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Cold Hardy Palms for Temperate Gardens

Image of Sabal minor 'Bear Creek'
Sabal minor 'Bear Creek'
There's something exotic about growing palms in your garden that makes otherwise sane gardeners go through heroic measures to try and keep them alive outside of their natural range. Perhaps it is the tropical feel that comes with growing palms, despite many of them originating in temperate climates. That being said, there are a large number of palms native to the southeastern US that you can add to your garden. Whatever your reason for planting palms, we hope that this article will help clear up some misconceptions and incorrect information and help you to be more successful.

There's been plenty written about hardy palms and the perspectives vary based on the author's location. We became interested in hardy palms back in the mid-1980s after seeing the wonderful plantings done by the City of Raleigh Parks and Recreation department. Alan Brunner and Noel Weston, both now retired from the City of Raleigh Horticultural Staff, were invaluable in sharing both information and plant material. The City of Raleigh Parks director would later ban the use of more palms in the city parks because he found them inappropriate, but as we like to say, "Here's your sign." Thankfully, most of the great palm specimens throughout the Raleigh parks system still remain. In the ensuing years, local palm experts, Gary Hollar of Gary's Nursery in New Bern and Jesse Perry from the NC Museum of Natural Science provided valuable information as well as propagation material for us to get started. Over the years, we have tried a number of palms, some successful and some not. I'll share some of our experiences.

First of all, Plant Delights Nursery is in Zone 7b, south of Raleigh, NC. Until 1996, we lived on the Zone 7b side of the Zone 7a line. Since that time (2010), the line has shifted south and we now live on the Zone 7b side of the Zone 8a line. In other words, single digits F were common before 1996, but have only occurred three times since 1996, and temperatures have not dropped below 6 degrees F from 1996-2010.

It is also important to keep in mind that similar climactic zones are not created equal, especially when it comes to palms. A Zone 7b in Washington State is not the same as a Zone 7b in North Carolina. The Washington State Zone 7b never gets much in the way of summer heat, while the North Carolina Zone 7b gets more than its share. Summer heat develops sugars in the plants, which translate into better winter hardiness. Palms, such as Sabal palmetto that originate in warm climates may survive fine in a North Carolina Zone 7b, but have no chance in a West Coast Zone 7b. The converse is true as well since palms such as Trachycarpus fortunei, which is from a colder region may actually be more winter hardy in a West Coast, cool-summer climate.

Below, we discuss the palms that we have found to be winter hardy in Zone 7b/8a, plus some that were touted as winter hardy and proved to be less so. Amazingly many of the winter hardy palms are monotypic species, meaning that there is only one species in the genus.

Butia

I have been fascinated by the South American Butia since I first saw one growing at Raleigh's Pullen Park in the late 1980s. Although only one of the eight Butia species are considered marginally winter hardy in our Zone 7b garden, the fact that Butia are the hardiest of the feather palms make them worth the continued effort. There is only one which seems to grow here, Butia capitata. I've tried both Butia eriospatha (Wooly Jelly Palm) from southern Brazil and Butia capitata var. odorata (Compact Jelly Palm), also from southern Brazil, but neither have survived so far. This really makes no sense, since all of the Butia capitata in the trade seems to be from the warmer populations in northern Brazil that sees less cold temperatures. I certainly think Butia eriospatha and Butia capitata var. odorata should be tried more...perhaps with larger size plants. My luck with regular Butia capitata hasn't exactly been stellar either, since I've killed eight plants over the years before finally getting one to survive. Like all palms, selecting good winter hardy stock is important. Butia grow best in full sun, although they seem to tolerate a bit of light shade.

Image of Butia odorata
Butia odorata

Butia capitata

This has been one of the most frustrating palms for me to grow. While I was busy killing this over and over, two neighbors who aren't even gardeners have large specimens in their garden. Not being one to give up, I finally have a couple established. This South American specimen is the most cold hardy of the "feather leaf" palms. Established plants usually don't show leaf burn until about 12 degrees F. Below that temperature, the trunks will need to be protected during extended cold. The trunks eventually reach 20', with large 5' long drooping blue-grey fronds emerging from atop the central trunk...truly spectacular where it can be grown. If you can get one large enough to fruit, the orange-yellow fruit are absolutely delicious to eat fresh. (Hardiness Zone 8-10)

xButiagrus nabonnandii (Butiagrus Feather Palm) (also spelled xButyagrus)

This hybrid of Butia capitata x Syagrus romanzoffiana seems to be more winter hardy than both parents...at least this is the report I get from the folks who have grown it. Although the seed is reported to be sterile, I have spoken with folks who have germinated seed from the hybrid, but the percentages are very low. Obviously each seedling varies with the amount of each parent in the offspring. (Hardiness 8b-10, at least)

Chamaerops

Chamaerops is a monotypic genus (only one species) from the western Mediterranean region. It holds the distinction of being the northernmost naturally occurring native palm species. Chamaerops and Phoenix theophrasti are the only two palm species native to Europe.

Image of Chamaerops humilis
Chamaerops humilis


Chamaerops humilis (Mediterranean Fan Palm)

The trunked Mediterranean fan palm has been hardy here in our garden through several winters at 0 degrees F. While the foliage is always burned off by temperatures less than 10 degrees F, it has never failed to resprout, even without any winter protection. Our plants finally succumbed in an attempted relocation and never exceeded 5 feet in height, but their size will obviously increase to a maximum of 20' the farther south it is planted. Chamaerops are quite variable from seed and dwarfs are common as well as suckering and non-suckering forms. Chamaerops and Serenoa are the only two "hardy" palms with spiny teeth on leaf bases. I have no doubt that a much hardier form could be found at higher elevations in its range. (Hardiness Zone 8-10)

Chamaerops humilis var. cerifera (Dwarf Blue Mediterranean Fan Palm)

This selection, also known as Chamaerops humilis var. argentea, hails from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where it grows up to 5,400' elevation. Instead of green foliage like the species, this variety has powder-blue foliage and silver undersides, similar to Brahea armata. According to palm gurus Gibbons and Spanner, these plants are vigorous, tolerant of a wide range of conditions, and beautiful. Our oldest clump, planted in 2004 is prospering, although we lost the central spear at 9 degrees F in 2009. (Hardiness Zone 8-10, at least)

Guihaia

This genus of only two species of small clustering palms, Guihaia argyrata and Guihaia grossefibrosa has potential for southeastern gardens. I had a species in the ground for several years, before moving it and subsequently killing the plant. Guihaia are very slow, but are certainly worthy of more experimentation outdoors.

Guihaia argyrata (Vietnamese Silver Back Palm)

Guihaia argyrata hails from high elevation limestone cliffs on the border region between North Vietnam and southern China. Guihaia argyrata makes a 4-5' tall x 4-5' wide suckering clump of deeply cut, glossy green leaves with a bright silvery back. Compared to many hardy palms, Guihaia is very slow to mature. (Hardiness Zone 8b-10, probably colder)

Jubaea

Jubaea is another monotypic genus of palm, this one is native to a small area of low forests and adjacent savannahs in central Chile at the base of the Andes. Jubaea is like most plants from Chile in that it detests hot, humid weather.

Jubaea chilensis (Chilean Wine Palm)

I'll admit to having had no luck growing this wonderful giant feather palm, but must mention the amazing specimen in Rock Hill, SC, planted in 1993 by palm collector Tamar Myers. Although Jubaea chilensis can grow to 80' tall, with 3' wide trunks in more hospitable locations, don't expect that size in a temperate climate...if you can keep it alive. (Hardiness Zone 8-10)

Nannorrhops

Nannorrhops is a genus of Middle Eastern natives that is still taxonomically confused. Some herbarium taxonomists claim Nannorrhops is a monotypic genus by incorrectly lumping several species into one, and they have yet to be completely resorted. I have seen references to Nannorrhops ritchieana being monocarpic, but someone must have forgot to inform the palm.

Image of Nannorrhops ritchieana
Nannorrhops ritchieana


Nannorrhops ritchieana (Mazari Palm)

Until recently, finding seed of this Afghanistan/Pakistan native has proven nearly as difficult as finding Osama. This very slow-growing, grey-green-foliaged desert palm is one of the most sought-after plants by palm collectors. This is not the non-hardy powder blue form which was mistakenly lumped by herbarium taxonomists into this species. When established, plants resemble a slow trunking Sabal to 4' in 20 years. We have found the foliage to burn off around 12 degrees F and found it marginally hardy into the single digits F, so a protected but very sunny spot is best. This palm does not like any shade. The oldest temperate specimen I've seen is the 8' tall specimen (2010) growing at Woodlanders Nursery in South Carolina, where it has flowered, but never set seed. The species name is often spelled incorrectly as ritchiana. (Hardiness Zone 8b-10)

Rhapidophyllum


Image of Rhapidophyllum hystrix
Rhapidophyllum hystrix

Rhapidophyllum is a monotypic genus (only one species) native to the southeastern US with the center of distribution in the Florida panhandle, southern Georgia, Alabama, and just into coastal South Carolina. In the wild, needle palm is often found with Sabal minor growing in moist, acidic, sandy woods, often in standing water or on seasonally flooded ground. We have found needle palm to grow equally as well in sand or clay soils. Its winter hardiness lends credence to the thought that it was originally native much further north, but was pushed southward during a past glaciation.

Rhapidophyllum hystrix (Needle Palm)

Rhapidophyllum hystrix is yet another monotypic palm genus. This slow-growing native is the hardiest of palms, and has withstood -9 degrees F here with NO damage (without protection or special siting) in 1984/85. We expect established specimens should handle -15 degrees F. This short-trunked clump-former that tops out around 9-10' tall has typical cut-leaf green leaves and sharp "needles" at the base to protect the seed heads that form near the plant's base. Seedlings vary, with some offsetting rapidly and others remaining solitary. It is incorrectly called a non-trunking palm, since there are old specimens such as the huge one on the main street in Eufala Alabama that has a 10'+ trunk that, with age, snakes along the ground. (Hardiness Zone 6b-10)

Sabal 

Sabal is a group of 15-16 species of New World palms with seven native to the southern US including Sabal etonia, Sabal mexicana, Sabal miamiensis, Sabal minor, Sabal minor var. louisiana, Sabal palmetto, and Sabal x texensis. As a genus, Sabal palms prefer sand over clay, although they will grow in amended clay soils.

Sabal bermudiana (Bermuda Palmetto Palm)
(syn: Sabal blackburniana)

We traveled to Bermuda in 2000 to collect seed of this rarely offered counterpart to our native Sabal palmetto . In appearance Sabal bermudiana resembles the trunked Sabal palmetto except that it evolved quite a way offshore. As seedlings, our plants showed a phenomenal growth rate far exceeding any other Sabal that we have grown. Although our plants have been in the ground since 2003, and although they get fried to the ground every year below 12 degrees F, they manage to return each season, but will never reach their mature size of 20'...sort of defeats the purpose of having a palm tree. (Hardiness Zone 8b-10)

Image of Sabal 'Birmingham'
Sabal 'Birmingham'


Sabal 'Birmingham'

Sabal 'Birmingham' has been one of the most talked-about hardy palms for years. The original palm was grown by a Birmingham, Alabama gardener, Miss Alexander, who brought the palm from California. It survived in her garden for more than 40 years before being moved to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens in Alabama in 1976. The fronds appear similar to, but slightly coarser than a Sabal palmetto, and it is much slower growing than Sabal palmetto . Eventually this palm will get a trunk, but nothing the like the size of a typical palmetto. The original palm died (after too many re-locations) within the garden. All plants are seed-grown from the original offspring distributed by Woodlanders Nursery. There are many debates about what this palm really is. It has been considered the same as Sabal minor var. louisiana, Sabal palmetto, Sabal minor, Sabal x texensis 'Brazoria', and in a 1986 Principes article, a hybrid between Sabal mexicana or Sabal palmetto . More and more, it's looking like Sabal 'Birmingham' may be a trunked Sabal minor...DNA tests will be necessary to know for sure. Our 13 year old plant is now 9' tall x 9' wide. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Sabal x texensis 'Brazoria' (Brazoria Palmetto)

This rare palm, formerly known as Sabal x texensis from Brazoria County, Texas, is probably a trunking form of Sabal minor that can reach 20' tall at maturity. It was theorized that it was an intermediate hybrid, possibly between Sabal minor (no aboveground trunk) and Sabal mexicana (tall trunk), but DNA tests eliminated this possibility. The giant, green, fan-shaped leaves are typical sabal foliage. Be aware that most plants sold as Sabal x texensis are actually the less hardy Sabal mexicana. Our plants, which have been in the ground since 1999, have never shown any winter damage. In our opinion, this closely resembles Sabal minor var. louisiana, which is another of the above ground trunking Sabal minor variants. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Sabal etonia (Scrub Palmetto)

This cute Florida endemic to very dry, sandy soils has proven to be another great cold-hardy palm. Sabal etonia is effectively a dwarf, subterranean-trunked dry-habitat growing Sabal palmetto with the same costapalmate leaves (the center of the leaf folds downward). Sabal etonia also has much smaller leaves with narrower leaf segments than either Sabal minor, or Sabal palmetto . As the leaves age, expect small threadlike filaments to appear on the leaves...great for sewing if you find yourself on a central Florida sand dune without a needle and thread. In the wild, you'll rarely see these taller than 3' tall, but in cultivation, they may top out at 6' tall. Sabal etonia has a wide range in Florida and if you're looking for winter hardiness, be sure to get plants from a northern Florida population. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Image of Sabal mexicana
Sabal mexicana


Sabal mexicana (Mexican Fan Palm)

Sabal mexicana, formerly known as Sabal texana, is the Mexican equivalent of the southeast native Sabal palmetto . Because of its tolerance to drought and low humidity, it is a better choice in regions from Texas and west than Sabal palmetto, where it tops out at a massive 50' in height. Much of the information written about Sabal mexicana actually confuses this species with the other Texas native Sabal x texensis 'Brazoria', which is dramatically more winter hardy and smaller than true Sabal mexicana. The same mixup has unfortunately carried over into seed sources, which have the two plants thoroughly confused in the trade. (Hardiness Zone 8b-10)

Image of Sabal minor
Sabal minor


Sabal minor (Dwarf Palmetto)

This southeast US native can be found from North Carolina south to Florida and west to Texas. Unlike Sabal palmetto, Sabal minor forms a subterranean trunk which can grow 5' deep, accounting for its amazing winter hardiness. Interestingly, I've found two wild specimens of Sabal minor in coastal South Carolina with above-ground trunks and Gary Hollar has found the same at other locations in South Carolina. We don't know if these are true caulescent (trunking) forms or if the subterranean trunk reached a point where its trunk could no longer grow in its natural downward direction. It will be interesting to see if these come true from seed. There are a number of named seed-grown cultivars, each of which represents a specific genetic form or population.

Sabal minor 'Bear Creek' (Bear Creek Dwarf Palmetto)

I was very surprised to see this westernmost population of Sabal minor in 2003 in Kendall County, Texas, near the famed town of Luckenbach (north of San Antonio). Here, Sabal minor grew along an oft-flooding creek below giant bald cypress, which were nestled into a steep valley below the dry desert. The palm leaflets seemed a bit narrower and the leaves more costapalmate (folding in the center) than I remembered on other Sabal minor. Additionally, several of the plants had more than 1' of aboveground trunk. The 7' tall, very upright flower spikes were much taller than what I usually see in the east. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

 


Sabal minor 'Blountstown Dwarf' (Blountstown Dwarf, Dwarf Palmetto)

These are seedlings from a very dwarf form of Sabal minor found in Blountstown, Florida (just west of Tallahassee), that were shared with us by Sabal palm guru Dr. Kyle Brown of Florida. The parent plant matures out at 18" tall...a rock garden palm! We can't promise that each will be as dwarf as the parent, but so far, this is looking to be the case. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Sabal minor 'Castor Dwarf' (Castor Dwarf, Dwarf Palmetto)

Image of Sabal minor 'Castor Dwarf'
Sabal minor 'Castor Dwarf'

When we were botanizing near the town of Castor in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, in mid-March 2004, we found a roadside population of dwarf congested Sabal minor with very narrow leaf segments. There were several dozen plants in the population and all seemed to have the same habit. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Image of Sabal minor 'Emerald Island Giant'
Sabal minor 'Emerald Island Giant'


Sabal minor 'Emerald Island Giant' (Emerald Island Dwarf Palmetto)

These extraordinary Sabal minors originated from coastal NC near Emerald Isle, where they were rescued from a construction site by NC palm enthusiast Alan Brunner. They were subsequently planted in many of the Raleigh area city parks. These Sabal minors are radically different in growth habit and size than most other forms. Although these are much slower-growing, producing only one to two leaves per year, they will eventually reach 7' tall x 10' wide with huge 5'+ wide leaves. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Sabal minor 'McCurtain' (McCurtain Dwarf Palmetto)

These plants originated from an extremely vigorous natural stand of Sabal minor in McCurtain County, Oklahoma, just west of Folsom, Arkansas, near the Red River. According to the late Logan Calhoun (our original seed source), seedlings of this population have survived temperatures of -24 degrees F in Wichita and are producing seed. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Sabal minor 'Oriental Giant' (Oriental Giant Dwarf Palmetto)
In 2006, I was fortunate to accompany palm guru Gary Hollar to see the 10' tall giant Sabal minor growing in the Pamlico County, NC town of Oriental. The parent plants were growing in rich, sandy hardwood swamp. (Zone 7b-10)

Sabal minor 'Woodville' (Woodville Dwarf Palmetto)

(Sabal minor A2LA-034) When we were botanizing near Woodville, MS in late February 2003, we found a 6' tall Sabal minor with a 7' flower spike full of seed. This may not sound strange except that this was the only sabal seen on our entire trip that had not shed its seed. I assumed that the seed was no good but, in fact, it all germinated. We do not know if this trait is inheritable or not, but even if not, it is an exceptionally large specimen for this area that should produce large offspring. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Image of Sabal minor var. louisiana
Sabal minor var. louisiana


Sabal minor var. louisiana (Louisiana Palmetto)

(syn: Sabal louisiana) This unusual Gulf Coast native is found only in a few swampy areas of Louisiana and east Texas, where it grows among typical Sabal minor. Taxonomists often dismiss it as a variant of Sabal minor, but the 6' tall trunk seems to say otherwise. If you don't agree, perhaps you'll change your mind after a few whacks with those aforementioned 6' tall trunks. Perhaps we are seeing speciation in progress. Regardless, all seedlings seem to develop a trunk. Sabal minor var. louisiana, will reach 12' tall when mature and resembles Sabal x texensis 'Brazoria'. Sabal minor var. louisiana has never shown any winter damage here since 1999. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Sabal palmetto (Palmetto Palm)

The 40' tall Sabal palmetto is the dominant trunked palm in the Southeast US. Its native range ranges from Florida north to coastal North Carolina. Like Sabal minor, the cultivars are seed grown and represent particular genetic populations. (Hardiness Zone 8-10)

Sabal palmetto 'Bald Head Island' (Bald Head Island Palmetto Palm)

The most northern native stand of Sabal palmettos in the country resides on Bald Head Island, NC. We have found seedlings from these plants to be particularly winter hardy in our climate, showing no damage since 1999. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Sabal palmetto 'Lisa' (Lisa Palmetto Palm)

This is a most unusual congested leaf form of Sabal palmetto, and reportedly one that has exceptional winter hardiness. I have yet to try this in the ground in Zone 7b. (Hardiness Zone 8-10, guessing)

Sabal palmetto 'Mt. Holly' (Mt. Holly Palmetto Palm)

This is another exceptionally winter hardy form of Sabal palmetto grown from seed of a plant in Mt. Holly (west of Charlotte), North Carolina. Planted in the 1960s, these 18-20' palms have survived -5 degrees F in their current location. We have had these in the garden since 1999 without any sign of damage. The foliage on this form is much narrower than what we think of as a typical Sabal palmetto.

Sabal palmetto 'Rock Hill' (Rock Hill Palmetto Palm)

These Sabal palmettos are from a stand in Rock Hill, SC (just south of Charlotte NC). They were planted in the 1950s, and survived the record low temperature of -8 degrees F in, 1984/85. The leaves of this form are much wider than the Sabal palmetto 'Mt. Holly' form, and have shown slightly less winter hardiness in our trials. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10) Sabal palmetto 'Tifton Hardy' (Tifton Hardy Palmetto Palm)

This seed strain of the southeast native Sabal palmetto was collected by retired City of Raleigh horticulturist Noel Weston on a trip through Tifton, Georgia after the 1980s freeze that killed most of the palmettos. Noel found an undamaged specimen at a Tifton hotel and collected seed. Expect a 10' trunk in 15 years. The leaves on this form are wide like Sabal palmetto 'Rock Hill'. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Sabal rosei (Savannah Palmetto)

This little known palm hails from Mexico's West Coast, where it can be found in tropical deciduous forests to 2,500' elevation from Culiacan south to Guadalajara. The 40' tall palms resemble the east coast Sabal palmetto, but with very stiff costapalmate leaves. Plants at Georgia's Bamboo Farm have taken 15 degrees F, and Alabama's Hayes Jackson reports that his plants have withstood 8 degrees F, so we think these are worth a try for gardeners willing to experiment. Sabal rosei prefers well-draining soils and sites in full sun. Small plants in our garden survived 9 degrees F in 2009, although the foliage burned off. (Hardiness Zone 8b-10, at least)

Sabal sp. Tamaulipas (Mexican Scrub Palm)

(aka: S. minor YD 17-55) This unique, garden-worthy palm has been lumped into Sabal minor, which is bizarre if you have grown these two plants side by side. Sabal sp. Tamaulipas is a Sabal minor on steroids growing three times as fast, with much larger leaves, and much larger seed. The 6' wide costapalmate (bends in the middle) leaves adorn the 8' tall clumps. Our parent plant is from a 1988 Yucca Do seed expedition into Tamaulipas, Mexico, where these palms were found around 1,500' elevation. Although seemingly trunkless, older specimens develop a horizontal trunk up to 4' long that lays on the ground. Our oldest plants, installed in 1997, have reached 8' in height. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Sabal uresana (Sonoran Palmetto)

From up to 4500' elevation in the valleys and foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental (states of Sonora and Chihuahua) in Western Mexico comes this relative of Sabal palmetto that has performed well in East Coast Zone 8 gardens. Sabal uresana is very slow, but eventually (in your grand-kids lifetime) makes a stunning 30' tall tree with costapalmate silvery-green leaves and a contrasting dark brown trunk. If you enjoy experimenting, Sabal uresana is a good one to try. (Hardiness Zone 8-10, guessing)

Serenoa

Serenoa is another monotypic palm genus native to the southeast US, named for Serenoa Watson, a 19th century curator of the Harvard Herbarium.

Serenoa repens (Saw Palmetto)

This native to the Gulf Coast is a vigorously clustering and spreading palm, often with subterranean as well as above ground trunks. Serenoa repens can be easily identified by its spiny leaf petioles. The leaf color is usually glossy green, but silver-grey forms can be found in certain populations. Serenoa repens is amazingly drought tolerant but can tolerate flooded soils, can grow in sun or shade, and can thrive in sandy soils that are both acidic and alkaline...that's one tough palm. Try as I might, I have never been able to get this to survive winters in our Raleigh garden (Hardiness Zone 8b-10)

Trachycarpus (Windmill Palm)

Trachycarpus is a group of 8-9 species of trunked palms, native primarily to Asia. They range from the dwarf Trachycarpus nanus at 3' to Trachycarpus fortunei, which can top out at 40'. With the exception of Trachycarpus nanus, Trachycarpus are rather fast growing in good conditions, which include full sun, and clay-based soils. While they will tolerate both light shade and sandy soils, their growth will slow dramatically. They are one of the few hardy palm species that love cool Pacific Northwest climates as well as the summers of the mid-South. Back in the 1980s we tried several Trachycarpus fortunei with no luck with winter survival. I began searching for clones of Trachycarpus fortunei that had already survived cold temperatures and grew seed from these clones to obtain better winter hardiness via natural selection. Thanks to members of the Southeast Palm Society who supplied seed, we have been able to offer several over the years.

Image of Trachycarpus fortunei 'Bulgaria'
Trachycarpus fortunei 'Bulgaria'


Trachycarpus fortunei 'Bulgaria' (Bulgaria Windmill Palm)

Palm grower Kiril Donov has collected this windmill palm seed from 35-year-old trees growing in Plavdiv, Bulgaria...that's right, the one near Romania. According to Donov, these trees regularly see very cold temperatures...(www.polarpalm.net). After growing them to a larger size and seeing the stiffness of the fronds and their reduced size, we are fairly confident these plants represent hybrids between typical Trachycarpus fortunei and Trachycarpus fortunei 'Wagnerianus'. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)



Trachycarpus fortunei 'Charlotte' (Charlotte Windmill Palm)

Always on the lookout for hardy palm selections, I sighted two magnificent 30' specimens of very hardy windmill palms in the Myers Park region of Charlotte NC (3 hours west of Raleigh) in the 1980s. We were able to acquire seed and gave them the cultivar name Trachycarpus fortunei 'Charlotte'. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Image of Trachycarpus fortunei 'Charlotte'
Trachycarpus fortunei 'Charlotte'


Trachycarpus fortunei 'Greensboro' (Greensboro Windmill Palm)

The seed for this windmill palm came from a 20' specimen plant that was growing at a church in Greensboro, NC... 2 hours northwest of Raleigh and generally a bit colder. This may be the coldest site from which we have obtained seed of this wonderful trunked palm. Unfortunately, several years later the plant was destroyed when the church expanded, so it no longer exists. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Trachycarpus fortunei 'Hayes Stiffie' (Hayes Stiffie Windmill Palm)

Plantsman and palm guru Hayes Jackson shared seed of this fast-growing Trachycarpus he refers to as his "stiff leaf form." Hayes thinks it might be a Trachycarpus fortunei 'Wagnerianus' x typical Trachycarpus fortunei cross, but those who know for sure aren't talking. The 20' tall trunk has leaves whose tips don't become limp, as is the case with typical Trachycarpus fortunei. Hayes has grown this for many years in his Anniston, Alabama, garden with no damage. Having seen it in person in 2006, I can attest that it is both unique and impressive...the palm, that is. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Image of Trachycarpus fortunei 'Nanital'
Trachycarpus fortunei 'Nanital'


Trachycarpus fortunei 'Nanital' (Nanital Windmill Palm)

Everything we know about Trachycarpus takil is wrong as palm experts discovered in 2009 that instead of growing the real species, we all had a form of Trachycarpus fortunei from Nanital, India (just northwest of Nepal). Trachycarpus fortunei 'Nanital' has more finely divided leaves than most typical Trachycarpus fortunei, along with a trunk that has a slight lean...a la the Tower of Pisa. When it matures, it will develop a completely bald trunk...bring out the Rogaine®! (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Trachycarpus fortunei 'Norfolk' (Norfolk Windmill Palm)

Our seed of this came from a row of large 20-30' tall specimens at the Norfolk Zoo in Virginia. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Image of Trachycarpus fortunei Tennessee Form
Trachycarpus fortunei Tennessee Form


Trachycarpus fortunei Tennessee Form (Tennessee Windmill Palm)

Thanks to palm collector Will Taylor of Athens, Tennessee, for sharing seed of a Trachycarpus fortunei that has been growing and fruiting for years at his home in Zone 7a, between Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Will originally purchased these from a local nursery in 1996, and they have endured -2 degrees F, unprotected in the ground. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Trachycarpus fortunei Taylor Form (Taylor's Windmill Palm)

Originally, two windmill palms with distinctive leaf shapes were purchased from Florida and planted at Taylor's Nursery in Raleigh nearly a half-century ago. One tree survived and endured our record -9 degrees F temperature in the '80s. Fruiting offspring from this tree are planted around Raleigh, including the local Jaycee Park palm garden. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Trachycarpus fortunei 'Wagnerianus' (Chusan Windmill Palm) (Syn: Trachycarpus wagnerianus)

This palm is one of the true mysteries of the palm world, as it has never been recorded from the wild and is probably nothing more than a short-frond, very winter hardy form of Trachycarpus fortunei, hence our name change. In cultivation, palmophiles recognize it as one of the hardiest of the Trachycarpus group. In stature, it makes a 20' tall trunk exactly like typical Trachycarpus fortunei except the stiff round leaves are stunningly beautiful and much shorter (18" diameter compared to 33" diameter for typical Trachycarpus fortunei). (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Trachycarpus geminisectus (Seven Peaks Windmill Palm)

Trachycarpus geminisectus is a recently discovered fan palm from north of the Vietnamese town of Quan Ba, near the border area between Northern Vietnam and southern China. Although we botanized Quan Ba in 2005, we didn't have time to drive the final few hours to see the palms in person, but we later obtained seed and are now able to both grow and share the palm with others. Mature plants of this new Trachycarpus reach only 6' tall. The large white-backed leaves are composed of unusual paired leaf segments. We have yet to try these outdoors, but are growing other plants from the Quan Ba region. (Hardiness Zone 8-10, guessing)

Trachycarpus latisectus (Windamere Windmill Palm) (syn: Trachycarpus sikkimensis)

This recently discovered heat-tolerant Himalayan palm (from 7500' elevation) boasts very large, nearly circular leaves (according to palm gurus, Gibbons and Spanner). Developing with age a trunk like a typical windmill palm, the leaves cluster near the top of the smooth trunk. We've had this in the ground since 2000 and like Trachycarpus martinianus, the leaves burn off every year, despite the trunk being hardy into the upper single digits F. (Hardiness Zone 9-10)

Trachycarpus martinianus (Khasia Windmill Palm)

Considered by Gibbons and Spanner to be the most elegant species of windmill palm, this Himalayan native (India, Nepal) will eventually reach 30' tall when very happy. We have not found this to be very useful north of Zone 8b, since the foliage dies completely at 15 degrees F, making it a disappointment for those of us north of Florida. (Hardiness Zone 9-10)

Trachycarpus nanus (Dwarf Windmill Palm)

This very rare dwarf windmill palm to only 3' tall was re-discovered by Gibbons and Spanner in 1993 in Yunnan, China, on dry slopes at elevations above 6500'. Trachycarpus nanus doesn't form a trunk...unless you are talking about the underground type...plant dyslexia at its finest! According to Gibbons and Spanner, the grey-blue foliage resembles Chamaerops (European fan palm). When the plants mature and finally engage in sexual activities, the resulting seeds are held on very upright stalks, unlike typical windmill palms. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)

Trachycarpus oreophilus (Thai Mountain Windmill Palm)

This recently named palm was found growing on the high limestone cliffs (around 6,000' elevation) of Doi Chiang Dao mountain in northern Thailand. It was originally thought to be a livistona, but was later published in 1997 as Trachycarpus oreophilus by palm experts Gibbons and Spanner. Eventually Trachycarpus oreophilus makes a 30' tall specimen with a crown of densely upright, deeply dissected stiff green leaves. We have not yet tried this outdoors, so this should only be grown by avid gardeners who are in zone denial and like to experiment. (Hardiness Zone 9-10, guessing)

Trachycarpus princeps (Stone Gate Windmill Palm)

This stunning windmill palm was just named in 1995 after palm experts Gibbons and Spanner visited the original site and determined that it had been incorrectly identified in 1915 as Trachycarpus martinianus. Trachycarpus princeps occurs at 5,000' elevation on steep marble cliffs in a subtropical monsoonal rainforest of northwestern China, near the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Tibet. The 30' tall plants are topped with very finely cut fronds, whose leaf backs are waxy white. We've killed a large number of these in the ground and have not seen any sign of winter hardiness (Hardiness Zone 9-10, guessing

Trachycarpus takil (Kumon Fan Palm)

Image of Trachycarpus takil
Trachycarpus takil

Confusion reigns with Trachycarpus takil . It was discovered in 2008/09 that all plants in cultivation before this time were not the true Trachycarpus takil, but instead a form of Trachycarpus fortunei, now known as Trachycarpus fortunei 'Nanital', named after the location where it was discovered. It is our hope that the true Trachycarpus takil will one day reach our gardens. (Hardiness unknown)

Trachycarpus wagnerianus - see Trachycarpus fortunei 'Wagnerianus'

Trithrinax (Spiny Fiber Palm)

This South American palm genus encompasses only three species, Trithrinax brasiliensis, Trithrinax campestris, and Trithrinax schizophylla. These beautiful trunked, clustering palms are in prairies and savannahs in Argentina, Brazil, and just into surrounding countries.

Image of Trithrinax campestris
Trithrinax campestris


Trithrinax campestris(Argentine Silver Palm)

I'll never forget the day I first saw these palms growing in open savannas in Northern Argentina in 2002...certainly the most beautiful palms I'd ever seen. The slow-growing trunks eventually reach 12' tall, clothed in very stiff leaves that range from grey to the most beautiful silver-grey you can imagine. I expect them to show very good cold tolerance, but the key to winter survival in colder zones is to keep the plants dry since they are natives of arid desert regions. So far, I've killed my first two. (Hardiness Zone 8b-10, guessing)

Washingtonia (Washington Fan Palm)

Washingtonia is a genus of only two, very tall, trunked, fast-growing species, named after who else, George Washington. Washingtonia filifera is native to the southwest US and Washingtonia robusta to just south across the border in Mexico. While Washingtonia will handle some cold, they fare much better with dry cold than in wet winter climates.

Image of Washingtonia filifera Dallas Form
Washingtonia filifera Dallas Form


Washingtonia filifera 'Dallas' (Dallas Desert Fan Palm)

We are pleased to offer a limited number of the southwest native Washingtonia filifera that was grown from seed collected from a mature specimen in Zone 8, Dallas, Texas. The plant was "discovered" by Matthew Nichols of Dallas, who tells me that it has endured 11 degrees F with no damage. It is our hope that this could add a little more hardiness, since it has grown to fruiting size in a Zone 8 climate. Mature size is 60' tall. (Hardiness Zone 8-10, guessing)

The seed from this cold-hardy form of the southwest US native (California, Arizona), Washingtonia filifera, is from a planting in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, where it has reportedly endured 0 degrees F on several occasions. The cold in New Mexico is obviously a dry cold, and East Coast cold is much more wet, but the potential is exciting for gardeners who like to experiment. Mature plants reach 60' tall with 8'' wide fronds. (Hardiness Zone 8b-10, guessing)

Washingtonia robusta 'Mariana' (Mariana Mexican Fan Palm)

This form was grown from seed from palm guru Hayes Jackson of Anniston, Alabama. Hayes got these seeds from a plant of the northern Mexico native Washingtonia robusta (normally the less hardy Washingtonia) growing in the Florida panhandle Zone 8a town of Mariana. (Hardiness Zone 9-10)

Washingtonia x filibusta (Border Crossing Fan Palm)

These hybrids between the Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta and the US native Washingtonia filifera were a blatant attempt to gain US citizenship and thereby access to Federal social programs for their offspring. These fast-growing hybrids are particularly happy in California and Texas, but have been successfully grown in other mild parts of the country. If you're feeling particularly generous and want to adopt one of these offspring, don't wait since their numbers are limited due to the impending border fence. There was a splendid specimen at the Atlanta Botanic Garden for years until it was killed in a severe winter. (Hardiness Zone 8b-10)

How to Propagate Palm Trees

Palms are typically propagated by seed, although some palms, such as needle palms, can be propagated by divisions. Divisions are best taken and replanted early in the growing season. Palm seed typically store very poorly and therefore should be planted as fresh as possible. Most of the hardy palms have seed that ripen in early winter. Sabal seed turn black as they ripen, while Rhapidophyllum seed turn brown. We have found that many palm seed benefit from an overnight soak in water before planting...just don't leave them soaking any longer. In order to get viable seed, you'll need to know if your palms are male, female, or both. Most palms are either monecious (one house) or dioecious (two houses). Monecious palms have both sexes on one plant, while dioecious palms are either male or female. Monecious palms include Butia, jubaea, Nannorrhops, Sabal, Serenoa, Trithrinax, and Washingtonia. Dioecious palms include Chamaerops, Guihaia, Rhapidophyllum (usually), and Trachycarpus (usually). Obviously, the monecious palms will produce seed on their own, while most of the dioecious species take two opposite sexes to tango. If producing seed of a dioecious palm is your goal, you will generally want to plant at least three to play the odds since it's impossible to determine the sex of young non-flowering plants.

How to transplant palm trees

Palms are quite unique in how they respond, or don't respond to transplanting. One of the most unique palms in this regard is the genus Sabal. As the roots of Sabal palm are unable to branch. In other words, if a root is cut, it dies completely, making it unnecessary to dig a large root ball. This is why Sabal palms, especially Sabal palmettos are often seen loaded onto large trucks like telephone poles with virtually no roots. Sabal can also be planted like telephone poles as long as the foliage is reduced back to the trunk until they re-establish.

The trick is to transplant Sabal palms when they are older. When transplanting Sabal palmetto, research has shown that the survival rate of transplanted palms with less than a 10' tall trunk is extremely poor. It was discovered that until a palm reached the 10' trunk size, the zone of the trunk which regenerates roots is not fully developed and is therefore incapable of growing new roots. The same is true for other Sabal species...until they reach a mature size, transplanting success approaches 0%. For this reason, even digging around a non-mature Sabal palm can spell death, if it doesn't have enough trunk to regenerate new roots. I am not aware of any research that gives sizes or ages for successful transplanting of any Sabal other than Sabal palmetto

Any transplanted palm requires moisture during its reestablishment, and since the roots are not effective in that regard after having been cut, the palm depends on the moisture in the trunk to survive. Therefore, if there is no trunk, there is no survivability. If a palm is large enough to be transplanted, the other two most important factors are soil moisture and heat. On transplantable sized Sabal, water seems to be the more important factor, therefore reducing the moisture loss through the leaves is essential. Research has shown that the foliage must be removed back to the crown for best results.

With many other palm genera, however, the amount of roots remaining when the plant is dug increases survivability as does the amount of foliage left on the tree at transplanting. The key is whether the roots branch or die back to the trunk. Unfortunately, we have been unable to find any comprehensive research on the subject. Obviously, the key is good planning...plant your palm in the place where you will always want it.

Palm Tree Winter Hardiness

We have compiled this report from both our experiences and those of others around the country. Our hardiness classifications are probably a bit conservative, but be wary of wild claims of palm hardiness beyond these zones. Even a Zone 7 palm will survive a winter in Zone 5 if the temperatures don't drop below Zone 7 temperatures (0 degrees F). When I hear these outlandish claims, I generally discount them unless the claimant can give me specific low temperatures that the palms endured.

Keep in mind that while forms of palms are selected for particular traits including winter hardiness, the plants are seedlings and each is genetically different. These selections have only an unquantified greater percentage of chances at winter hardiness over one that has not undergone any winter hardiness selection. This is not a guarantee of winter hardiness.

In palm hardiness, size matters... small palms are simply not as winter hardy as larger ones. One lesson that we've learned well over the years is that in temperate climates, palms need to be planted early in the growing season and planted at a large size. If you are only able to purchase a small size palm (like we sell), grow it as a houseplant until it reaches a larger size and becomes more winter hardy. While we'll still plant a one gallon palm of some types, most folks recommend not planting anything smaller than a three gallon size in a marginal climate.

If you must plant palms smaller than we recommend, be sure to get them in the ground as early as possible in the growing season. During the winter, much very heavily for the first few seasons until the plants gain some size, at which time the winter mulching can be scaled back.

There are a number of techniques used to push palms beyond their normal limits of hardiness. This includes wrapping the trunks with thick frost cloth, wrapping the trunks with old-style Christmas lights (the ones that gave off heat) or plumbing heat tape during the winter months. Another common technique used to prevent winter damage is to tie the uppermost leaves in a bundle to keep the unfurled spear leaves from getting wet and cold. It's often not the cold that kills palms, but the combination of wet and cold together.

Other than foliar burn, one of the most common forms of winter damage is spear pull. This is where the new fronds at the growing tip are killed. This damage may not be evident until several months afterwords when the new fronds turn brown, then black. A tug of the unfurled leaves will cause them to separate from the crown. This does not necessarily mean the plant is lost. It is best to removed damaged spear leaves as soon as possible to allow air and light into the crown to prevent rot which can kill the plant. Some folks just make sure that air can get to the crown and that water doesn't stagnate where the spear was removed, while others drench with a fungicide. If the damage wasn't too severe, another spear will emerge, usually within 8-12 weeks.

Group 1
Reliably winter hardy in Zone 6a (-10F) once established.

Rhapidophyllum hystrix
Sabal minor 'McCurtain'

Group 2
Reliably winter hardy in Zone 7a (0 degrees F) once established

Sabal minor 'Emerald Island Giant'
Sabal minor 'Bear Creek'
Sabal minor 'Castor Dwarf'
Sabal minor 'Chipola Dwarf'
Sabal minor 'Blountstown Dwarf'
Sabal minor 'Oriental Giant'
Sabal minor 'Woodville'
Sabal x texensis 'Brazoria'
Sabal minor var. louisiana
Sabal 'Birmingham'

Group 3
Reliably winter hardy in Zone 7b (5 degrees F) once established.

Sabal etonia
Sabal palmetto 'Bald Head Island'
Sabal palmetto 'Mt. Holly'
Sabal palmetto 'Rock Hill'
Sabal palmetto 'Tifton Hardy'
Sabal sp. Tamaulipas
Trachycarpus fortunei 'Bulgaria'
Trachycarpus fortunei 'Charlotte'
Trachycarpus fortunei 'Greensboro'
Trachycarpus fortunei 'Hayes Stiffie'
Trachycarpus fortunei 'Nanital'
Trachycarpus fortunei 'Norfolk'
Trachycarpus fortunei Taylor Form
Trachycarpus fortunei Tennessee Form
Trachycarpus fortunei 'Wagnerianus'
Trachycarpus nanus

Group 4
Reliably winter hardy in Zone 8a (10 degrees F)

Butia capitata
Chamaerops humilis var. cerifera
Chamaerops humilis
Guihaia argyrata
Jubaea chilensis
Nannorrhops ritchieana
Sabal uresana

References

Broschat, T.K. 1991. Effects of leaf removal on survival of transplanted sabal palms. J. Arboriculture 17:32-33.

Broschat, T.K. 1998. Root and shoot growth patterns in four palm species and their relationship to air and soil temperature. HortScience 33:995-998.

Broschat, T.K. and H. Donselman. 1984. Root regeneration in transplanted palms. Principes 28:90-91.

Broschat, T.K. and H. Donselman. 1987. Factors affecting palm transplanting success. Proc. Fla. St. Hort. Soc. 100:396-397.