Growing Hardy Palms

For as long as I remember I've loved palms and tropical plants. I went to graduate school in Tallahassee Florida and brought three small Windmill Palms back to Williamsburg Virginia to see if they would survive. One has survived here since 1981, and had a 14 foot trunk in the winter of 1999. It can be seen in several of the pictures on this page. The above picture shows the palm from my deck in February 1999. Click on it for a larger picture.  I have no connection with any of the sources of palms listed on this page. I include the listings because it took me a long time to discover some of them, and I'd like to make it easier for others. I have tried most of these sources with positive results.

  1. Can I really grow palms where I live?
  2. What is the hardiest palm?
  3. What do the USDA zone numbers mean?
  4. How do I get a palm established in a "borderline" area?
  5. What are some other hardy palms?
  6. How do I find out my zone?
  7. What are microclimates?
  8. Any other tips?
  9. Where can I get additional information?
  10. Where can I buy palms?
  11. Any links to other information?

1. Can I really grow palms where I live?
  • It depends on where you live. (You knew that was coming, didn't you.) Palms are grown in Washington, D.C., in Vancouver, British Columbia, and reportedly on Cape Cod. The main factors affecting hardiness seem to be the minimum winter temperature, the number of hours of cold every winter, the amount of heat every summer, and the relative wetness or dryness of the climate. Most palms are not particularly hardy. Many are actually injured by a single freezing night. Others can withstand zero degrees F for short periods without damage.

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2. What is the hardiest palm?
[Needle Palm  Picture]
The hardiest palm known to date is the Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix). It is reliably hardy to -5 F once established . It likes summer heat, though, and does better on the east coast than the west coast for this reason. A mature clump is reported to be growing without protection on Cape Cod. It is listed by many as hardy to USDA zone 6B.
  • The palm in this picture is growing in the Asian Valley of the National Arboretum in Washington, DC. Click on the picture to see a larger (77K) picture of this palm.  Eleven smaller needle palms can be found in a different section of the Arboretum.  T. J. Walters has other pictures of these palms.  You may also want to read about growing a Needle Palm in Philadelphia.
3. What do the USDA zone numbers mean?
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed a system of cold hardiness zones based on the average annual minimum temperature. A good map is at T. J. Walters' site. The zones that we are most concerned with are these:
     

-10 to -5 F = Zone 6a
 -5 to  0 F = Zone 6b
  0 to +5 F = Zone 7a
 +5 to 10 F = Zone 7b
 10 to 15 F = Zone 8a
 15 to 20 F = Zone 8b
 20 to 25 F = Zone 9a
 25 to 30 F = Zone 9b

 

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4. How do I get a palm established in a "borderline" area?
Most hardy palm growers recommend protecting the palm from the climate for at least the first two years that it is in the ground. The palm should be mulched with a deep layer of fall leaves or other material. The palm can then be wrapped in burlap, bubble plastic, a spun landscape material such as "remay" or "garden blanket," or even an old sheet or blanket. If you use a non-porous material such as plastic, it is best if air space is left between the palm and the material. This air space may not be needed if you only protect the palm during cold spells.
  • Another technique involves hanging an electric light bulb near the emerging leaf spear on very cold nights. This is often helpful in very large palms, but it may not be sufficient during the first two years.

     
  •  Small palms can be protected with "wall-o-water" plant protectors. Additional solar mass can be provided by a plastic milk jug filled with colored water and placed inside the wall-o-water.


     
  •  Die-hard experimental gardeners can gain at least full hardiness zone (ten degrees) by building a chicken wire cage around the palm, filling the cage with dry leaves, and wrapping the filled cage with plastic.

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5. What are some other hardy palms?
Sabal minor and Nannorrhops ritchiana are also very hardy. Both survive 0 F once established. (Protect for the first two years in zone 7.) Sabal minor is native to the southern United States as far north as eastern central North Carolina. It likes heat. Nannorrhops is from Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is rare in cultivation. It may be as hardy as the needle palm, but further testing is needed.
[Windmill Palm  Picture]
  • Trachycarpus martianus has a smooth trunk, but is less robust and harder to grow. Trachycarpus takil has been recently rediscovered in Asia, and it is unclear whether it is really a distinct species.T. nanus is a trunkless palm from China, while T. caespitosus is an almost unknown clumping variety. T. wagneranus (right) has smaller, stiffer leaves than most plants labeled "T. fortunei," but many consider it to be a variety of T. fortunei. Other varieties have been recently discovered, and will be featured here.
All three palms listed so far share one important characteristic: They are basically trunkless. The hardiest arborescent (trunking) palm is theWindmill Palm -  Trachycarpus fortunei (shown). These are grown as far north as parts of British Columbia in Canada. They have a fuzzy trunk which can grow twenty feet tall. They do not need a hot climate, and seem to thrive in cool, moist weather. Windmill palms are not a good choice for hot, dry areas with sandy soil. In the winter, they lose their leaves when the temperature drops below +10 F for extended periods, and they can be killed below +5 F.  Click here for a  picture of Trachycarpus in Oregon . Other species of Trachycarpus are rarer.
T. wagnerianus
  • Martin Gibbons and Tobias Spanner have been searching the world for species of Trachycarpus in habitat. Their discovery of a new palm, Trachycarpus princeps appeared in the April 1995 issue of Principes.
  • Gibbons reports that Trachycarpus `oreophilus' and T, `sikkimensis' also exist.  These are still rare in most parts of the world.
Index
  • Sabal palmetto (Sabal palm, Cabbage palm) is the state tree of Florida and South Carolina. It has been known to survive between zero and +5 F when well-established. It cannot survive these temperatures on a regular basis, and is probably best rated as zone 8a. It is a large fan palm which takes many years to form a trunk. It can be found in the wild as far north as Bald Head Island, North Carolina, near Wilmington. It can be tricky to grow in cooler areas, and doesn't thrive very far north of its native range. Other relatively hardy sabals includeS. etonia - a trunkless palm from the sand hills of Florida andS. mexicana(S. texana) - similar to S. palmetto with stiffer leaves. Some argue that it is slightly hardier.
[Sabal palmetto  Pic]
 [Butia Picture]
  • Butia capitata (jelly palm, pindo palm - left) is native to South America, but used throughout the colder regions of the southern US (zone 8a) because it is the only relatively hardy feather-leaved palm. It is often killed below 10F.

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  • Serenoa repens (Saw palmetto - below) is a spreading, bushy palm native to the southeastern United States and Mexico. Tourists traveling south on I-95 to Florida usually spy this palmetto first, as an underbrush plant. It seems to be slightly less hardy (zone 8b) than Sabal palmetto. Extract from its berries is used for a prostate remedy.
This palm is just beginning to become available in quantity. For many years it was not cultivated because it is considered a weedy pest in much of its native habitat. The blue form from Florida is especially prized for landscape use.
[Saw Palmetto  Picture]
  • Chamaerops humilis (European fan palm/Mediterranean fan palm) is quite hardy in areas which have a dry climate. It is usually rated as a "zone 8" palm. In areas with wet winter soil (like the eastern U.S. and the Pacific Northwest) it seems to be less hardy. Planting this palm in a well-drained bed (such as a bed prepared for a cactus garden) may help it survive in these areas.
     
  •  Washingtonia robusta, Washingtonia filifera, and Brahea armata are western desert palms which are fairly hardy in their native environment (zone 8, zone 9a). The background graphic for this page is a Washingtonia robusta.  They seem to be less hardy in wetter areas. Livistona chinesis andLivistona australis are usually rated as USDA zone 9a. They sometimes survive in colder areas if they are planted in a protected micro-climate and wrapped every winter. Trithrinax acanthocoma and its relatives are probably zone 8b-9a palms. They are spiny palms, native to South America and rare in cultivation.
  •  Phoenix canariensis (Right) is a large date palm which can grow
     in zone 8b areas. This palm loses its leaves in prolonged periods below 20
    F. It is grown in the western U.S. as far north as the southwestern corner of Oregon. Jubaea chilensis is a massive palm from Chile. It is slow-growing and difficult to cultivate, but appears to be hardy to zone 8b, possibly colder. 

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6. How do I find out my zone?
 
  • Zone maps are in the back of many seed catalogs and garden books, or you can get one from the USDA.
     Agricultural Research Service
     US National Arboretum
     3501 N.Y. Avenue. N.E.
     Washington, D.C. 20002-1958
     USA

 The USDA updated the zone maps several years ago based on data from the previous few years. Many people have argued the new zones were based on too short a period of time, and that the zones are now much too conservative . Tallahassee Florida moved from zone 9 to zone 8, for example, and Wilmington, North Carolina moved from zone 8b to zone 7b based largely on a single extremely cold winter. Your property may also have warm microclimates which will help a palm survive.

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7. What are microclimates?
  • Microclimates are climatic variations that occur in small areas. Factors that create microclimates include slope, exposure to sun, proximity to bodies of water, prevailing wind, structures, dryer and oven vents (which allow warm air to escape from your house in the winter) and other plants. An excellent microclimate for growing borderline palms is the south wall of the house . A palm planted against the south wall of your house will survive several more degrees of cold than a palm planted in an exposed area in the middle of your yard.

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8. Any other tips?
  • If you are planting palms which are not reliably hardy in your area, you may want to plant them in clumps. This makes them easier to protect, and you should expect that some of them will probably die. A clump of five small palms may grow into a nice medium clump of three palms in a few years.
     
  •  Plant palms that are as large as you can afford. Mail order palms tend to be very small. I have found that I have better success if I purchase only in the spring. I immediately plant them into a larger pot, feed them well, and leave them on my deck for the summer. I bring them inside for the first winter....either into my basement under plant lights or into the garage. They need less light if they are in a relatively cold area like an attached garage. Potted plants are much less hardy than plants in the ground, however, and care should be taken to keep the roots from freezing.
9. Where can I get additional information?
  • An excellent quarterly publication about hardy palms, The Hardy Palm International , is published by the Pacific Northwest Palm and Exotic Plant Society . They also have tips on hardy bananas (such as Musa basjoo). $20.00 US or $25 Canadian brings you a year of issues, published on time. Send requests and checks to:
     
  •  Frank Hunaus
     10310 Hollybank Drive
     Richmond, BC
     V7E 4S5
     CANADA
     (601) 271-6524

 For more information contact Richard Woo.

 Here is a Membership Application

  • The International Palm Society has several membership categories. Individual memberships are U.S.$30.00. Their web site has some excellent pictures.  Membership is for a calendar year, and includes the quarterly journal Principes , access to a seed bank and book store, information on regional chapters, and a biennial meeting. IPS assists in the maintenance of a palm/tropicals section of the Compuserve Gardening Forum as well as maintains related newsgroups on the IPS server. For more information e-mail Jim Cain, Corresponding Secretary , or mail payment to:wind98.jpg (22907 bytes)
     
  •  The International Palm Society
     P.O. Box 1897
     Lawrence, KS 66044-8897
     USA

Click here for more information about membership
and an application form.

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10. Where can I buy palms?
See the links section for even more sources of plants and seeds.
  • The Green Escape
     P.O. Box 1417
     Palm Harbor, FL 34682-1417
     Voice: (813) 784-1991
     FAX: (813) 787-0193
     $6.00 for catalog and price list, refundable. More variety than anyone else. Catalog is informative. Palms are sometimes on the small side. MC/Visa. You can order their catalog from the web.

 

  • Joe's Nursery
    P.O. Box 1867
    Vista, CA 92085
    Voice: (619) 758-7042
    FAX: (619) 726-4956
    Joe now receives e-mail at ExoticLvs@aol.com , and parts of his catalog are sometimes on the web. By US Mail send $2.00 for large price list, refundable. Small palms, yuccas, agaves, cycads, aloes, dasylirons, nolinas, puyas, bromeliads. Good prices on small plants, the selection changes and rare plants are sometimes available.

 

  • Seed Service
    Inge Hoffman
    695 Joaquin Ave.
    San Leandro, CA 94577
    Voice/FAX: (510) 352-4291
    Email : seedservi@AOL.com
    Seed for $4.00 - $7.00 per packet. You check the species that you want from a huge list, and prepay. Seeds are sent as they come in (fresher that way).

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  • South Coast Palms
    Gary Woods lists his Mail Order Prices on the Web
    at this site.  He has a large selection of small reasonably priced plants.

     
  • Crockett's Tropical Plants - Wholesale Only
     P.O. Box 389
     Harlington, TX 78551-0389
     1-800-580-1747

 

  •  Plant Delights Nursery 
    9241 Sauls Road
     Raleigh, NC 27603
     (919) 772-4794
    An excellent mailorder nursery in North Carolina which also sells plants in person at open house weekends every year.  Hardy palms hide among the hostas in this catalog. Recent catalogs included Nannorrhops ritchiana. Now on the Web with their complete catalog! 
  •  Kyle E. Brown
     d.b.a.
     Nurseries at North Glen
     Rt. 2, Box 2700
     Glen St. Mary, FL 32040
     Voice: (904) 259-2754.
     20-30 species of hardy palms and cycads for a very fair price. These are good healthy 1 gallon plants which are generally quite mature. The selection varies from year-to-year.

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  •  Woodlanders
     1128 Colleton Ave.
     Aiken, SC 29801
     (802) 648-7522
     $2.00 for catalog. Specialists in south and southeast native plants. They Ship October - March only. Catalog comes out in the fall. In addition to many rare native and exotic plants they offer many of the hardy palms. Many of their plants are small.

 

  •  Yucca Do Nursery
     P.O. Box 655
     Waller, TX 77484
     (409) 826-6363
     John Fairey and Carl Schoenfield collect seeds in northern Mexico to bring hardy palms, yuccas, nolinas, agaves, and many other plants to U.S. gardens. They offer rare palms, and often offer unnamed species. In they past they have offered an unnamed creeping Sabal, and a Brahea (bella) claimed to be hardy to zone 7. They keep promising to put their catalog on the web, but I haven't found it.

 

  •  I learned through e-mail that there is a supplier of palms and cycads in the UK at:
     
    The Palm Centre
     563 Upper Richmond Road West
     London
     SW14 7ED.
     Tel: 0181-876-3223.
     1 pound and 95 pence for the colour catalogue.
     
  •  For more U.K and European resources, try Huw's Hardy Palm Page

    Index

The following are NOT mail order, but are sources for hardy palms for the mid-Atlantic region:

 

  •  Smithfield Gardens
     (Rt 17, Crittenden)
     P.O. Box 6085
     Suffolk, VA 23433
     (804) 238-2511
     Excellent source for Sabal minor, LARGE Needle Palms and Windmill Palms. They have a good supply of large Windmill palms as well as smaller (and less expensive) palms.

 

  •  Gary's Nursery
     (680 Crump Farm Road)
     P.O. Box 1052
     New Bern, NC 28560
     (919) 637-6858
     In the past he has had seed grown Five Gallon Sabal Palmettos (Cabbage Palm) for $15 - $25. Gary Hollar may have solved the problem of how to give this species a start in areas north of Southeast North Carolina.

 

  •  Pungo Palm Nursery
     1201 North Muddy Creek Road
     Virginia Beach, VA 23456
     (804) 426-3677
     Kathy and Ralph Denton are starting a palm nursery in the Pungo section of Virginia Beach. Look for a good selection of sabals in a year or two.

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The following Nursery in San Diego will ship palms for a nominal fee. Their palms tend to be larger  than the typical "mail order" size:

  • Jungle Music Palms & Cycads
    Located in San Diego, California.
    Phone - (619) 291-4605 fax - (619) 574-1595 
    E-mail PalmNCycad@aol.com
    Phil Bergman owns this nursery which has been In business for 18 years. Specializing in rare and hard to find species of palms and cycads. Presently offering approximately 450 species of palms and 130 species of cycads, seedlings to mature specimens. New species offered monthly. Nursery by appointment only. Mail orders possible on minimum purchase.
11. Any links to other information?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Some of these are also sources of seeds and plants:

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