trees bring exotic flair to local landscapes
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"It's a true Zone 7 palm," he says, "because
it's hardy to below-zero temperatures.''
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.