Palms are widely used throughout Florida as
dramatic specimen or accent plants, as avenue ‘trees’, as integral
components of raised bed plantings, as under-story or ‘filler’
plants, and even as living fences or hedges. Although a large proportion
of the 2500 palm species will grow well in south Florida, many of these
have relatively high water and fertilizer requirements, while others
have relatively high pest and disease susceptibilities.
A smaller number of palms exhibit high drought
tolerance and low fertilizer requirements, and are generally free of
pests and diseases. Because of their relatively low impact on
Florida’s precious and fragile natural environment, this latter group
can be referred to as ‘Florida friendly’ palms. Similarly,
landscapes in Florida that adhere to the nine principles of the
University of Florida’s Florida Yards & Neighborhoods (FYN)
program are considered to be ‘Florida-friendly’ landscapes (i.e.,
‘Florida Landscapes’) because they, too, have a relatively low
impact on the environment.
primary objective of this article is to explore some Florida-friendly
palms and how they can be incorporated into Florida-friendly landscapes.
The first section below lists and describes the basic characteristics
and culture requirements of twelve Florida-friendly palms; the second
section discusses the nine FYN principles as they relate to palms in
Florida Landscapes; and the third section provides a brief introduction
to palm-related Internet resources.
A great diversity
of palm species is well suited to the subtropical climate of south
Florida. Many have proven to be reliable based on their tolerance of
cool winter temperatures, seasonal rainfall, and alkaline soils.
However, just because a palm will grow in a given region does not mean
it should be grown there. Numerous palm species have high water
and fertilizer demands, and some are susceptible to pests and diseases.
In south Florida,
freshwater is at a premium, and, with the latest water restrictions
imposed on the region by the South Florida Water Management District
(Phase II restrictions took effect Thursday, January 11, 2001; contact
the SFWMD for more information), outdoor water use must be reduced to
conserve our precious freshwater resources. In addition, large amounts
of excess nutrients and pesticides that are applied to yards and
landscapes in south Florida find their way into surface waters during
flood events—and eventually into Biscayne Bay—and contribute to what
is known as non-point source pollution.
all palms have high fertilizer and water requirements, or are
susceptible to pests and diseases that must be treated with chemical
pesticides. In 1997, the palm curator at Fairchild Tropical Garden
published an updated “Top Ten” list of highly recommended,
Florida-friendly palms (Maidman, 1997). The following list and
descriptions are based on this article, with two additional species
||Bismarckia nobilis, the Bismarck palm, is a native of the savannahs of
Madagascar and is an extraordinarily durable and highly adaptable
palm. The impressive silvery-gray, fan-shaped leaves can reach 6
feet across; therefore, its massive size restricts its use to
larger landscapes. This palm requires full sun and prefers a fair
amount of water when young, but performs well with no supplemental
irrigation once established.
|Chamaedorea ernesti-augustii is a small, solitary, under-story species from the
rainforests of Mexico through Honduras. The sparsely divided to
nearly entire leaves are quite attractive, as are the raised
annular rings on the slender stem. It grows best in well-drained
soil and is atypical of rain-forest palms in that it is fairly
||Chambeyronia macrocarpa, the red leaf palm, is one of the few palms from the
low-altitude rainforests of New Caledonia that performs well in
south Florida’s soils and climate. Ultimately reaching 20 feet,
this palm requires well-drained soil, shade, and some
supple-mental irrigation when young, but it can tolerate full sun
and natural rainfall as it matures. This palm’s most impresssive
attribute is its brilliant maroon-red new leaf, which fades to a
dark glossy green within a few days after opening.
|Coccothrinax crinita, the old man palm, is a native of Cuba. This palm has
a characteristic “beard” of white-gray fibers. Although slow
growing when small, its growth rate increases upon formation of a
trunk. This is one of the most sought-after palms in south
‘Maypan’ is a coconut hybrid created by hand-pollinating a
‘Malayan Dwarf’ coconut with ‘Panama Tall’ pollen,
producing a vigorous palm that possesses a fairly high resistance
to Lethal Yellowing disease—a lethal, untreatable disease of
some coconut varieties and a few other palm species in south
Although the color of the ‘Panama Tall’ parent generally
predominates, the choice of seed parent also has an effect. Since
‘Malayan Dwarf’ coconuts come in three colors—green, yellow,
and gold/red—the petioles and fruit of the ‘Maypan’ hybrid
can range from yellowish-green to reddish-bronze. ‘Maypans’
have the classic ‘tall’ trunk and swollen base. Like most
coconuts, they have high drought tolerance, low nutrient
requirements, and few pest problems.
|Copernicia baileyana, the Bailey copernicia palm, hales from the dry
savannahs and woodlands of Cuba. It prefers full sun even as a
seedling and has a high tolerance of drought. Although slow-
growing, hard to find, and usually a bit expensive, this palm is
much sought-after in south Florida due to its massive, smooth,
slate-gray trunk and stiff, gray-green ‘fan’ leaves.
||Heterospathe elata, the sagisi palm, is a tall rainforest species from
the Philippines and other adjacent islands. Although slow-growing
when young, it becomes quite fast growing once the trunk begins to
form. Looking best when planted in small groups, this palm bears a
crown of gracefully arching leaves, and the small, white fruits
are produced nearly continuously upon maturation. It tolerates
cold temperatures if planted in a sheltered location and can reach
50 feet in height.
|Pseudophoenix sargentii, the Florida native buccaneer palm or Sargent’s
cherry palm, grows naturally in sand or limestone soils in areas
that receive little rainfall. This palm has a gray trunk and a
prominent gray-green crownshaft topped by a sparse crown of
silvery-blue-green leaves. Due to its slow-growing habit, this
palm is not common in the nursery trade and is often fairly
expensive. However, it is one of the hardiest palms for south
Sabal etonia, the scrub palmetto, is a small
shrub-like palm whose trunk usually remains underground. Its
fan-shaped leaves are about 3’ across and costapalmate, which means that they are essentially palmate except
that the petiole (leaf stem) extends part way through the center
of the leaf fan as a midrib. Scrub palmetto resembles saw
palmetto, but the latter has a true palmate leaf with no midrib.
Scrub palm can reach up to 3-4’ tall with a spread of 4-5’.
The flower stalk of scrub palmetto also does not extend beyond the
|Thrinax morrissii, the Keys thatch palm, is native to the Florida Keys
and throughout the Caribbean and into the Yucatan peninsula, and
is a relative of the Florida thatch palm, T. radiata. This
palm grows naturally in alkaline soils, some-times even on
limestone outcrops, and tolerates drought, low soil fertility, and
exposure to salt spray. The leaves of T. morrissii are
bluish-green above and silver below. As in most species in the
genus, ripe fruit are white.
||Thrinax radiata, the Florida thatch palm, is native to Florida and a
few Caribbean islands. It can reach a height of 20 feet and grows
naturally in sand or on limestone. It prefers sun and tolerates
salty winds. The main difference between this species and its
close relative, T. morrissii, is that the leaves of T.
radiata are green on both sides. It is a hardy palm with low
species are natives of the South Pacific and are widely
planted in south Florida. They are among the fastest growing palms
and often reach 50 feet in height. The slender trunks, elegantly
arching leaves, and clusters of large, red fruit make these palms
particularly attractive when planted in informal groups.
Additional appealing attributes include their high tolerance of
hurricane-force winds and their wide adaptability to varying soil,
water, and nutrient conditions. Care should be taken to avoid
planting Adonidia merrillii (recently changed from Veitchia
merrillii; Zona and Fuller, 1999), however, as it is highly
susceptible to Lethal Yellowing.
A Florida-friendly landscape is one in which the
right plants are planted in the right places, mulch is maximized, water
is used efficiently, fertilized is applied appropriately, pests and
diseases are managed responsibly, yard waste is recycled, wildlife is
attracted, and, when located on the waterfront, special precautions are
taken to reduce non-point source pollution from entering the water.
These landscaping practices represent the nine Florida-friendly
principles of the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods (FYN) program.
The FYN program began as a county-level
Extension program in the Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay areas of
Florida—out of the need to address serious problems of pollution and
disappearing habitats. FYN has since been adopted and promoted by the
University of Florida Extension as a statewide program. The FYN program
objectives are based on the above nine Florida-friendly landscaping
principles that homeowners, landscape designers, and landscape
maintenance personnel can utilize to create and maintain
Florida-friendly landscapes. In this section, these nine principles will
be discussed as they relate to the placement and maintenance of palms in
Right Plant, Right Place—Learning
the specific culture requirements and site preferences for each palm
species of interest is the first step in creating a Florida Landscape. Betrock’s
Guide to Landscape Palms (Meerow, 1994) provides general culture
information on 10 of the 12 recommended Florida-friendly palms discussed
above. Numerous other books and websites are available for additional
information (see below).
The second step is to conduct a thorough site
evaluation of the landscape. Important aspects of site evaluation
include sun and shade patterns; soil type and pH; location of existing
structures, power lines, and water lines; location of existing plants;
and location of areas where water stands or runs off.
The final step in this principle is to choose
palm species whose requirements correspond to the respective site
conditions, keeping in mind that it is best to group plants with similar
requirements in the same area. Common problem spots that should be
avoided include under power lines, too close to buildings, and in
low-lying areas where water collects during heavy rains.
Maximize Mulch & Groundcover—The
benefits of mulch are numerous and include conserving water, moderating
soil temperature, discouraging weeds, and preventing damage from mowers
and line trimmers. Organic mulches have an added benefit, in that they
help improve the limestone and sandy soils of south Florida. Mulch should be applied 3-4 inches thick around all palms and should be
reapplied as needed—which is usually on a semiannual or annual basis.
Although mulch is a good starter material, it may not always be a final
landscape feature. Groundcovers serve a similar function, in that they
shade the ground, control weeds, and add organic matter to the soil,
while also adding texture and/or color to the landscape. Numerous
drought-tolerant groundcover species are available for use in Florida
to the South Florida Water Management District, about 50% of south
Florida’s average annual water consumption is used for lawn and
landscape irrigation and other outdoor activities. With respect to
palms, over-watering greatly increases the likelihood of root rot.
Conversely, watering infrequently and for a longer duration induces
deeper growth of palm roots, thereby increasing their drought tolerance.
Although many rainforest palms can be grown in south Florida, most are
not recommended for Florida Landscapes due to their high water
Appropriately— Palms are particularly susceptible to
micronutrient deficiencies in south Florida due to the poor nature of
the soils. Deficiencies can even occur when palms receive regular
fertilizer applications because most fertilizers do not contain the
proper complement of micronutrients that palms require. Therefore,
proper fertilization practices are crucial in maintaining healthy palms.
(1998) recently provided revised recommendations for palm fertilization
(see also Broschat & Meerow, 1999):
Palms and other landscape ornamentals can be
… effectively and efficiently fertilized by broad- casting a
2N-1P-3K-1Mg plus micronutrients fertilizer over the entire ornamental
landscape area at a rate of 1.5 lbs/100 sq. ft. every 3 months. These
fertilizers should have 100% of their N, K, and Mg in controlled
release form to maximize their effectiveness to the plants and
minimize their impact on the environment.
benefit of these recommendations for Florida Landscapes (and for
Florida’s natural environment as well) is the use of slow release, low
phosphorus fertilizers at a rate that is just sufficient for healthy
Manage or Prevent
Diseases & Pests—Palm diseases can be broadly categorized
as those that are untreatable and are always fatal, those that are
sometimes fatal but are treatable, and those that are simply cosmetic.
The most important of these with respect to palms in south Florida
Landscapes are those that are sometimes fatal but are generally easily
treatable. Such diseases include phytophthora root, crown, and trunk
rots, bacterial bud rot, pink rot, and damping off. Although complete
prevention of these diseases is not possible, proper maintenance
schedules, proper planting depth, proper placement in the landscape, and
mulching all help to reduce disease incidence. If disease is suspected,
contact your local Extension office for Florida-friendly treatment
well-grown palms will typically be relatively free of debilitating
insect pests (Meerow, 1994), pests do sometimes attack landscape palms
in sufficient force to cause concern—particularly when palms are
weakened by improper fertilization or excessive watering. Insects that
can cause significant pest problems include scale insects, palm aphids,
spider mites, coconut mites, banana moths, palm leaf skeletonizers,
royal palm bugs, palmetto weevils, various caterpillars, and some
grasshoppers (Meerow, 1994). Most of these pests can be successfully
treated with oils, soaps, bio-control products, or natural predators,
but the most efficient ‘pre’-solution to this problem is to choose
palms that are resistant to common pests and diseases (see list above),
and then make sure they are properly maintained.
Recycle Yard Waste—In 1999, yard
waste made up 14% of the 3.6 million tons of municipal solid waste
generated in Miami-Dade County (pers. comm., Irving Gerson, Miami-Dade
Solid Waste Management). A significant proportion of this yard waste
consisted of pruned (over-pruned?) palm fronds. Ironically, palms do not
need to be pruned; in fact, the health of palms is significantly
threatened by over-pruning. Furthermore, due to the nearly ubiquitous
problems with micronutrient deficiencies in palms in south Florida,
pruning green or healthy fronds eliminates a primary source of these
micronutrients, since palms recycle many nutrients from old to new
leaves. Therefore, palm fronds should only be cut off (if at all) when
they are brown and dry. Then, the dead fronds should be shredded or
composted, thereby greatly reducing the amount of organic debris added
to landfills and providing a sustainable source of mulch or compost.
Converting palm leaf debris to compost has the added benefit of quickly
recycling nutrients back into the soil, thereby reducing the need for
are not generally known for their attractiveness to wildlife, although
there are some notable exceptions. For example, the native sabal palm (Sabal
palmetto, which is Florida’s State ‘Tree’) attracts birds,
which feed on the fruits. Another native palm, the saw palmetto (Serenoa
repens), is utilized by various wildlife species for nesting,
protective cover, and as a food source. Both of these species, although
not listed above, are recommended palms for Florida Landscapes.
Waterfront—Only a few palms prefer to grow near water. One
example is the paurotis or Everglades palm (Acoelorrhaphe wrightii),
which prefers to have its “feet wet” at all times and performs best
when the soil is constantly saturated. Other species, such as the
mangrove palm (Nypa fruticans) and the mangrove fan palm (Licuala
spinosa), actually prefer to live along or in brackish waters.
Unless planted near water, these palms are generally not recommended for
Florida Landscapes due to their high water requirements. One
Florida-friendly landscape practice that does not involve palms but that
can help reduce excess nutrients and pesticides from running off into
water bodies from adjacent landscapes is to establish a 20-foot
“No-Application Zone” along the entirety of the waterfront. Since no
fertilizers or pesticides are applied in this zone, non-point source
pollution can be reduced.
Non-Point Source Pollution—Adhering to the previous eight
principles will greatly reduce non-point source pollution originating
from Florida Landscapes. The best course of action with respect to palms
is to plant species that have low fertilizer and water requirements and
few pests and diseases (see list above).
The past few years have witnessed a virtual
explosion of palm-related information on the Internet. Interested
persons can now subscribe to e-mail lists about palms, participate in
online discussion forums, and visit numerous websites throughout the
world that contain information on palms.
One of the most
comprehensive online palm resources is the website of the Palm &
Cycad Societies of Florida, Inc., located at the following URL: http://www.plantapalm.com.
This website is the home of the Virtual Palm Encyclopedia (VPE).
Here you will find over 50 articles on palms, ranging from general palm
horticulture to conservation, ethnobotany, taxonomy, evolution, and
pests and diseases.
Also included in the VPE
are over 1200 photos of over 500 palm species; a graphical key to common
landscape palms; information on cold-hardiness in palms, including
several hardiness zone maps; a PowerPoint presentation on palm pests in
Florida; University of Florida palm fact sheets; a compiled list of over
1700 palm species names; a glossary and pronunciation guide containing
over 1000 palm genus and species names; a cross-reference containing
over 300 palm common and botanical names; and links to numerous other
palm-related Internet resources.
T. K. 1998. Why aren’t your palms green? Tropicline 10. (Online
T. K., and A. W. Meerow. 1999. Palm Nutrition Guide. Updated Fact
Sheet SS-ORH-02, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University
of Florida Extension. (Online at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/EP052.)
Maidman, K. 1997. Ten great palms. Garden News (Newsletter of
Fairchild Tropical Garden) 52(5):10-11.
Meerow, A. W. 1994. Betrock’s Guide to Landscape Palms. Betrock
Information Systems, Hollywood, FL.
Meerow, A. W., and T. J. Weissling. 1998. Pests of Palms in Florida
and the Caribbean Region. Online presentation, University of
Florida, Ft. Lauderdale Research & Education Center. URL: http://www.ftld.ufl.edu/Palm%20
Zona, S., and D. Fuller. 1999. A revision of Veitchia
(Arecaceae—Arecoideae). Harvard Papers in Botany 4:543-560.