With their unusual form and growth habit, palms are unlike any other plants in the world. Whether it is coconut palms on a South Pacific island, date palms along the Nile or a row of cabbage palmettos lining a street in Savannah, there is something special and regal about these plants.
The special qualities of palms led the ancients to adopt them as a symbol of victory and achievement, a use that continues today. Consider the old gospel hymn Deliverance Will Come with its rousing chorus of “Palms of victory, crowns of glory, palms of victory I shall wear,” or the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) awarded to the best film at the international Cannes Film Festival. The palm frond makes an appearance in the military medals of many countries such as the Croix de Guerre with Palm awarded by France and Belgium for valor during the world wars and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm that was awarded to all members of the U.S. Armed Forces and other nations for valorous achievement in combat during the Vietnam Conflict.
I consider palms as the first souvenir. In a time before post cards, Medieval European pilgrims would bring back a palm frond as a token of having visited the Holy Land. These pilgrims became known as palmers. The first time Romeo meets Juliet he tells her “My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss” and Juliet reminds him that “palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” In other words, let’s just hold hands. Of course Juliet gives in, and these two star-crossed lovers are on their way to a tragic end.
As children on family vacation, my sister and I would squeal with delight when we saw the first palmetto as we approached the beach. For us, like the palmers of old, it was a symbol of a faraway and magical place. I wanted to bring home more than a frond, however; I wanted the whole tree but was convinced that palms were only for places with milder climates.
When I was older I was delighted to discover that there are several hardy palms that can grow inland and that tolerate much colder temperatures than I ever imagined a palm could.
Let’s start with the hardiest palm in the world, the needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix). This shrubby palm is native to the lower Southeast, including Georgia, and tolerates sun or shade. I have seen an established plant unscathed by -9 degrees F. Although not as commonly available as some of the other palms mentioned here, the needle palm is worth seeking out.
Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is perhaps the hardiest of the trunked palms. It forms a slender trunk and can reach 40 feet when mature and can fit into narrow spaces, making it suitable for even a small garden. Windmill palm is one of the most commonly available palms and is considered hardy to about -5 degrees F.
Cabbage palmetto (Sabal palmetto) is the palm tree of our coast. It is the state tree of Florida and South Carolina whose flag it graces. Cabbage palmetto is not as hardy as the windmill palm, but there are specimens growing as far north as Atlanta. It benefits from protection from winter winds in the northern half of the state. It is available from specialty nurseries that supply large specimens but is also easy to grow from seed although it takes many years to get a sizable plant. Mature specimens are considered hardy to about 0 degrees F. in protected areas. A hybrid named ‘Birmingham’ may be even hardier.
Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor), also a Southeast native, is like a cabbage palmetto without the trunk and much hardier (to about -5 degrees F.) Its fronds can reach six feet tall, and a mature plant can have an equal or greater spread. Unlike shrubs of a similar girth, bulbs and flowers can be planted next to the trunk and under the fronds of the dwarf palmetto. It makes a bold statement in the garden while allowing growing room and sunlight for other plants. I have daffodils, purple heart, pussytoes and butterflyweed planted under mine.
European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) has the distinction of being the only palm native to Europe. Sometimes called the Mediterranean fan palm, it also grows in North Africa. It forms an attractive clump of small fronds and can be used as a foundation plant or part of a shrub border. It prefers a sunny location and is considered hardy to about 5 degrees F.
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is another shrubby palm native to the Southeast. Its fronds have slender petioles armed with sharp teeth, hence the name. Hardy to about 0 degrees F.
Jelly Palm (Butia capitata) is the hardiest of the “feather’ palms – the ones with fronds that are shaped like a feather rather than a hand. It is not as hardy as the palms above although some believe that established specimens can tolerate 5 degrees F.
Tips: If you want to try a palm in your garden, I suggest you start with the hardiest ones: needle palm, windmill palm or dwarf palmetto. The ideal spot for a palm in your garden will have some protection from winter winds. This doesn’t matter as much on the coast, but it can be important in north Georgia.
I am growing most of the palms mentioned here in my Atlanta garden. The only one to set fruit so far is the dwarf palmetto. Its long sprays of black berries are attractive. In late winter mockingbirds and a brown thrasher or two lay claim to them and gobble down three or four at a time before flying off. The birds don’t get much nutrition, however; the fruit is paper thin with a large seed inside. I have several bird-planted seedlings sprouting around my garden to prove this is easy to grow from seed.
Although it takes many years before they reach substantial size, it is easy and inexpensive to grow some palms from seed. Collect the fruits when ripe. Remove the skin and sow them in a seed-starting mixture or potting soil. Keep them moist. They will sprout in a few weeks to several months. Palm seedlings look like pleated grass. Young palm plants make excellent houseplants until they are large enough to plant outside.
The temperatures given regarding cold hardiness are for general guidelines only. Older specimens can survive lower temperatures than younger ones. A palm that can survive 5 degrees F. for a few hours cannot survive for several days like that. Young palms are more susceptible to cold than older specimens, so don’t hesitate to give them some winter protection.
If you are really interested in palms, become a member of the Southeastern Palm Society. Membership dues are $20 for one calendar year. A student membership is available for $15. Please include a copy of your student ID (full-time status). Send your check or money order to SPS, c/o Will Taylor, 214 Oak Street, Athens TN 37303.
Visit their website at http://www.sepalms.org/ to discover nurseries and see the gardens of some adventurous Georgians who are experimenting with many kinds of palms. With all the beauty, history and lore of palms, who can blame gardeners for wanting to grow as many as they can.
“Arty’s Garden” is written by Arty Schronce, Director of Public Affairs for the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Arty is a a lifelong gardener and a horticulture graduate of North Carolina State University. He lives and gardens in the historic Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta. He encourages all Georgians to discover the pleasures of plants and gardening. "Arty's Garden" appears regularly in The Farmers & Consumers Market Bulletin. Subscriptions are available through the Market Bulletin website or by sending a check or money order payable to Market Bulletin, 19 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., SW, Room 226, Atlanta, GA 30334-4201.