For Greater Diversity, Think Palms

Needle palm. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

About 10 years ago, a sudden yearning for some palm trees appeared out of the blue, hitting me hard. I think what drove me was the dawning realization that I had far too many small-leafed plants in my garden, that I badly needed contrast.

It turns out that the Triangle region supports three different kinds of palms: The windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), the needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) and the dwarf palmetto, commonly known as Sabal minor. All three now reside in sunny areas in my garden, giving me great enjoyment, all for different reasons.

The hardiest palm of the three is the needle palm, Rhapidophyllum hystrix. Don’t let the scientific name fool you as this is a slow-growing palm. In fact, “Rhapidophyllum” has nothing to do with speed but means “needle-leaf” whereas “hystrix” refers to a porcupine genus. Bearing sharp spines at their base, needle palms are not palms one can comfortably fall into.

Plant it now and then wait a number of years for it to make its statement. Taking its time to establish its adult 6’ x 6’ size, this southeastern native requires little attention once established. One caveat: It should be planted where it can be admired from all sides. This is not an appropriate palm to situate against a house or wall.

Another southeastern native, Sabal minor, on the other hand, looks wonderful set against a house. Whereas the windmill palms and needle palms are specimen plants that require no companions, Sabal minors look best if they are planted in a group. One traditional method is to plant them around a tall pine tree. Just remember to plant them in a grouping if you want them to show off.

Lacking a visible stem, Sabal minors will appear to do little in the first two years after planting. During this period, they are concentrating on growing a vertical stem downwards into the soil rather than upward toward the sky. As a result, the fronds appear to emerge from the ground whereas in reality they are attached to the underground stem. Once planted, they will require regular good waterings during that first growing season before taking off.

There is one problem concerning Sabal minors. While they give an attractive irregular shape to the garden, thereby catching one’s eye, they also bear rather unappealing flowers attached to long thick stalks in June. When these long stalks first appeared, I was rather flattered, thinking I had done a good job as a palm parent. However, the flowers bear fertile seeds, seeds that scatter throughout the garden. Two years later you will discover seedlings that have to be dug up, not pulled out, due to their underground growth pattern. My advice is to cut off the long stalks that appear in June before the flowers cast forth their seeds.

Windmill palm. Photo by Kit Flynn.

The native Chinese windmill palm does well in the Triangle. This single-trunk palm will eventually get to 40’ in height but that will take several decades. It’s a long-lasting palm, living to 70-80 years. Requiring very little care, this is a palm that makes a statement. Interestingly enough, I planted one that was 6’ high along with one that was 2½’ high at the same time. The smaller one is now approximately 20’ high whereas the larger one is a mere 15’ high for reasons I do not understand.

Palms do not provide the instant gratification that all gardners occasionally crave. These plants require regular watering during their first year and sporadic watering during their second year. Then you can forget them until that marvelous day when you suddenly turn around and see them with new eyes. Windmill palm fronds covered in snow is a wondrous sight.

Once the palm craze hits you, you probably will be tempted to experiment, thinking that with global warming, those palms growing happily in South Carolina would look wonderful in your garden. Once, while visiting the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, I spied a Mediterranean fan palm near one of the buildings. It was gorgeous – and I was overcome with lust. I planted a rather large one, mothered it, admired it and paid it huge compliments until the weather fell to 19° that January. The other palms sailed through but my Mediterranean fan palm died, thereby instantly killing my dreams of palm glory.

Finding palms here is not always easy. Plant Delights has a good selection of Sabal minors and windmill palms. Camellia Forest has offered windmill palms on occasion. A quick search on the internet found some nurseries carrying needle palms.

Want to change some of the texture in your garden? Think palms! I’ve never looked back.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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2 Comments on "For Greater Diversity, Think Palms"

  1. Why don’t you promote native plants?

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