April 23, 2009

Barbara Sparkman,
Victoria County Master Gardener

Edited by
Charla Borchers Leon
Victoria County Master Gardener
Various palms stage the setting in Master Gardener Barbara Sparkman's tropical landscape in Rockport. Of note is the large queen feather palm that towers over other colorful foliage.
Sitting under a swaying palm tree, sipping an exotic drink with a tiny umbrella in the glass, and to think you are in your back yard and not miles and miles away at a resort. Adding palms to your landscape can change the way you enjoy your outside space.

Factors to consider

There are, however, many factors to consider before digging a hole and planting a palm. Of course, location, how big will the palm get? Suitability to the climate is another factor - we are lucky in the Victoria area that there are many varieties of palms that thrive in our moderate climate. Another consideration is how to integrate palms into your landscape design so they make an interesting addition. Finally, understanding care and pruning of palms before you begin purchasing palms.


There are more than 2,500 species of palms. Palms are divided into two types based on leaf shape: fan palms (palmate) and feather palms (pinnate). Examples of fan type palms that do well in this area are the Texas sabal (or palmetto), the Mexican fan palm, Chinese and California fan palms.

Examples of feather palms are the Pygmy date palm, the queen palm, the Canary Island date palm and the fox tail palm.

The Sago palm has feathery leaves, but is actually a cycad and not a palm. Cycads are related to the cone bearing conifers and have changed very little from their origin in the Mesozoic era over 200 million years ago.


A common mistake made in planting palms is underestimating how big they will get and how fast they will grow. A small Canary Island date palm planted in a bed near a house, will quickly out grow its home. A Canary Island date palm will grow up to 60 feet tall, with large, arching, pinnate leaves that may reach 18 feet long. This palm is a stunning massive plant and will be a beautiful focal point when placed in the correct setting.

Master Gardeners have planted a Canary Island date palm i in the corner of the tropical garden at the Victoria Educational Gardens. Other palms can be viewed at this tropical garden including queen palms, Chinese fan palm, triangle palm and pygmy date palms.


Integrating palms into your landscape design requires some planning. Using a variety of palms makes for a more interesting landscape than using several of the same kind of palm. Thinking of taller varieties that will eventually form a canopy leaves room for mid-size and smaller companion plants that will thrive under the filtered light.


Palms, unlike other plants, can be transplanted during the warm months of the year, without much shock to the plant. And, since they don't have extensive tap roots, but more of a fibrous root system, they are relatively easy to transplant. The only hindrance is their size. When they are big, they are heavy. But they can still be transplanted with machines for tree planting.

Many large palms have been transplanted around the Victoria area with much success. You usually have to stake the tree if it is very tall and subject to wind blowing around it. Good examples of large palms being moved are those being transplanted to the resort developments being built in the Port O'Connor area.


Finally, check with your nursery experts to find the exact sunlight, moisture and feeding requirements for the individual species you are purchasing. Although palms are a low-maintenance tree, once your palms are planted, care must be taken with pruning to promote the health of your palm. It is easy to get carried away while trimming palms and eventually taking off too many fronds. Actually, the only fronds that should be removed are the ones that are dying. As each new leaf opens, it will take the place of one that is dying. The palm knows how many fronds it needs to be healthy.

Mature fronds provide food for developing fronds, flowers, roots and reserves for the trunk of the palm. Removing too many fronds may weaken the palm and slow its growth, as nutrients fronds may have produced for the rest of the tree are lost. Some nutrients move from old leaves to newer leaves as they die, so more nutrients are lost if too many of the leaves are removed. Never prune off more leaves in one year than the palm has made in that time, unless the palm has been neglected and old, dead fronds from previous years are still attached.

It is a good idea to remove palm flowers and seed stalks. The formation of them uses nutrients that could be contributing to the tree's strength. Seeds can be messy, attract pests and can germinate in places you don't want them.

You may also remove the petioles (the boots left around the trunk where a frond had been attached). Remove them by hand but only if they come off easily. You don't want to damage the trunk.

Take advantage of our nice climate, consider adding palms to your landscape and enjoy.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at