Palm trees bring exotic flair to local landscapes

03/02/2001

By Field Roebuck / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Imagine trudging through a muddy, shallow swamp inhabited by snakes and alligators, then climbing a small ridge and seeing acre upon acre of lush green palm fronds 8 to 12 feet tall.

Lest you think we've spirited you off to a tropical jungle, rest assured this adventure is just a 15-minute drive south of downtown Dallas, in the 282 acres of protected swampland in Trinity forest. It's the view that palm enthusiast Tony Cerbone sees when he visits the palmetto swamp in South Dallas.

Yes, there are exotic looking palms native to Dallas County. And these so-called "dwarf palmettos" (Sabal minor) are one of the more popular types of cold-hardy palms appearing in greater numbers in local landscapes.

Mr. Cerbone says he believes that the frequent use of palms in newer upscale neighborhoods, including those near and in the downtown Dallas area, has had a lot to do with the increasing numbers in local home landscapes in general.

"Palm trees impart an illusion of class," he says. "Returning home in the evening, the resident is transported miles away to an exotic location."

Dr. Tom Wilten of the First Men's Garden Club of Dallas and another palm tree enthusiast, says, "Palms can lend a tropical mood or flair to any landscape. A palm with a fountain makes you think of the French Riviera, and it's the No. 1 landscape plant for use around a swimming pool or water feature. It's evergreen, makes no trash, and imparts that exotic tropical look."

A number of cold-hardy palms are available to home gardeners. From among those, Mr. Cerbone lists several fan and feather palms, all well suited to North Central Texas. He begins with the Dallas-native S. minor, the dwarf palmetto.

This palm doesn't normally form a conspicuous trunk. Rather it's a large, shrub-type, clumping fan palm, and it's happiest in partial sun or bright shade during the hot summer. However, when grown in very wet and shady conditions, some believe it forms a trunk as much as 6 feet tall, in which case it's known as the Louisiana Palmetto, S. louisiana. (But not every expert agrees that these two forms are actually variants of the same species.)

For bright shade or morning sun, the windmill palm (Trachycarpus Fortunei) is a tall tree palm cold hardy to 5 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Many of these are found in Dallas landscapes.

Rounding out this low-light group is the hardy parlor palm, Chamaedorea radicalis. With boldly patterned, dark-green leaves, this slow-growing, single-stemmed, feather palm grows to a height of only about 4 feet and sustains winter temperatures down to 15 F. It is especially adapted for use in containers on a shaded patio or porch.

For full-sun locations, Mr. Cerbone recommends the Mexican palmetto, Sabal mexicana. With a slender trunk, this slow-growing fan palm can ultimately achieve a height of 30 to 50 feet.

The Mexican blue palm, Brahea armata, is a fan palm that grows slowly to a height of 40 feet. Mr. Cerbone describes its powdery blue foliage as "stunningly beautiful." He cautions, though, that this palm doesn't like to be moved because of its long taproot. Therefore, it should be purchased only as a small plant.

Butia capitata, the queen palm or jelly palm has a short, broad and heavy trunk and grows slowly to a height of no more than 20 feet. This is a feather palm with attractive bluish-green, arching leaves. If climatic conditions are just right, its long spikes of small flowers mature into red and yellow, edible dates.

Washingtonia filifera, the California fan palm, has a thicker trunk and lower leaves that droop and, unless removed, ultimately form a brown skirt. It is quite cold hardy for this region, but Mr. Cerbone cautions against planting the closely related Mexican fan palm, W. robusta. "Most of the tall palms you see around town, all wrapped up for the winter, are the Mexican fan palm. Planting them was a mistake."

Dr. Wilten adds a suggestion for bright shade to partially sunny locations. Next to his backyard water pond, he grows specimens of Rhapidophyllum hystrix, the needle palm. This luxuriant fan palm is a clumping, understory type with a short trunk. It can grow up to 10 feet tall and 12 to 14 feet wide.

"It's a true Zone 7 palm," he says, "because it's hardy to below-zero temperatures.''

Cultivation

Palms are relatively easy to grow, provided a few simple rules are followed. First, plant the palm in an appropriate site with respect to sun and shade, and plant it near a wall or some other shelter to protect against strong winds and cold temperatures. Plant it exactly at ground level but allow for the root level sinking a bit after planting. And do your planting when the soil is warm, preferably from mid-April through July.

Next, water well during the heat of summer, and apply the water to the roots, not on the crown. Prune only in the spring so the plant will have as much foliage as possible to take it through the winter. And give some protection to plants during severe winter conditions for the first two years after installation.

When watering, Dr. Wilten says, give the sabals massive moisture and the windmills medium moisture. The washingtonias can take drier conditions. So can the sabals after they're established.

Fertilize palm trees lightly with a 3-1-2 or 4-1-2 lawn fertilizer, one with as much extremely slow-release nitrogen as you can find.

According to Mr. Cerbone, most cultural problems are weather related. A spell of exceptionally cold weather, for example, can cause the leaves to freeze and turn brown. "Generally that's not fatal," he says. "It will usually begin to grow new ones by June or July. Otherwise, it's bad news. Your palm is dead."

If your palm freezes and the last emerging leaf pulls out, this is bud rot. That can be treated with Bordeaux mixture [available at most garden centers], Mr. Cerbone says.

"But, if during the summer the center spear pulls out, and the leaves are still green, this is phytopthora. Cut down on the water and apply some Aliette [fosetyl-Al], a systemic fungicide."

So, if you haven't yet worked a palm tree into your landscape, give it some thought. In the tropics, palm trees often grow amongst broad-leafed trees and other plants. Therefore, you can consider planting them with groupings of caladiums, elephant ears and banana trees. Or simply set a few containers of the clumping-type palms around your patio or pool. Then lean back, sip your mai tai and bask in the ambience of a warm tropical paradise right here in North Texas.

New stock of hardy palms usually arrives in the spring at home improvement stores, including Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal-Mart, and at local nurseries, such as Nichsolson-Hardie. There also are several dealers at the Dallas Farmer's Market, including Texas Palm Trees and Plants, Inc. on Cadiz Street.

A well-known out-of-town source for several types of hardy palms is the Yucca Do Nursery in Hempstead. Contact the store at 979-826-4580. Displays of hardy palms can be seen at the Texas Discovery Gardens (formerly known as the Dallas Horticulture Center) at Fair Park, the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, the Dallas Zoo and the Fort Worth Zoo. To view their use in Dallas landscapes, drive through the Oak Lawn area, along McKinney Avenue, along Travis Street just south of Knox Street, or just keep your eyes open as you cruise through any of an increasing number of Dallas neighborhoods.

For even more information, visit the palm tree section of Tony Cerbone's Web site at http://web.novaone.net/Dallas Palms/. Mr. Cerbone says he will respond to e-mail questions if possible.

Identifying local palms

There are two types of hardy palms: fan palms and feather palms. Fan palms have palmate leaves that radiate like fingers from a central hand. The majority of hardy palms are of this type.

Feather palms have leaves with the geometry of a feather or a fern leaf. The leaflets are arranged along both sides of a central stem or petiole.

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