Silver Thatch Palm — National Trust for the Cayman Islands

Silver Thatch Palm - National Trust for the Cayman Islands

The upper sides of the leaves are a light green while the underside is a silvery colour that is particularly prominent in moonlight.

Chosen as the National Tree of the Cayman Islands, the Silver Thatch Palm has played an important role in the lives of Caymanians since the first settlers arrived on the islands in the early 1700’s. A valuable part of Cayman’s natural heritage, as well as part of the landscape, it is endemic to the Cayman Islands — which means that it is found nowhere else.

The Silver Thatch Palm is both beautiful and useful. Its slender trunk often grows more than 30 feet tall, and its crown produces a profusion of small white flowers that develop into berries that ripen from green to red to black.

Bearing the scientific name Coccothrinax proctorii after renowned botanist, Dr. George Proctor, its leaves (or fronds) are what gives this tree its common name. The upper sides of the leaves are a light green while the underside is a silvery colour that is particularly prominent in moonlight.

The leaves are also unusually tough and their broad shape makes them a useful covering. In the past, Silver Thatch Palm leaves were frequently used to thatch roofs as they were cool and rainproof. They were not, however, mosquito-proof, and needed replacing every 5-6 years (or 9 if, according to folklore, the leaves were cut at the time of the full moon).

Teams of eight to ten men would work together to thatch a house roof, usually in exchange for a meal and help when their own homes needed re-thatching. Using open leaves, the thatchers had to work quickly as the leaves would curl if left to dry and cause the roof to leak. The supervising thatcher would work from inside the house. If you look carefully at a thatched roof, you will appreciate the skill involved in creating this closely constructed covering that can be best observed (and guided) from the underside. Today, the informational huts at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park provide excellent examples of thatchwork.

Thatching was not always restricted to roofs. Before the days of electricity, kitchens and cookrooms were often separate constructions, to reduce the risk of fire. Some had thatched walls, which created a cool cooking area. With the availability of corrugated zinc roofing in the 1920’s, thatched roofs and thatching skills have now become rare.

Silver Thatch Palm leaves were also used to weave hats, baskets and fans. Shoes known as "wompers" were made with a flat leather sole and held on the foot by straps -like a thong — of thatch rope. Nowadays, hats and baskets are in demand in tourist and craft shops. Many of them are still made by those who were taught their skills over fifty years ago!

Items made from Silver Thatch Palm lasted far longer than similar products made using other materials available at the time. The tree’s real value, however, lies in the ability of its dried leaf to resist the effects of salt water.

This proved particularly important in the rope-making industry. Cayman had relatively few natural resources that could generate income, but the thatch rope was highly prized in Cuba and Jamaica for use in the shipping, fishing and sugar industries. While the men were away at sea, or busy with their farms, the women and children would make rope.

The ropemaking process involved a number of different stages. First, the "tops" (or new unopened leaves) had to be harvested. This frequently meant a long trek inland, to areas known as "thatch walks" where large numbers of the Silver Thatch Palm grew. The route often led through mosquito infested wetlands, and family groups would set out at first light and spend the whole day cutting tops and carrying them home on their backs or by donkey in baskets, also made of Silver Thatch Palm. The leaves were then hung up in bundles to dry for a few days before being split into strands. Three strands were twisted together to make a rope, about 150 feet long, on an ingenious handmade machine which was comprised of three parts — the winch, cob and cart.

The finished rope would be taken to the local store and exchanged for flour, kerosene, cloth, sugar and other necessities. The storekeeper would then sell the rope. The price fluctuated according to demand, but the work was never highly paid.

One elderly Caymanian recalls that in 1930 her father was ill. Her mother had to take him to George Town for medical treatment, leaving their five children to fend for themselves at home in East End. Medical expenses took all their savings, but the children were able to keep themselves fed for six weeks by making and selling rope.

In those days too, the sea claimed many lives, and widows could use their rope-making skills to keep their families together. One recalls:"I raised my seven children on rope". Another Caymanian remembers exchanging her rope for a length of cloth to make a new dress. Times were changing, though, and by the 1960’s synthetic rope was replacing thatch rope and this industry too, declined rapidly.

(Quote courtesy of the Memory Bank, Cayman Islands National Archive.)

Last Updated: 27 Jun 2012


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