October 2014
The Magic of Gardening

Growing Palms in Alabama

This past winter took its toll on palms even down into central Florida, but we keep trying to grow them even where I live in North Alabama. We love them because palms and their "look-a-likes," the cycads, are beautiful plants that can add a tropical look to the landscape. We are certainly not in the right climate to grow a wide variety of palms outdoors, but there are a few of the hardy palms and cycads that the adventurous gardener may want to try. This is the time of year to talk to your local nurseries about what they will be able to get in the spring. If you have something special in mind, they can likely order what you want along with the other seasonal tropical plants they get for spring sales.

Needle palms are considered the cold hardiest of the palms. A well-established plant could take short periods of near 0 degrees temperatures. Needle palms are an understory palm with a natural clumping habit, but could also be grown as a specimen plant. The clump will reach about 5-10 feet high and about that same width. The best location would have some shade, especially in the afternoon, and a good, well-drained but moist soil.

Windmill palms or Chinese windmill palms are slightly less but still very cold-hardy specimen plants. These palms have a single trunk with fan shaped leaves similar to those found on the needle palms. If you see a fairly large palm in north Alabama, it is likely this palm. The growth rate is fairly rapid, growing up to 2 feet per season. Like most palms, it should be in a well-drained soil and supplied with plenty of moisture. The windmill palm will tolerate temperatures down to about 5 degrees if well-established and acclimated.

Dwarf palmetto is another hardy palm that looks like it has a clumping growth, but it does have a very short trunk that may be hidden near or under the soil line. It is smaller than the needle palm and has fan-shaped foliage that may be green to a bluish-gray. They will get about 4 feet high and they grow rather slowly. With a little winter protection, they would survive most winters in this area. They could be grown in a container and moved into an unheated area for the winter because they are difficult to transplant. Because of this difficulty, they would not fare well to dig and store each year.

  Cycads are not true palms. Pictured are cardboard palm/zamia furfuracea, Sago palm/cycas revolute and Coonti palm/zamia floridana (the only cycad native to the United States, found in south Florida). There is no cycad that can live outside in North Alabama, plant hardiness zone 7a.

The Pindo Palm or the Jelly Palm can tolerate temperatures slightly below 15 degrees for those in Central and South Alabama. It is the most common exotic palm grown in the Southeast. It has feathery foliage that is gray to blue-green and the fronds are often 6-8 feet long. They would likely require winter protection in most years. They will survive in extreme drought once established.

Cycads look very similar to palms and the most grown type in our area is actually called sago palm. Palms all produce fruit of some sort, but cycads produce cones. Sago "palm" is an evergreen with stiff fronds radiating out from its slow-growing trunk. You can grow a 3- to 5- foot plant in a few years if you have a large enough pot, but you may need to move it into an unheated garage or your house during the winter. They are very versatile and will do well in sun or shade. They are short and stocky, and will take a lot of wind abuse and still look very good. I saw a lot of severely damaged sago palms in Baldwin and Mobile counties after last winter’s cold weather.

Most of the other true palms are more suitable for summer use only in containers around a pool or patio, unless you live very near the coast. If you want to enjoy them for more than one year, you will need a large sunroom or greenhouse to overwinter them.

No matter which palms you choose, you need to fertilize them regularly. They can often become deficient in nitrogen, potassium, magnesium (Epsom salt) and manganese. Check your fertilizer bag or bottle and see if it contains micronutrients or buy one of the special palm formulations if you can find it.

For more information, you can check out the following web address:http://tinyurl.com/alabamapalms.

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.