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By Keith Fuller
Photos by Addison Fitzgerald
When thinking of coastal Florida, tropical trade winds, white sandy beaches and palms swaying in the breeze generally come to mind. Palm trees are a sign of the tropics and a novelty to many who visit this area. To newcomers, a palm tree, an orange tree, and a plastic pink flamingo are declarations that they are ready to embrace southern latitudes and attitudes!
Palm trees have benefitted humans for eons. Today, we use them to express southern style. In the past, they provided humans with essential materials of life. Palm fronds and palm logs were used in shelter construction. Fish nets and ropes were made from palm fibers. Mats, baskets and hats were created from woven leaves. Some palms yield cooking oil or edible fruit. It is the bud of a palm that is the main ingredient in Hearts of Palm Salad.
People have their palm preferences, based primarily on leaf shape. Two basic leaf forms are either palm-shaped or feather-shaped. Palm-shaped fronds resemble a hand with fingers spread wide apart. Feather-leaf palms have longer fronds that resemble the outline of a bird’s feather.
Another characteristic of palms is that they are either solitary or cluster types. A solitary palm will have only one trunk, while cluster palms send up side shoots to form a clump.
There are several different ways to utilize palm trees in the landscape. They can serve as specimen trees, provide screening, frame a building, or be enjoyed in containers both inside and outside the home. No matter how they are used, their inclusion in a design provides a tropical touch.
Specimen palms make a statement in the landscape. Because they are usually solitary types, they can be pricey. Canary Island Date palms, Wild Date palms, Pygmy Date palms and Medjool Date palms are all related and are in the plant genus Phoenix. The Canary Island Date palms that grace the front of the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine are some best-noted local specimen palms.
The silvery-grey tone of the Bismarck palm makes it a stand-out specimen in any landscape. Its scientific name is Bismarckis nobilis, and it is surely a noble-looking palm.
The Bismarck palm develops palmate fronds that can reach several feet in diameter. This recent introduction to Florida landscapes needs plenty of room, as it can reach a spread of 20 feet.
For a single-family home, the Pindo, or Jelly palm, can be an ideal specimen or framing tree, since it matures to a height of 20 feet. Its small size and cold hardiness make it a wise choice for local landscapes.
Pindo palms have feather-like fronds which tend to have a bluish cast to them. They are also called Jelly palms, since they bear edible fruit which can be eaten fresh, used in sorbet, or cooked into jelly.
Our state tree is the Cabbage or Sabal palm. It grows in swamps, sand dunes, forested areas—just about anywhere in Florida. Because it is native to St. Augustine, it is an iconic palm in the area. It is ideal for coastal planting due to its resistance to strong winds, salt spray, and drought.
Why have a sheared hedge when you can use the clumping Chinese Fan palm to create a tropical privacy screen? Its drooping fronds remain low to the ground, grow several feet in diameter, and provide plenty of privacy. Start with small fan palms planted several feet apart and allow them to grow into the space. It doesn’t get more tropical than a yard screened by palms.
Got shade? Then consider the Lady palm. It is a clumping palm with small leaves and is ideal for container planting or in a shaded corner of the landscape. It generally grows to 10 feet or less in height, so it is a palm to make space for in your collection.
Include a touch of the tropics with palm trees. Use them indoors, on the deck or patio, or in the landscape to express your own southern style.