By Franco D’Ascanio
What do you see when you look at postcards, ads and travel posters designed to lure you to exotic, sunny locations? Almost without exception, there are palms – the omnipresent invitation to experience all things tropical. The association is so close, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine a tropical resort or lagoon-style backyard pool without at least one of them in sight.
The allure of palms, of course, extends well beyond the tropics. In any location in which sunshine and outdoor living are touchstones for the good life, whether its in the desert of southern California or on a waterfront in Hawaii, palms are almost always the finishing touch used in crafting a distinctive artistic and cultural statement. They are the icons of fun and luxury.
This is why it has always made sense to us at D’Asign Source – a full-service design/build firm based in the Keys at Marathon, Fla. – to use palms as our signature and offer nursery services to help spread these plants far and wide. To us, they epitomize the lifestyle we’re helping our clients find both in the sun’s warmth and at the water’s edge.
As familiar as they are, palms are also something of a blank to most people. Few know, for example, that there are more than 2,500 species of palms and that hundreds of them are suited to use in landscapes and particularly around pools and other watershapes. They exist on every continent except Antarctica and to this day, new species are still being discovered.
In botanical term, this plant family is known as either Arecaceae or, more commonly, Palmae – and they stand alone: They are distantly related to grasses, bamboo and other monocots, but not to dicots such as woody trees and shrubs. In fact, although most of us call them “palm trees,” that’s not the case: They don’t have bark the way trees do and their trunks do not grow thicker; instead, they have a fibrous structure that is anything but tree-like. Their small root balls are far more contained than the expansive root structures of most trees, they have no branches, and all you have to do is take one look at their ribbed leaf structures to understand that they are definitely not like trees.
This is why we refer to them in our business simply as “palms.” We grow more than 300 species in our own nurseries and since 1990 have specialized in researching, importing and propagating palms from around the world. We grow so many different kinds because we’ve found through the years that each type has specific characteristics that excite and inspire our clients. It’s also helpful that we’ve been at it long enough that we have mature specimens on hand to make new backyards look well established.
|Palms are frequently used to conjure the look and feel of tropical rainforests, and for good reason: Whether you use 200 species (as in the photo at left) or a relative few (as in the one at right), the density of the fronds, their rich greens and the way the slightest breeze brings sound and motion to these settings has a way of transporting homeowners and their guests to carefree, faraway places.|
We grow numerous dwarf palms that rise to only six or eight feet tall; we also propagate monsters that top out at 100 feet tall. We work with palms that will survive in temperatures down to 25 degrees as well as varieties that thrive in the hottest, driest places on earth. There are palms that have multiple trunks, trunks up to six feet in diameter, trunks as skinny as a pencil, and even some that are classified as vines. The largest leaf in the plant kingdom is found on one palm variety: The raffia palm has leaves up to 80 feet long in its African homeland.
We stock palms that bear fruit and those that don’t and have some whose trunks have spines and others that are smooth. We’ve encountered palms that are salt and/or drought tolerant – and above all here in the Keys, we know of many varieties that are sublimely hurricane-resistant.
While some exist beautifully in desert climates and require almost no water, there are other palms that need to be completely submerged in water at the base in order to survive. Some grow quite rapidly and will reach full size in just a few years; others take decades. And some are just downright bizarre, including the lipstick palm with its multiple, bright-red trunks.
Through the years, we’ve learned that some palms are extremely easy to grow. We’ve also discovered that some are quite finicky, which is one of the reasons we have full-time horticulturists on staff to keep them alive in our nurseries.
Beyond the image they project, palms are popular in landscapes (and particularly around water) for a number of practical reasons as well.
First, most are very clean. When their leaves die, they fall off in one large piece for easy disposal. Of course, there are fruiting palms that create large amounts of seeds, flowers and debris – most notably the famous coconut and date palms – but with so many other varieties available, it’s really a simple matter of not using the messier species around water or near decks where clients might not want to deal with the consequences.
Second, although palms are often seen as being tropical-rainforest plants, many varieties are extraordinarily drought-tolerant and can be used to great effect in creating xeriscapes and entirely sustainable landscapes – a huge advantage in dry climates.
Third, I can think of no other plant that holds up so well to hurricane or other high-wind conditions. It’s fascinating to watch the leaves fold into compact, aerodynamic shapes that present very little surface area to offer wind resistance – and even more fascinating to watch their flexible trunks bend in the wind without breaking or falling over.
Fourth, many palms are remarkably salt-tolerant so when tidal or storm surges occur, these plants will survive where many other plants will not. We’ve always seen palms as having been designed by nature to be able to survive and thrive in situations that would overwhelm most other plants.
|The verticality of some palms’ trunks makes them natural companions to many architectural styles, and we’ve had particular success with the visual interplay of palms with columns. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole all palms as tall, thin design elements, because many varieties (including some with tall, thin trunks) spread out horizontally with unrivalled beauty and elegance.|
And there’s more: As a real plus in hardscape structures around pools and in planters with limited space, most palms’ root systems are remarkably compact. Moreover, only a few varieties send out roots that will damage surrounding structures. That’s true even of the largest types: We use varieties with trunks in excess of 30 inches across, and we’re still able to bring pavers and other decking materials to within a couple of feet of their bases without worrying at all about lifting or cracking. This also means that many types of palms are well suited for planting in groups – an approach that can give a design an extremely natural appearance.
These plants also have known, predictable life spans. Some palms are monocarpic, which means they die after finishing a brief seeding period; these live for between 12 years in some cases and 50 years in others, depending on the species. Most of the varieties we work with will live anywhere from 40 to 120 years. They are also remarkably predictable and consistent in maturity, growing to within a known (and narrow) range of heights, which helps in designing sites for specific, controllable sight lines, proportions and scales.
In practical terms, this means you can take a palm that does well in shade and won’t grow to be more than six feet tall and place it within a shade structure. A few feet away, you can select a huge specimen that will tower over the property to make a majestic statement. It’s this sort of flexibility that makes these plants invaluable to us in our design work.
The physical flexibility of these plants translates beautifully to a basic design flexibility that, in my view, makes palms the most intrinsically architectural of all plants.
Whether we use them in groups or as single plants (or use a variety of types or several of the same kind), palms have distinctive lines that can be used to accent architectural structures or contrast with lush, leafy plantings. And they tend to serve the purpose for which they are originally planted for years and years, unlike trees and shrubs that need to be pruned and shaped as a matter of routine maintenance.
In our nurseries, we’ve taken this architectural potential to another level by deliberately growing palms with dramatically curved trunks. You’ll often see palms in natural settings that have been bent by the steady pounding of prevailing winds. It’s a dramatic effect that works well in many settings, which is why we grow more than 20 species in a line we call “Caribbean Curves.”
On this level, the aesthetic possibilities become truly vast, particularly in response to clients who want to see something more than straight trunks in their backyards or around their pools. I won’t reveal how we achieve this look, but it’s an option with immense visual appeal.
|The fact that palms are uncommonly ‘clean’ plants makes them ideal for applications in which they adjoin or overhang water. These palms with their curving trunks offer us an extreme way of demonstrating that point, of course, but it’s also important to note the way their sweeping lines and drooping fronds create gateways while visually softening the hard edges of the pool below.|
Like all living things, of course, palms can fall prey to certain diseases – rare but not unheard of if the wrong palm is chosen for the wrong application. One might, for example, select a variety that will grow too big for the space or put a sun-loving specimen in a heavily shaded area (or vice versa). In that sense, palms are like other plants in that you need to research their characteristics and be prepared to make the right choices and recommendations to clients.
Happily, information about even the rarest of species is readily available from most knowledgeable suppliers, so it’s really a matter of simply asking the right questions.
We’ve also found that most clients need a visual education, so we take them on tours to show them what can be achieved, for example, by mixing palm species or using different heights of the same species. Some of our projects have featured more than 300 types of palms, so we’re ready to explore a wide range of possibilities for projects of all scopes and scales.
Most of the time, a tour is persuasive enough that we don’t need to get down to reviewing the characteristics of each palm: Most clients are soon satisfied to let us put the right palms in their proper places.
Our basic approach to spreading the good word on palms is all about getting our clients excited about their diversity and variety – and then swinging the discussion around to the overall mood, environment and “feel” palms bring with them.
The effect is so palpable and the joy so great that many of our clients ask us to place small rock signs at the base of each of their palms to identify the specific species, indicate its country of origin and make these plants into distinctive conversation pieces. We do so with some pleasure, because sharing information on the huge variety of palms is one of our missions.
|There’s nothing like a trio of palms to create the immediate impression that you’ve been cast adrift on a tropic isle – the ultimate in private getaways and the not-so-secret desire of many of our clients. And then there’s the fact that the trunks are thin enough that they do little or nothing to interfere with the view to the horizon.|
Along the way (as I mentioned at the outset), we have found a huge gap in the public’s knowledge about these wonderful plants – a familiarity typically limited to a handful of the most common varieties. It’s always heartening to watch homeowners point out to guests that their backyard is filled with Formosa palms, peach palms, Moroccan palms, ruffle palms, guppy palms, zebra palms and perhaps dozens of others their guests have never before encountered. At this level, the sky’s literally the limit and I start feeling a bit like Johnny Appleseed.
While educating people about palms is exciting to us, we always find our way back to the wonderful flexibility of palms in our design work. We revel in how well they work visually with other plants – everything from cycads, ferns and bamboo to cacti, begonias and bromeliads – and take real delight in how well they work as natural companions to watershapes. And it’s not just with tropically themed, lagoon-style pools: We also consider and use them in formal and contemporary designs and in Mediterranean settings as well.
On every level, it’s about what palms represent: The plain fact is, when people look at palms, they think of sunny vacation destinations and immediately feel happy and relaxed. When we place palms on their property as part of a well-conceived design program, they get that feeling of being at home in the tropics.
Who could ask for anything better than that?
Franco D’Ascanio is co-owner and operator of D’Asign Source, a diversified family-owned and -operated firm in Marathon, Fla., that engages in home design and construction, interior design, landscape architecture and construction, watershaping, nursery and stone-supply services and audio/visual system design and installation. He runs the company, which was established by his parent in 1960, with his brothers Anthony (in charge of construction) and Amedeo (who handles the architectural department). At first, the company’s range was limited to the stone-supply operation, but before long it moved into residential design and construction mostly for upscale clients in the Florida Keys. Among the company’s many claims to fame, it boasts a nursery with one of the most comprehensive selection of palm species in the United States.