Palm Trees 

“How Come We Don’t Never Get No Respect?!” 

  • Ah, the magnificent, spreading limbs of ancient live oak trees, with their branches in very old specimens even reaching to the ground. How old?  Lots of arguments about that!  A live oak near Charleston SC is alleged to be more than 400 years old.  A couple of live oaks in New Orleans, Louisiana, are claimed to be about 800 years old. As for NC, see https://www.ncparks.gov/weymouth-woods-sandhills-nature-preserve/home where live oaks are claimed to be hundreds of years old.  Well, maybe…  Oaks, especially the broad-leaf evergreen live oak, is the anchoring tree species adopted by Southport’s government in its efforts to maintain and expand the crucially important tree canopy of our urban maritime forest.
  • The statuesque long-leaf yellow pine, with its giant cones, some remnant old-growth survivors argued to be over several hundred years old and reaching 100 feet in height. The official state tree of North Carolina, although only a tiny fraction remains in our state.  https://project543.visitnc.com/longleaf-pine/#:~:text=The%20oldest%20longleaf%20pine%20tree,be%20nearly%20470%20years%20old The longleaf pine is a preferred species of conifer on Southport’s list of approved trees.
  • The Sabal palmetto palm, common in coastal NC and the official state tree of SC… Um, huh?! What’s so special?  They look tropical;  just plant them and forget about them, right?  Plant them anywhere, they take care of themselves, just pick up some dead fronds and pruned stubs of stems now and then-No problem.  Otherwise, just background scenery.  No special attention is needed…

Not really. Palm trees that do well in NC usually are ignored and taken for granted, but they surprisingly will flourish with a higher growth rate and with healthier roots and fronds if some attention is paid to basic needs. But the prevailing view is that no special planting or soil is needed – anything will do, no care and feeding required. Not true, as we will review later on.

This article is not a brief for palm trees, encouraging any reader to prefer growing palms over other trees in our local maritime forest, especially in lieu of Southport’s “touchstone” tree, the live oak, whose green foliage both winter and summer are crucial to maintaining our town’s tree canopy. With regard to palms, Southport’s Comprehensive Plan states that the city’s efforts to maintain a healthy and expansive tree canopy for its Urban Maritime Forest “shall utilize a diverse selection of trees native to the Southport/Brunswick County area such as live oaks, long-leaf pines, or other approved native species.” The Sabal palmetto is a palm species that are native to our Cape Fear region and approved for use as an understory tree.

So what are palm “trees” anyway? First, it is legitimate, despite the growth habit of many species as tall and narrow, to regard them as really big plants. They aren’t woody trees like live oaks or conifers like longleaf yellow pine.  They don’t have bark, so they don’t have cambium, the thin layer underneath external bark to bring food up to growing branches and leaves. If you cut down a growing palm tree, you instead will see numerous vessels or canals that bring food up from the roots to the live fronds.

Palm “trees,” like many garden plants, both annuals, and perennials, grow from a single bud at the top. Every frond emerges from this single bud. If the bud is damaged from cold or disease, fronds that are unhealthy can emerge. If the bud is killed by disease or freezing temperatures, it’s the death knell for that palm.

Next, except for some early, now extinct seed-producing ferns, palms are along with cycads like sago “palms” the oldest seed-bearing tree-like plants. The general belief is that palms evolved about 85-100 million years ago, as evidenced in the fossil record.

Because this article is aimed at those of you that grow palms on your properties, we are going to concentrate on the few palm trees that are not “exotic” and do well in our area of far southeast NC. We will concentrate our attention on four palms, two of them native species and two that were imported long ago and have become commonplace in our region. As local residents are aware, palms are strongly featured in local real estate advertising for vacationers and home sales.

Although the Cape Fear area has been designated in climate maps as Zone 8, it is clear that average yearly and winter temperatures have climbed over the past decade. My own opinion, shared by others, is that Southport proper may now be regarded as Zone 9a. The four palms reviewed below are quite happy in Zone 9a.

Sabal Palmetto

Sabal Palmetto: This warming trend is borne out by the northward spread of the Sabal palmetto, which is not especially cold-hardy. Once claimed not to grow much further north than the Cape Fear region, Sabal palmettos are now found abundantly along the entire NC coast and even in the Virginia Beach, VA region, and there are specimens even further up the Atlantic coast. Old palmettos can grow as tall as 80 feet or more, although this height is rarely seen in our region. Slow growing, so buying older, taller trees is advisable. Sabal palmettos were once called “cabbage palms” more often than they are now because the young, tender central bud was harvested and eaten cooked like cabbage. But removing the bud was the end for any cabbage palm.

Like all palms, Sabal palmettos grow from a central bud. All energy for constantly producing fronds is concentrated in the bud. As is the case with all the palms we will review, Sabal palmettos develop long, fibrous roots after planting and several months of getting established. Before planting, they will often be seen stacked up like telephone poles with vestigial, curly roots. Sometimes these short roots are covered or wrapped, sometimes not. When planted properly so that the root ball is not significantly below the surrounding grade, these roots will grow quickly in good soil and with ample water.

“Good soil” is pretty variable for palms. Some will do better in soil with more organic content, while others, such as the Sabal palmetto, will do well in very sandy soil. As for soil pH, a measure of soil acidity, palms, unlike many other plants, tolerate a wide range of alkaline, acid, and neutral pH soils.

Mulch, mulch, mulch all palms, not just palmettos. Not thickly. It matters little what you use. For some properties in our area, using the natural drop of leaves and pine straw is perfectly acceptable; in other cases, any kind of shredded bark is good. For the first year or so, taller Sabal palmettos, like all taller, newly planted palms with vestigial roots, should be supported with three or four struts placed at about a 45 degree angle to prevent them from being blown over in storms. Those struts should be removed after about six months to a year.

Sabal palmettos, like most palms, shed wind very well and can withstand most hurricanes. Only the most severe hurricanes can damage palmettos, and usually, this consists of most fronds being shredded and blown off. If well-established, especially in better soil rather than in sand (as already noted, palmettos will grow in sand and are also somewhat salt-tolerant), palmettos are highly resistant to being blown over. I have seen palmettos after hurricanes in the New Orleans area still standing with all foliage blown away. Yet, in a matter of months, new fronds emerged from the central growing bud. This is relevant to a method of pruning palm trees, discussed later, which is unwise and weakens them, leading to increased susceptibility to disease or death.

Finally, unlike many other palms, including two that are discussed below, palmettos have both male and female sex organs and so are self-fertile. Large seed stalks periodically appear with hundreds of small, hard seeds (not poisonous and allegedly edible, although I have never known anyone who tried to eat them!)

Let’s move on to the other palms frequently planted in our area before we discuss the care and feeding of palm trees, which is an important topic.

Sabal Minor

Sabal minor: Another native palm and a cousin to the palmetto, this palm can be seen in our area usually in marshy soils, including areas with frequent standing water. Not tolerant of being planted in sand and, accordingly, not very drought tolerant. Fairly salt tolerant. You can see a large area of them growing thickly in saturated soil on the left side of Midway Road below highway level just before Old Ocean Highway. There are other sporadic examples of them in Southport, including in both my and a neighbor’s yard. More often than not, bigger Sabal minor palms are “volunteers,” that is, they fortuitously grew from seed.

The Sabal minor is relatively short, usually not more than six feet tall in our region, and nearly always has no trunk. Unusually, the trunks of Sabal minor grow underground and only form above-ground trunks after many years. However, there are several specimens on Bald Head Island with substantial above-ground trunks. The Sabal Minor has almost vertical palmate (meaning, fronds shaped like a human hand with spread fingers) fronds.

Sabal minor, surprisingly, is extremely cold hardy, with plants growing even in southern Oklahoma and Arkansas where specimens are regularly subjected to sub-freezing temperatures for long periods of time, including being covered with snow and ice, so hardiness in the Southport area is a given.

Unfortunately, Sabal minor is notoriously difficult to transplant. Not only does it have a long, deep root system, but its roots do not like being disturbed. Most successful transplants are grown in pots from seed, not dug, and for planting out do better the younger they are. But it can take a long time for these small, transplanted Sabal minor palms to get to a respectable size. A plus for the Sabal minor is very fragrant flowers from a self-fertile plant that is both male and female.

Pindo (Jelly) Palm

Pindo (Jelly) Palm: Everyone in Southport has seen this palm, almost always standing alone as a single specimen. It originated in parts of South America, but landscapers quickly made it popular. The tree, as compared with the Sabal palmetto, is squat, wider, shorter, with gracefully arching, recurved fronds reaching almost to the ground in younger trees that almost make this palm look like a giant umbrella. The stubs of pruned stems are substantially bigger as compared with those of the Sabal palmetto.

The Pindo Palm is sometimes characterized as a “feather” palm because the long leaflets of the drooping fronds are reminiscent of the pinnate (feather) structure of bird feathers where the barbs spring from a central shaft. Extremely hardy. Known to survive temperatures as low as 5 degrees F, although even here in Southport I have seen much of the crowns of several jelly palms killed from freezing temperatures. However, the growing buds almost always recover. Fairly shade and drought tolerant.

Even fairly young Pindo/jelly palms can produce extremely large clusters of seed-bearing fruit. This palm is self-fruitful, so there is no danger of being stuck with only a male tree. Usually, golden yellow to orange, the pulp of the fruit is not only edible but delicious. Recipes for the jelly are easy to find on the internet. Many people who have sampled Pindo palm jelly have described it as tasting like sweetish-tart apricots or pineapple. One enthusiast for the prepared jelly said it tasted exactly like a pina colada. I don’t know about that… The fruit can also be eaten fresh right off the tree, although it can be pretty fibrous.

My own jelly palm, perhaps about 25 years old, produced an enormous stalk of ripe jelly fruit a few years ago. It didn’t last – birds and other animals ravenously raided the fruiting stalk right away, denuding it in just a few days.

Windmill Palm

Windmill Palm: Another palm planted in our area is easily recognizable because, first, it is narrow near the base and widens as one looks up to the crown, and, second, where the fronds have fallen off, the trunk is covered with extremely thick, matted, dark brown fibers that make one think of burlap. Densely packed fronds. I asked a local landscaper a few years ago about whether she carried windmill palms, and she asked, “Is that the real fuzzy one?” Yep, it is the real fuzzy one. From eastern China and the foothills of the Himalayas.

Windmill palms seem to have lost popularity over the years as compared with the Sabal palmetto. If you have a female, the yellow flowers appear in bunches spread over several stalks and are spectacular. Yes, you got it right: separate male and female trees – sort of. Sex for a windmill palm is about as weird as it can get. A specimen can start off with only male or female flowers. It can start male and then change to female flowers or vice versa. Then, after being well established, it might begin to produce flowers of both sexes.

How can you tell which is which, or maybe what is what, if you were to buy one? Unless a tree is blooming, you can’t. You pay your money and get what is available. Highly salt tolerant. Very cold tolerant – down to about 10 degrees F. Withstands drought pretty well once established. Very shade tolerant – can be grown even as an understory tree if the overhanging shade is not too dense. Often improperly planted, with specimens exposed to full sun during the summer for nearly the entire day. This can eventually kill a windmill palm.

"Other" Palms

Other Palms: There certainly are other palms – hundreds of species, 99 percent of which are completely unsuited to our climate and other growing conditions. To mention just one of them in the Southport area: the European fan palm — it grows as a dense clump and can get quite large. There is one planted near the Brunswick County Extension Office in Bolivia. Watch the thorns – lots of them along the stem of each frond and vicious.

But the palm close to Southport that takes the cake is a huge and stately Canary Islands date palm sited on the property of a marine storage company on the right side of Highway 133 about a mile or so going north past Dosher Cutoff road. It’s hard to gauge its age, but it can’t be less than about 25 – 30 years old. It still is only half the size it is capable of. To say that this palm, with its tremendously large, radiating fronds, is at the limit of its climate tolerance is an understatement. Zone 9 is its reputed climate zone northern limit. When this palm was planted, Southport was firmly in climate Zone 8a, and sometimes in winter would have nighttime temperatures plunging into the teens.

And in one year in and about 2014, the freeze got to it. The whole crown died and all fronds and stems browned and fell off. The owner of the property at the time operated a nursery, and the tree specialist she called out declared it stone dead – might as well remove it. But she resisted. And come late spring the following year, vestigial fronds emerged from the growing bud! I literally cheered! Now, as you can still see, it has defied weather it was not “built” for and bravely shoulders on…

The Care and Feeding of Palms

The Care and Feeding of Palms 

Pruning 

We should address the pruning of palms before even discussing potential diseases and fertilization.

How often, when, and why should palm trees be pruned? Essentially, they never need to be pruned except in cases of disease or damage in a growing region that is known to render palms susceptible to certain kinds of infection. Actively growing healthy fronds should never be removed because this reduces the food used by the crown to keep the palm flourishing. Remember: this isn’t a “real” tree-like conifers and broadleaf trees that can withstand substantial removal of entire branches when necessary. Also, dead fronds that droop below the actively growing crown actually are beneficial by helping to insulate the top bud from both excessive heat and cold.

However, some owners regard the dead, brown stems and fronds that naturally occur on palms as unsightly and want them removed. This is why you see Sabal palmettos and jelly palms with “bootjacks” ranging up and down their trunks – dead fronds have been cut off close to the trunks leaving short stems. Incidentally, those stems of dead fronds can be removed or left to naturally detach. Some owners like the appearance of smooth trunks on Sabal palmettos and so have all stubs removed below the green crowns.

Pruning dead, brown fronds with their stems is when real threats occur to palm tree health and survival. More often than not, especially on taller trees, pruning dead fronds is done with chain saws. This can inflict serious damage on a healthy palm if not done carefully by a skilled worker. Recall that palms have no bark and no cambium tissue under the bark. A conifer or broadleaf tree, unlike a palm, can withstand considerable damage and heal itself.

Palms can’t. When errant chainsaw cuts are made into the trunks of palms, they sever crucially important vessels that transport food up to the growing crown. A palm can’t heal those cuts. Those gashes remain. I have seen palms with several deep cuts to their trunks from chainsaws. This can not only literally starve a palm to death, but it creates entry points for a variety of infections that can weaken it to the point where it succumbs to a lethal pathogen.

This makes it obvious that owners of palms should never agree to prune called “hurricane cuts” championed by some nurseries and landscape companies that argue the need – at your expense — for reducing the crown size to supposedly improve palm tree survival in severe storms with high winds. As stressed earlier, palms, if well established, can withstand very high winds, even planted in very sandy soil, without being toppled. If the crown is shredded or even most fronds blew off, a natural “hurricane cut” has more or less occurred, and most palms, if healthy, can withstand this damage and fully recover. Don’t prune healthy growing fronds in whole or in part.

Diseases

As is usually the case with most plants of any kind, there is a long list of terrifying bacterial, viral, fungal, and insect attacks that can weaken and kill palm trees. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/entity/topic/palm_diseases Some of these diseases can occur in our area, many cannot for a variety of reasons, including unfavorable climatic conditions for the infectious agents or the insects. In fact, palm trees, if given reasonable, even minimal, good care, rarely get sick. If a palm tree owner sees signs of premature frond yellowing or spotting, this can be a disease, but, more often than not, what is actually occurring is one or more nutritional deficiencies. If you suspect that one of your palms is sick, there are knowledgeable palm experts in the Cape Fear region that can make a diagnosis and recommend the appropriate action.

Care and Feeding

First, under the heading of care: water. Okay, do not overwater. Yes, a palm can be overwatered. This is, parenthetically, one of the pitfalls of decorative potted palms: they often are killed by overwatering. But palm trees planted in the landscape use a lot of water. Sure, you’ve seen palms in Southport that after a few months of drought look just fine. That is testimony to the toughness and resilience of healthy palms to keep “lookin’ good” even without any supplemental water. When planted in soil with good, even rapid, drainage, palms usually can cope with really heavy, even flooding, rains if the water does not stand around the roots for very long periods of time. But always be aware that palms are susceptible to root rot from too much water saturating the roots for too long.

When newly planted, however, palms, as already pointed out, have highly undeveloped roots. It is critically important to provide ample water on a frequent basis to a newly planted palm. I passed by three palms almost every day a couple of years ago that had been planted during the start of several weeks of zero rain in Southport. Two of them with undeveloped roots amazingly survived with no supplemental watering, but one couldn’t tolerate the drought and succumb. It was replaced, fortunately during a period of sufficient rainfall, so it is still prospering.

As for feeding, palms are like other plants in their need for the three basic nutrients of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous. Palms that are given supplemental food of the right kind in the right amount at the right time will grow stronger and faster and remain healthy. (But see the cautionary narrative below.) However, palms also have a special need for higher amounts of trace minerals available to the roots in order to stay healthy. These primarily are magnesium, manganese, and iron (but also boron, calcium, copper, and others in very small amounts). Palms also need iron, but iron is not deficient in Southport’s soil and water, where, as in many other parts of NC, there are fairly high levels of iron. This is especially true of groundwater drawn from shallow wells.

That is why fertilizing palms with general, all-purpose fertilizer, especially fast-acting fertilizers with high levels of nitrogen, is bad for palm health. High nitrogen fertilizer applied in a quickly absorbed form not only can foster lush, rapid growth that can weaken a palm, it also interferes with the absorption and use of key micronutrients such as magnesium. Palms planted in the middle of lawns receiving frequent, concentrated applications of fast-acting nitrogen fertilizer are especially at risk. Some readers may be aware of palms that need an application of Epsom salts to correct a magnesium deficiency. This sometimes is the result of magnesium absorption being blocked by lawn fertilizer with high nitrogen levels.

Buy and use fertilizers that, first, are slow-release formulations, and, second, are blends of primary nutrients and micronutrients that are specifically optimized for palms. There are several brands on the market; basically, all of them are good. As usual, follow manufacturer label directions on how much and how often to apply the food. Some brands require incorporation of the fertilizer in the top few inches of soil, some are granules that are strewn on top of mulch and soil that gradually dissolve with watering and rainfall. Remember the rule: when in doubt, use less rather than more. This guidance is often violated by repeatedly grabbing large handfuls of fertilizer out of the container and strewing it about.

Compared with broadleaf trees, especially the live oak, palms are quite poor in providing cooling shade, storing carbon to reduce this greenhouse gas, and removing water from the soil.  Transpiration releasing water vapor and oxygen into the atmosphere by broadleaf trees is the operation of nature’s air conditioner.  You’ve experienced this for yourself.  When you travel during the warmer months from the central areas of Wilmington to Southport’s leafier neighborhoods, you often experience a drop of several degrees in ambient temperature.  Of course, this is assisted by Southport’s Salubrious Breezes!  A single very large tree can move several thousand gallons of water through its roots, branches, and leaves in a single season.  https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5269813.pdf.  No palm tree, no matter how large, or even a large stand of mature palms, can come close to duplicating this feat achieved by a single large tree.  This is why millions of acres of palm oil plantations are a significant contributor to global warming.  In most cases, these plantations supplanted dense, broadleaf rain forest canopies.

In addition, all palms of every stripe are associated with substantially poorer biodiversity.  Even when there are dense stands of palms, as in palm oil plantations, many studies have shown conclusively that animal, insect, and under canopy plants for most types of palms have reduced representation both as species and in the number of individual organisms.  The issue is more complicated than this, but, compared to rain forests or non-tropical broadleaf forests with substantial and diverse understory vegetation, palms produce a more ecologically impoverished environment.  However, palms in many areas of the world are not interlopers supplanting conifers and broadleaf trees.  They are suited to environments where virtually no other trees will grow or would grow sparsely.

Respect your palms and don’t neglect them.  Appreciate that they provide food and nesting materials for birds and that some species even nest in palm trees.  However, palms should be used as a supplement or accent for a novel, aesthetic variety added to the landscape and as a component in the ecosystem — they should not be used in place of broadleaf trees, especially the year-round evergreen canopy provided by live oaks.  Always support and cherish the incredible benefits of the stalwart live oak (definition of ‘stalwart’:  loyal, reliable, and hardworking).