665 Acrocomia aculeataCommon Names: macaw palm, gru-gru Family: Arecacea (palm Family)
At first glance the macaw palm resembles the queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffianum). However, upon closer inspection, there are several differences that distinguish the macaw palm. For one, this palm has a more robust look, denser canopy, and a trunk that is slightly swollen above the mid-point. The most obvious difference is the presence of sharp black spines that encircle the trunk. These are about 4 in (10.2 cm) long and give this palm a vaguely menacing appearance. Spines are most dense on younger specimens - very old palms have mostly smooth trunks as spines wear away over time. The short leaf bases also are armed with spines making this one palm not to mess around with!
There are typically 20-30 pinnate (compound - feathery) leaves in the canopy. Each is 10-12 ft (3.1-3.7 m) long and has leaflets about 3 ft (0.9 m) long. They are dark green with a white fuzzy undersides and look very much like queen palm leaves from a distance. There is no crownshaft and the yellow flowers, both male and female, are borne on a 6 ft (1.8 m) long inflorescence. The flower stalk emerges from a woody spathe (sort of a cylindrical covering). The flowers are followed by light green fruits that are about 2 in (5.1 cm) in diameter.
The macaw palm, Acrocomia aculeata, occurs in tropical areas that are subject to occasional dry spells. It is endemic to the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Dominica and is a popular landscape palm throughout the Caribbean basin.
CultureAlthough growth is slow, this palm can develop into a very nice specimen tolerant of salt, poor sandy or rocky soils and heat. Best growth occurs in fertile well drained soils. Light: Requires full sun outdoors. Provide greenhouse specimens with full light. Moisture: The macaw palm has an advantage over the queen palm in that it can tolerate dry spells more easily. But for fast growth and best looks, keep the soil moist. Hardiness: USDA Zones 10 - 11. Enthusiasts are growing macaw palm in central Florida (Zone 9) with success but young specimens must be protected from the occasional frost. Propagation: Seeds germinate in 4-6 months and should be scarified to hasten germination. Warm conditions with temperatures above 75ºF (23.8ºC)are required.
The macaw palm is best used as a specimen tree on large properties. Small groves of macaw palm are especially attractive. We'd like to see it used more as a street tree and in urban plantings, where its slow growth and drought resistance would be appreciated by maintenance crews, and its unusual beauty enjoyed by passersby. Take care not to plant this palm in confined areas where people may come into contact with the dangerous spines.
In its native regions Acrocomia aculeata is an extremely useful plant. The starchy pith, which makes up the inner core of the trunk, is used for cattle food in the dry season. The starch is extracted and is often fermented into an alcoholic drink. The fibrous leaves are used to make rope and twine. Oil can be pressed from the fruits which can also be boiled and eaten - although they are usually not the tastiest morsels on the table.
As beautiful as it is, the Macaw Palm is very spiny. Plant it away from living areas and walkways where the fearsome armament cannot inflict harm!
Jeff Bielski 4/15/00; updated 11/8/03