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A guide to Palms for South Texas by Richard Travis

Third edition Copyright 2005

This book was first published as a special edition of the bulletin for the Palm Society of South

Texas. It was intended to serve as a pictorial guide for the palms suitable for cultivation in South Texas, in particular the two regions where most PSST members live: the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the city of Corpus Christi. These are the two warmest regions of the state, where it is possible to grow a larger number of palms outdoors, especially in the warmest parts of deepest South Texas, which are nearly frost-free. Hopefully this book will prove to be useful to persons who are interested in the cultivation of these beautiful plants in our special part of Texas. Most of the palms listed here are suitable for general outdoor cultivation in at least part of South Texas. There are a number of species which are only root-hardy or are used temporarily in gardens between the hardest freezes. Potentially tender palms are noted. The entries here are also (for the most part) confined to palms which are regularly or occasionally available for sale in South Texas. There are a few exceptions; Allagoptera and Acrocomia, for instance, are not easily found in local nurseries, but they are offered from time to time and are particularly useful for local use. At the very least most of these rarer palms can be had through mail order palm specialty nurseries if unavailable locally. There are also a few palms in this guide which are not the best growers in far South Texas but may nevertheless succeed in a special site. Most of these species will easily grow farther north, such as in San Antonio or Austin. A prime example of this would be the commonly available windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei. The number of tender palms which can be grown here on a temporary basis is almost limitless and it would be impossible to include them all. All that are covered here are some of the more commonly used and easily grown of the nonhardy palms. The royal palm, for instance, is not at all hardy but is so beautiful and grows so well here that it is worth using on a temporary basis, or protecting in severe cold. Some brief notes on growing palms outdoors in South Texas Much of the success to growing palms in South Texas comes down to a sufficient supply of water. This is especially true for recently planted palms, particularly transplanted palms which have been dug from a growing field. While some palms transplant easier than others, most all appreciate regular irrigation until they have regrown a full crown of leaves. As for growing palms from containers, some people swear by the practice of directly planting container palms in the ground, pot and all. While I have seen successful evidence of this, there is something in my gut that just has a hard time doing this - I at least like to cut the sides and bottom of the pot so the roots will have an easier time making it out. For the most part, palms grow best in rich, but well-drained, soils. Some palms, often desert palms, require faster drainage. Other palms, such as Sabal, can grow in a heavier soil and may even tolerate briefly standing fresh water. A few palms prefer the lighter sandier soils found near the coast, such as Butia.


Potential problems with palms in South Texas Chlorosis - occasionally the leaves on palms will turn a yellowish color. This is known as chlorosis and occurs in many plants, especially if some nutrient is missing or is unavailable in the soil. In South Texas, a number of palms will develop an iron or more often a magnesium deficiency. Magnesium deficiencies are especially common in queen palms and can be remedied by an application of Epsom salts (yes the kind you buy at the drugstore). Dissolving some Epsom salt into a tub of water and pouring it at the base of the palm usually does the trick, though it may take a while for the condition to clear up. Leaf skeletonizers - this is an unsightly but not usually dangerous pest on some palms, especially in humid areas. This little pest was brought to us as a gift from Florida, and appears as a sort of “crud” underneath the leaves. They will chew out the green part of the leaves, with only the veins of the leaf left intact. Treatable with insecticides. Rhino beetles - a more serious threat to palms, particularly when young, is the rhino beetle. These cute beetles will burrow into the growing point of a palm and can seriously damage or kill a palm, usually when the growing point is still below ground. The telltale sign of rhino beetles in the ground is a perfectly round hole appearing near the base of a palm. I’ve heard of a number of “solutions” for rhino beetles, everything from pouring turpentine to old motor oil into the beetle holes. I’ve tried none of these but have used insecticides with temporary success, but haven’t found a long term solution. Once the palms develop a mature trunk their resistance increases considerably, and certain palms seem more bothered by the beetles than others. Our native palm, Sabal mexicana, is often attacked by these pests but often survives (though they may be stunted for a while). The rhino beetle is a problem on other ornamentals as well, such as many agaves. Lethal yellowing - the most tragic disease to affect the Lower Valley is lethal yellowing, a “microplasma-like organism” that clogs and chokes the stems of affected palms, eventually killing the tree. In most areas of the world, this disease (or something very similar) is tropical and mostly affects coconut trees, though a number of palms are known to contract lethal yellowing. In the Valley almost all of the palms seriously affected by lethal yellowing are the larger varieties of date palms, the Canary Island date (Phoenix canariensis) and the true date, Phoenix dactylifera. In the case of the true date, the central trunk of the palm may be killed while the lower suckering plants will survive (at least temporarily), while the single-trunked Canary Island date is always killed from an LY attack. Susceptible palms are officially quarantined, even some species which are rarely affected.


Cold - while not a disease, cold does more damage to South Texas palms than all other factors put together. This was especially true after the 1983 freeze, when many of the old palms in the Valley were killed. While the death of known tender palms such as queen and royal palms was expected, the massive destruction of the old Mexican fan palms was a bit of a surprise, since these palms had survived previous hard freezes in 1951 and 1962. This may have been due to the advanced age of the dead trees (younger trees had a much higher survival rate) combined with the unfavorable cold wet conditions during and after the freeze,

which may have encouraged rot in the damaged crowns. Many times, palms will survive a freeze but the trunk will suffer permanent damage. This rot-like damage may not appear right away and it’s not always obvious that cold was the cause of the disfigurement. Wrapping the trunks with some sort of insulating material has brought some pretty tender palms through the worst freezes in South Texas. If you want to save a palm this way it is critical to wrap the entire trunk and then bank the base of the palm with dirt or mulch. This does not need to be done in an average winter - many people spend unnecessary work every winter protecting “non-hardy” palms when in reality this sort of treatment is only necessary once a decade in the warmer parts of South Texas (better safe than sorry for some I suppose). A note about those rare devastating freezes. Since the mid-1800s, the Lower Valley has suffered about 10 really hard freezes. That comes out to about one bad freeze every 15 years, though the time between these events is highly variable. There definitely seem to be certain “cold periods”, such as the late 1800s or the 1980s, and then there have been some long periods where Brownsville has avoided severely cold weather, such as the first half of the 20th century. Wind - the balmy tropical breezes of South Texas may be welcome at times (like a summer afternoon), but are often irritating to both people and plants, and are generally counterproductive to a nice garden. While our ordinary winds are not so much a problem in developed or tree-protected areas, much of South Texas is exposed plain, and some protection from the wind is needed for many plants. Most devastating is the desiccation that comes with these winds. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix - planting up an area with trees is the only permanent solution, and wind-sensitive palms should be avoided. Soil & Salt - The soils in South Texas tend to be heavy and alkaline in most places, though a few areas may have sandier soils, especially near the coast. Most of the palms used here don’t have problems with some soil alkalinity (apart from the rare chlorosis, as listed earlier). More troublesome is the quality of the water, particularly in the Lower Valley where much of the irrigation water is pulled right out of the Rio Grande. This water can contain rather high salt levels at times, and irrigating with this water can burn the leaves on many types of plants. Most palms suited to cultivation in the Lower Valley tend to tolerate some salts in the water, though there are a couple of palms in this book which are not so tolerant (as noted). Richard Travis April 2001 (revised September 2003 and April 2005)


Acoelorraphe wrightii Paurotis palm, everglades palm

Slender, heavily clumping lush fan palms. Deserves wider use in South Texas (Florida/Caribbean) Cold resistance - reasonable in warm areas of South Texas, tolerant of most freezes; the leaves and even trunks can freeze in extreme cold but the roots are hardy Drought - moderate Salt - acceptable Coast - relatively tolerant, seen at Port Isabel Wind - tolerant Light - sun Growth rate - moderate Availability - fairly common, mostly available from field grown plants. Untrimed plants make nice dense screens of tropical looking foliage


Acrocomia aculeata Gru-gru palm, chunta

Larger plumose feather palms with dark green leaves and large black spines along the trunk and leaves (Mexico to Argentina) Cold resistance - the type from Argentina sometimes known as A. totai is probably the hardiest, followed by the attractive Tamaulipan A. mexicana. There are old specimens of A. totai in the Lower Valley that survived the 1980s; the Tamaulipan form is probably slightly less hardy. May freeze north of the Valley Drought - pretty good, but better with some irrigation Salt - reasonably tolerant to salty conditions Coast - probably acceptable, seen fairly close to the coast near Tampico Wind - no problem in fully exposed sites Light - sun Growth rate - fast once started (the seed is very slow to germinate) Availability - a rare palm on account of its spines and long germination time


Allagoptera arenaria Seashore palm

Low, trunkless clumping feather palms with dramatic stiff grey leaves (coastal Brazil) Cold resistance - good in warm areas, the leaves may freeze but established plants recover from below ground Drought - good(?), grows in alkaline sand and probably needs well-drained soil Salt - high tolerance Coast - very good Wind - tolerant Light - sun Growth rate - slower Availability - generally only found in specialty nurseries


Arenga engleri Formosa palm, dwarf sugar palm

Moderately sized clumping feather palms, lush and tropical looking (Formosa) Cold resistance - good from central coast & south, leaves will die in a hard freeze but plants recover from the root Drought - moderate, prefers irrigation Salt - moderate Coast - unknown, probably moderate at best Wind - fairly tolerant Light - sun to part shade Growth rate - moderate Availability - not hard to find in containers Other - there are more tropical arengas such as A. pinnata and australasica which also do well in the Lower Valley


Attalea cohune Cohune palm, American oil palm

In South Texas, trunkless tropical looking feather palms with large coconutlike leaves (Mexico/Central America)


Cold resistance - leaves are frost tender but the plant sprouts new leaves from below ground after a freeze. Best for areas that rarely freeze Drought - moderate (?), not widely tested Salt - moderate Coast - probably not Wind - best with some protection (leaves can shred) Light - tolerant of full sun but looks better with filtered light Growth rate - slower Availability - rare, sometimes found in specialty nurseries Other - the best Attalea tried here to date, other species may also prove successful. Some can get chlorotic in our soils

Bismarkia nobilis Bismarkia palm

Large but stout fan palms with magnificent green or gray leaves (Madagascar) Cold resistance - moderate at best, the leaves are tender but the trunks resist more cold. Not totally hardy, gray forms are reportedly tougher. For areas which experience frost only rarely Drought - moderate Salt - moderate Coast - probably too windy there to be practical Wind - tolerant of ordinary breezes, there may be trouble in storms Light - sun Growth rate - moderately fast Availability - reasonable, offered in containers, difficult to transplant


Brahea armata Blue Hesper palm

Handsome stout fan palms with beautiful grey leaves (Baja California, Mexico) Cold resistance - high, hardy to San Antonio Drought - good, needs good drainage Salt - good Coast - not bad if it can get plenty of air movement Wind - tolerant Light - sun Growth rate - slow Availability - reasonable, offered in containers (they are hard to transplant) Other - does better in drier areas. Blue forms of Brahea elegans and Brahea ‘Clara’ look similar and may do better in more humid regions but are hard to find


Brahea brandegeei San Jose Hesper palm

Graceful slender desert fan palm with green leaves (Baja California) Cold resistance - hardy in the Lower Valley, perhaps farther north as well Drought - good Salt - good Coast - reasonable (?) Wind - tolerant Light - sun Growth rate - not that fast Availability - rare, offered occasionally at specialty nurs-eries Other - more suited to humid areas than the blue Hesper palm, resembles a small elegant Washingtonia robusta. Brahea aculeata has also done well in early trials here


Brahea dulcis/berlandieri Rock palm

Highly variable green to grey fan palms with one or multiple trunks and nearly spineless leaves (Mexico) Cold resistance - high, especially after established Drought - high, needs good drainage Salt - good Coast - untested Wind - tolerant Light - sun to light shade Growth rate - slow Availability - hard to find, sometimes at specialty nurseries Other - very common palm in the Sierra Madre near the Texas border, the single-trunked forms from dry areas are sometimes called B. berlandieri (or B. bella for the Coahuilan form). Most of the clumping forms seem closer to “true� B. dulcis found in southern Mexico and come from more forested humid regions, often growing in shade. Hybrids with Brahea decumbens are thriving in San Antonio and should do well here also


Butia capitata Pindo palm, cocos australis

Medium single feather palm with grey recurving leaves (Southern Brazil & Uruguay) Cold resistance - good, hardy to Central Texas Drought - good when established Salt - pretty good tolerance, but dislikes heavy alkaline clay soil Coast - good Wind - good Light - sun to lightest shade Growth rate - slower Availability - easy to find Other - better adapted to the eastern parts of Texas, a good choice on sandy soil. There are some interesting hybrids with a number of other related genera


xButyagrus nabonnandii Butia x Syagrus, pindo-queen, mule palm

Medium to robust handsome feather palm wuth graceful tropical looking dark green leaves (hybrid origin)


Cold resistance - good, hardy in far South Texas and used up to San Antonio Drought - moderate Salt - acceptable, no problem in most situations Coast - some tolerance Wind - good, looks best without too much wind Light - best in full sun Growth rate - fast Availability - hard to find and expensive, some are hand-progating it now Other - perhaps the most tropical looking of the hardier palms, it is unfortunately a sterile hybrid which makes it hard to mass produce. Some are spectacular

Caryota mitis Fishtail palm

Clumping tropical looking feather palm with unusual twicedivided (bipinnate) leaves (Asia) Cold resistance - leaves and trunks have little resistance, recovers from the root after a freeze, strictly for warm areas of the Lower Valley Drought - not that high Salt - good Coast - reasonable Wind - tolerant Light - sun to light shade Growth rate - moderate Availability - common Other - the best known Caryota for salt resistance, easily damaged by cold but recovers well


Chamaedorea radicalis Dwarf bamboo palm

Small trunkless tropical looking feather palm (Tamaulipas & E Mexico) Cold resistance - quite hardy for such a tropical looking palm, used in San Antonio Drought - moderate Salt - low Coast - not recommended Wind - best with shelter Light - part sun to shade Growth rate - slower Availability - hard to find Other - best suited for areas north of the Valley but will grow here with good soil and water


Chamaedorea seifrizii Bamboo palm

Small, thickly clumping feather palm with many slender “fishpole� stems (Yucatan) Cold resistance - the leaves only stand light frost, the trunks can stand a bit more and the roots are generally hardy. For warm areas only Drought - fairly high Salt - moderate Coast - with protection from the sea breeze only Wind - best with shelter Light - part sun to shade Growth rate - moderate Availability - common in containers Other - the best bamboo palm for the Valley, more tolerant of the water than other chamaedoreas


Chamaerops humilis Mediterranean fan palm

Small, usually clumping fan palm with bright green leaves, sometimes with a silver cast underneath (Mediterranean region) Cold resistance - very good, hardy to Central Texas Drought - good once established Salt - fairly tolerant Coast - good tolerance Wind - high Light - full sun Growth rate - slower Availability - common Other - a good smaller palm for our area. There are many varieties and cultivars around


Chamaerops humilis var cerifera Blue Mediterranean fan palm

A small, beautiful blue variety of the Mediterranean fan palm (North Africa) Cold resistance - good, about as hardy as the green variety Drought - should be at least as tolerant as the species Salt - probably good Coast - should do as well as the standard form Wind - high Light - part to full sun is probably best to bring out its striking color Growth rate - slow Availability - not common but its popularity (and availability) is slowly increasing Other - a gorgeous blue variant on the standard Chamaerops, it seems to do well in Texas; expect to see it more in the future


Coccothrinax/Thrinax species Thatch palms

Small attractive fan palms with spineless green leaves, sometimes with grey undersides (Caribbean) Cold resistance - varies, low to moderate. Coccothrinax argentata is probably the hardiest and can stand ordinary South Texas cold. None could be considered 100% reliable in severe cold without protection Drought - most have moderate to good drought tolerance Salt - good Coast - well suited Wind - tolerant Light - sun to light shade Growth rate - slow to moderate Availability - rare but available Other - handsome fan palms which stay a nice size. May need protection in severe cold. C. argentata and Thrinax morrisii are two of the hardiest, Thrinax radiata is one of the most tender


Copernicia alba Caranday palm, Argentine wax palm

Medium fan palm with spiny stems and green to grey leaves (Brazil to Argentina) Cold resistance - moderate, Argentine forms should be hardy enough for the Lower Valley Drought - should be good once established Salt - very good Coast - probably well suited Wind - exposed sites should be OK Light - full sun Growth rate - moderate Availability - hard to find, look in specialty nurseries Other - the hardiest of the wax palms. Some slower growing species may be root hardy in the Valley when young. C pruinfera looks similar but tends to have even more “wax� on the leaf


Copernicia species Yarey palms, petticoat palms

Slow, stout feather palms with large imposing green to grey leaves. Trunks are slow to develop (Cuba) Cold resistance - the leaves can freeze off in severe cold but the growing point stays below ground for many years, which often lets the plant come back after a hard winter. Probably best suited for warmer areas of the Lower Valley Drought - acceptable Salt - good Coast - most should do reasonably well Wind - tolerant of exposed sites Light - sun Growth rate - quite slow Availability - offered in Florida, most people don’t realize they can grow here Other - Excellent specimen plants. A number of the Cuban species with large leaves should be tried more in the Valley. The blue forms are really nice


Dypsis decaryi Triangle palm

Single medium sized feather palm with upwardly curved grey leaves arranged in a triangular pattern (Madagascar) Cold resistance - not high, the leaves can damage in a freeze, the trunks can resist a few more degrees. Not reliable anywhere in Texas Drought - moderate Salt - acceptably tolerant Coast - can survive on the Island away from the winds Wind - fair resistance Light - sun Growth rate - moderate Availability - common Other - the unusual triangular arrangement of the leaves give the palm a rather weird appearance, though some people love the look


Dypsis lutescens Areca palm

Very tropical clustering feather palms with yellowish stems and light yellow green leaves (Madagascar) Cold resistance - very tender, any freeze can hurt the leaves though old plants may recover from the root after colder weather in the Lower Valley Drought - moderate at best Salt - should be decent Coast - should tolerate minimal exposure Wind - mostly good resistance Light - part sun to sun Growth rate - slow to moderate Availability - very easy to find Other - Often used since it is easy to buy, but too tender for general use here. Cold damaged plants recover slowly


Hyphaene coriacea Doum palm, Gingerbread palm

Single, clumping or even branching medium fan palms with dramatic, stiff grey-green to grey leaves (Africa to India) Cold resistance - the leaves only resist light freezes but the trunks on some species are hardy enough for use in deep South Texas Drought - good Salt - high resistance Coast - most species should tolerate light exposure Wind - good resistance Light - sun Growth rate - slow to moderate Availability - difficult to find in South Texas, a collector’s item Other - Some species in Africa and India will branch but this has not been seen yet on plants here in Texas. H. coriacea rarely branches but is probably the best species for here. Other species also grow here


Livistona chinensis Chinese fan palm

Single, medium fan palms with beautiful bright green fan leaves with drooping tips (China)


Cold resistance - quite hardy from Corpus and south, the leaves may burn in severe cold but plants recover Drought - moderate, best with irrigation Salt - moderately tolerant Coast - very minimal exposure is tolerated Wind - good resistance, looks best with some protection Light - shade to part sun, full sun is tolerated in coastal counties Growth rate - slow (but attractive when young) Availability - easy to find, best grown from containers. They make a stunning weeping curtain of leaves if planted in a tight row. The hard to find variety subglobosa is nearly identical but appears to be faster growing

Livistona decipiens Fountain palm, ribbon palm

Medium large fan palm with dark green, deeply divided fan leaves which give a shredded appearance (Coastal Queensland, Australia) Cold resistance - generally hardy in South Texas, some plants were lost in the 1980s but many survived in the Lower Valley Drought - moderate, best with irrigation Salt - moderate Coast - some exposure is apparently tolerated Wind - good resistance Light - light shade to sun Growth rate - moderate, faster with irrigation Availability - not common but available in South Texas. A number of other livistonas have a similar appearance but are usually not as hardy. It has recently been renamed L. decora by some botanists


Livistona mariae Central Australian cabbage palm

Rather large fan palm with waxy green fan leaves, which often have a red tinge when young (Central and Northern Australia) Cold resistance - somewhat sensitive to severe freezes, especially if wet. The variety rigida appears more tolerant and may be hardy enough for the Valley Drought - good, but best with some water in drought Salt - should be good Coast - unknown, probably at least moderately tolerant Wind - tolerates exposed positions Light - best in mostly full sun Growth rate - usually moderate, sometimes faster Availability - another uncommon palm sometimes seen in South Texas, it is mainly grown for the attractive young red leaves. L. mariae var rigida is probably a better choice due to its slightly higher cold tolerance


Livistona muelleri Dwarf Australian cabbage palm

Small to medium fan palm with a stiff but not unattractive appearance (Northern Australia) Cold resistance - reportedly one of the most tender of the livistonas, it is nevertheless thriving in the Lower Valley, though it’s not yet known whether it can tolerate a hard freeze. The leaves can be damaged in moderate cold Drought - should do fine once established Salt - not fully known, probably has good tolerance Coast - unknown, probably at least moderately tolerant Wind - tolerant of windy conditions Light - sun Growth rate - slow to moderate Availability - a local nurseryman has grown it for years in the field so it is surprisingly available for such a rare palm


Livistona nitida Carnarvon Gorge fountain palm

Eventually tall, vigorous fan palm with bright green leaves (Queensland, Australia)


Cold resistance - not fully tested but it appears to be one of the hardiest livistonas, should be cold hardy in the Valley and perhaps farther north as well Drought - moderate, grows better with water Salt - should have good tolerance Coast - unknown, but probably acceptable back from the beach Wind - exposed sites should not be a serious problem Light - sun to perhaps light shade Growth rate - one of the fastest livistonas here if irrigated Availability - rare, sometimes available from specialty nurseries Other - one of the most promising of the fountain palms for South Texas

Livistona saribus Cochin fountain palm, Taraw palm

Medium sized fan palm with strongly green fan leaves which have very large distinctive spines (China) Cold resistance - should be hardy enough for warm South Texas, especially the green-spined form Drought - low to moderate, it likes the water Salt - moderate? not tested much Coast - not likely to be high Wind - moderate, looks better with protection Light - shade when young, it can take full sun after a few years Growth rate - moderate, give enough water Availability - not common but available in South Texas. There is a form with red spines which is reputedly less hardy to cold


Palms for South Texas - I  

Guide to palms suitable for cultivation in South Texas

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