Are you looking for a touch of tropics for your yard? There are many gorgeous, flamboyant plants with brilliant flowers or foliage that add a lush, tropical feel to a landscape. We often grow these kinds of plants as annuals, much like a pansy or petunia, but these summer-loving plants grow much larger and thrive in sunny, hot locations until the first freeze of winter terminates the show.
Tropical or Chinese hibiscus, with its large flowers, offer an array of bold colors, and crotons with gaudy multi-colored leaves are just two examples of tropical plants that, unless grown in the containers and protected in the winter, are effective but temporary showboats for the landscape.
Another group of plants that evoke tropical regions are the palms. While you might think that palms are totally out of place in Northeast Texas, there are native palms not too far away. The low-growing dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor), with a mostly trunkless growth habit, but large, graceful, arching fronds is totally hardy in our region, and may frequently be seen along river bottoms and driving through the piney woods of East Texas. While most palm varieties are not winter hardy, there are a few that easily withstand our normal winter temperatures. A few types are marginal, meaning that most winters they will be fine, but can be severely injured or killed in a colder-than-usual severe winter.
Palms can be divided into two groups based on the appearance of their leaves. Some types have leaves that are divided much like the fingers of your hand, an arrangement called palmate, and are referred to as fan palms. Feather palms on the other hand have a long central leaf stalk (petiole) with divided foliage all along that central axis, much like a feather, hence the term pinnate, or feather palm.
Palms can be used in a number of different ways in the landscape. Many make great individual specimen plants. Some are clumpers, and have a bushy bold appearance and can be planted singly or in groups. Use them around a pool to provide a tropical atmosphere. Unlike woody trees and shrubs, palms are best planted in spring and summer because palms need the warm weather and soil to quickly establish and develop a good root system.
Here are some reliable palms to consider as options for your landscape.
Needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) — No doubt the most cold-hardy of the bunch, this short-statured fan palm will take weather below zero degrees. It is native from South Carolina to Florida and west to Mississippi. Its name comes from long needle-like projections at the base of the dark green, deeply cut leaves. It grows slowly to 6 to 8 feet tall, and tends to have a shrub-like growth habit and is becoming more available in the trade as interest in hardy palms increases.
Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) — This native to central and eastern China is one of the best hardy palms for North Texas. It grows as a single trunk, and a distinctive characteristic is the mat of dark fibers covering the trunk, giving it a hairy appearance. The leaves are palmate and dark green, and the leaf stalks are lined with small teeth. It is a very popular palm in the nursery trade.
European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) — Here’s another very nice, hardy (to 10 degrees) palm with blue-green, fan-shaped leaves. This clump-forming native to Europe may eventually reach 10 feet tall, but is pretty slow growing. It is very attractive and fits well in to small spaces.
Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) — Mentioned previously, this trunkless palm has large fan-shaped leaves on long (up to 3 feet), unarmed (no teeth) leaf stalks. Actually the trunk grows underground, and therefore is difficult to transplant from the wild. It produces a long inflorescence with white flowers followed by black fruit, which is the best way to propagate this plant.
Cabbage palmetto (or palmetto palm) (Sabal palmetto) — The leaves of this North Carolina-to-Florida native are like the dwarf palmetto, only this palm produces a large, sturdy trunk, which can slowly get very tall. It is reported hardy to 10 degrees, and is very easy to transplant.
Fan palm (Washingtonia species) — There are two commonly available fan palms, the California (W. filifera) and the Mexican (W. robusta) fan palm. As you might suspect, the California fan palm is more hardy than the Mexican species. But since they freely hybridize, it can be difficult to get a pure California fan palm. They are not quite as hardy as the other palm species, and should only be used with this knowledge. The palms around the Barnes & Noble in Tyler are the robusta species, hence the winter protection given them each year.
Dr. Brent Pemberton, who has been collecting and trialing hardy palms at the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center at Overton, has observed the California fan palm to be hardy, surviving single-digit temperatures at Overton. Other reports found hardiness from 20 to 18 degrees, depending on the species.
Jelly or pindo palm (Butia capitata) — This is the only feather, or pinnate-leaved palm that should be considered for the Tyler area. It is native to South America, and its fruit is sometimes used for jelly. It produces a very large, thick trunk, and the long, curving leaf stalks are well armed with teeth. It can get pretty large and wide, so give it room. Reported hardy to 15 degrees.
There are many other palms, many of which make nice container specimens for the patio, but need winter protection.
Keith Hansen is Smith County horticulturist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. His web page is http://EastTexasGardening.tamu.edu. His blog is http://agrilife.org/etg.