-alikes to south Florida today?

"This ain't Yankee land," says Raymond Ogelsby, past vice-president of Florida's Nurserymen and Growers Association. The tree should be preserved, he says.

But a tourist official in Miami says many tourists, especially those from Latin America, are more interested in shopping bargain than palm trees.

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