When you think of palms, it’s easy to conjure visions of Hawaii or some other tropical paradise. These graceful plants evoke a sense of serenity and thoughts of calm tropical breezes – and maybe even memories of a cool mai tai in your hand.
Unfortunately for lots of us, palms thrive only in warmer climates. In the United States, for example, they generally do not grow north of the 33rd parallel, which stretches roughly from Northern California on the West Coast to South Carolina on the East Coast.
This geographic factor is the main reason I haven’t discussed palms before in this column. After three years, however, I figure I’m entitled to slip in at least one discussion that will leave some readers out in the cold (so to speak) – especially when the topic is as significant as this one.
Its also true that geography isn’t an absolute limit for palm lovers. As I’ll discuss later, there’s much to be said for growing palms indoors!
As is true of any class of plants, different species of palms grow in a range of climates and temperature zones suited to their specific needs – and there are lots of species to consider.
Palms come in an array of shapes and sizes. Lilliput palms are only about six inches tall when fully mature, while other varieties reach close to 200 feet tall. Some have one trunk, while others boast many. Some flower, some don’t.
It’s also important to note that palms are not strictly ornamental. In many regions, their fronds and trunks are used as principal construction materials and in crafting furniture, and they produce important cash crops around the world – oils, waxes and fruits that sustain the economies of certain regions. Who among us hasn’t seen or tasted coconut milk or meat?
As you travel in warm climates, you may spot some very interesting palm varieties, but there are specific types that are quite common in certain areas. As with any other plants, I’d suggest checking with your local nursery before planning a landscape around a specific variety to see if it grows well in your area – or if it can be ordered and will in fact thrive where you plan to put it.
Palms are versatile in design terms. They fit particularly well in tropical or contemporary landscapes, but they are perfect specimens in almost any design style.
Their great practical advantage is that they can be placed almost anywhere. Most varieties do not require a lot of room for their roots and, over time, they won’t disturb hardscape the way a ficus or certain other plants with invasive roots will. So unlike other trees, it’s usually easy to plant right up against a mature palm’s base, making it easier to plan a landscape around existing palms. And because they typically don’t have a lot of leaf drop, they make great companions for watershapes.
A SHOPPING GUIDE
Here are some varieties I have found to be quite useful in Southern California landscapes. All are widely cultivated and available in our region.
[ ] Canary Island Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis). This statuesque palm is one of the most prized varieties in Southern California. These giants frame the entrances to many of the industrial and residential developments built during the 1990s. They boast wide, sturdy trunks, canopies of up to 50 feet in diameter and are great for hot yards in need of shade when the client wants a tropical look. By locating the palm to the side of the yard where it will block the most sun, you benefit from space savings while cooling the area.
[ ] Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffianum). Plant this one in full sun and give it plenty of fertilizer: It will grow quickly to 20 or 25 feet tall (and may spurt up to 50 feet) with a canopy of 20 to 25 feet. With a straight, slender trunk, this plant adds great vertical lines to any design, making smaller areas appear bigger. It’s also one of the cleaner and more attractive varieties and doesn’t require much care.
The Palm Aftermarket
What happens to mature palms that are no longer wanted? Well, if the specimen that needs to be removed has a straight trunk that measures less than 20 feet high, there’s a thriving aftermarket in palms.
Just call around to the larger tree nurseries and give them the tree’s dimensions. They’ll often remove a quality specimen at no cost to the homeowner and may even pay for a nice one. And when you consider the hauling fees you would need to charge to cut down, remove and dump a large palm (they are quite heavy due to the moisture in the trunks), your client will appreciate your sensitivity to the budget.
If you can’t find anyone to buy the palm, save on dump fees by allowing the palm to dry out before placing it on your truck to be hauled away.
Another great side-use for palms comes in the early fall, when the Jewish holiday of Purim comes around. Many families spend a week during this time eating all their meals in a stand-alone structure known as a sukkah, an open structure similar to an arbor that is loosely covered by palm fronds.
It’s become big business in my area for the gardeners to prune off palm fronds in the early fall and sell them to families building sukkahs.
[ ] Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera). These palms are grown in certain areas around the world for their fruit. They grow up to 80 feet tall and are quite familiar to those of us who travel around Southern California. There’s a big commercial concentration of them in Indio, a tourist stop between Los Angeles and Palm Springs perhaps most famous for the Date Shakes at Hadley’s, the “everything dates” store.
[ ] Pygmy Date Palm (Phoenix robelinii). Known primarily for its ornamental value, these palms are a much smaller variety of Phoenix. They grow slowly to a height of 10 feet (with a frond span of 6 to 8 feet across) and look beautiful placed below the canopy of larger palms or other large-leaf trees or plants. They also make a nice accent next to almost any watershape and can be used in many different landscape styles because their fine-textured leaves blend in easily.
[ ] Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta). Don’t be fooled: These prehistoric plants are not actually palms, but that hasn’t limited their popularity in the slightest. Larger specimens, which may reach 10 feet high and 6 to 7 feet across, are quite valuable because of their slow-growing nature. They’ve been known to disappear from way too many yards under the cover of darkness. (In fact, this sago-theft phenomenon became so common in Southern California that some people actually chained their palms down so the plants would be destroyed if anyone tried to steal them!) Smaller specimens are not particularly prized or expensive, but become more valuable as they grow.
[ ] Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera). Also known as Coco Palms, this variety produces one of the world’s most valuable and vital crops. They can grow to be from 60 to 100 feet tall and must be maintained: Spent fronds should be pruned off, and the coconuts must be removed before they fall on their own because of the risk of great harm to anyone who happens to be standing below. (In our litigious society, it’s best to remove the fruit as soon as it ripens to avoid problems.) Unless your client is intent on growing coconuts, I’d recommend a less dangerous variety. But if only Coco Palms will do, place them away from highly traveled areas.
[ ] Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera). This is also one of the most widely planted varieties I’ve seen – but it isn’t one of my favorites. Unlike the fronds on Queen or King Palms, the fronds on these plants dry out and stay on the trunk, creating a thick mat of dead leaves that offers shelter to rodents and is generally unattractive. If you choose this variety, let your clients know it will require yearly maintenance to keep up appearances.
IN THE MARKET
Naturally, palms are most widely available in nurseries in the southern-most United States and become less prevalent as you climb north. But don’t hesitate to ask for a variety you don’t see on the nursery’s grounds – they might be able to order it for you.
And even if you live outside the ordinary palm-growing region, remember that many palm varieties do quite well indoors. One of the most famous and extensive palm arboretums anywhere in the world is found just outside London at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Kew’s Palm House is amazing, and your clients need not be kings and queens to get this sort of royally tropical treatment.
By surfing the Internet (just type in “palm trees” in any search engine), you can easily find a plethora of sites devoted to palm culture and sales. But remember: Do your research! It’s much easier to deal with the death of a $1 plant than a $100 plant, so choose wisely.
Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected]