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Splendor in the palms: In Florida, there's palm variety for every property.

TROPICAL DREAMS ARE OFTEN framed with swaying coconut palms. And in Florida, where the state tree is the sabal palm, at least 11 palm species are native and countless others have been introduced, palms have become an indispensable part of the landscape.

"Palms are sculptural elements," says Kristen Sena Petry, landscape architect with Stephen J. Trudnak Landscape Architecture in Bonita Springs. "By virtue of the variety of forms that palms take they have different landscape uses. Single-trunk palms, especially the smooth-trunked ones like the royal, tend to fit with a formal look. A less formal design, but visually interesting, would be a group of sabal palms clustered in varying heights. I never think of the palm's color as being its main attribute. To me, it's really the form and whether it lends itself to a more formal or informal look."

Palms can be focal points, as in a towering cluster set in an area to be admired, or they can draw the eye to a focal point. While Petry has a penchant for strong statements--an alley of palms leading to the regal entrance of an estate, for example--she's not a believer in the showy or contrived. "This technique guides the eye and can be very dramatic and formal, but also natural. It's a beautiful effect."

Many smaller palms used in garden arrangements can eventually grow tall. "Thatch palms are terrific candidates for small, decorative uses," explains Petry. "You get a lot of bang for your buck when you put a thatch palm in a pot." The Florida thatch palm, Thrimax radiata, is a hearty plant with no major pest or disease vulnerabilities, which will grow in full sun and partial shade and tolerate a variety of soils. This palm can eventually grow to 15 or 20 feet, but maybe not for 20 years or more. "I tell my clients that trees in a pot are like fish in a bowl' she says. "They can only use the resources that are there. A slow--growing palm tree can live happily in a pot for a very long time."

And there are palms that grow tall in a relatively short time. The Washingtonia robusta, commonly known as the Washingtonia palm, is the tallest of the hardier palms, reaching heights of 70 to 100 feet and sometimes falling victim to a bolt of lightning. "A lot of the builders use Washintonias because they look good right away," says Petry. "You can use them like sabal palms, in clumps at the corner of a building to anchor the setting. But what happens is that within five years the Washingtonias can become way too tall, whereas the sabal palm is slow-growing."

So important is the palm to the Florida landscape that a thriving palm tree industry is in our midst, with large commercial nurseries on Pine Island and in Loxahatchee and Homestead.

At Soaring Eagle nursery on Pine Island, almost 80 percent of the plants on its 300 acres are palms, according to Rad Hazen, general manager. "The thing with palms is that you have to think about the climate on your property before making an investment;' says Hazen. "In Naples, west of Interstate 75, we can grow coconut palms. Do not risk planting one if you live in North Fort Myers."

Many exotic palms considered rare not too long ago are now widely cultivated, thanks to the avid interest of commerical-growers and collectors alike. One extremely popular but lesser known palm is the foxtail, Wodyetia bifurcata. The common name of this attractive palm is derived from the full appearance of the circular arrangement of its pinnate leaves. Little known before the last few years, the foxtail is now everywhere.

Almost 20 years ago, John Henning, a palm enthusiast, received foxtail seeds from a friend who had visited Australia. Today the healthy plant is taller than much of his collection. "When I received that, it was unknown in cultivation. It wasn't really discovered until recently and that was by accident, when people flying over a remote area of Australia saw a strange palm, landed their plane and found an entire colony Everyone has it now because it's so easy to grow."

While Henning's interest in horticulture has been with him since childhood, his fascination with palms began in his early teens, when he first came to Naples. After buying a home in Old Naples in 1972, he cleared the existing shrubbery and began growing orchids, bromeliads, staghorn ferns and palms. "I knew that I wanted to create a jungle effect,' he says. "I like the privacy of it, the coolness of it."

Henning's garden is a virtual palm world with more than 350 species from such places as Tahiti, Borneo, New Caledonia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, to name just a few. Like the foxtail, many of his palms, including a gorgeous, towering Bismarkia nobilis from Madagascar that he began growing from a seedling 20 years ago, were rare when he first found them but can now be seen throughout the area. To offer his heartier palms a toehold in the local landscape, he gives seedlings to friends, neighbors and members of the Palm and Cycad Society of Southwest Florida.

With close quarters on his 75-by-100-foot lot and a growing collection, Henning decided to plant a number of jungle palms, which thrive in shade. The Rhapis, commonly known as the lady palm, fits into this category. While these multicane fan palms are often planted in pots for ornamental uses, they grow well outdoors, in clusters that make convenient privacy walls. "They're very drought-tolerant and coldhearty," he says. "To me it is the ideal palm. Once it's established, it doesn't need to be watered and it doesn't seem to have any enemies yet. They look terrific under all conditions."

Because of the rarity of many of his palms and the cost of acquiring a large collection on a small budget, almost all have been grown from seed, often from the seed bank of the International Palm Society. Finding uncommon plants takes determination. "Nurseries in general do not have the time, space or inclination to grow rare palms," he explains. "There's no money in it. When you're growing these plants, you're dealing with something that's very delicate, very slow-growing and often has to be protected or green--housed."

Some ways to find uncommon palms are to trade seeds and seedlings with other aficionados and to attend palm shows at botanical gardens like Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coral Gables.

"Once you get into palms, if you get hooked, you're hooked," says Henning. "When you have a collection of exquisitely beautiful plants, and they also provide you with shade and privacy, that's wonderful."



ONCE YOU REALIZE THE MANY VARIETIES OF palms growing in Southwest Florida, the subtle differences in similar plants, the global origins and the possibilities for cultivation of uncommon species, you just might want to learn more. Here are some references for furthering your palm studies:


The International Palm Society, founded in 1950, has more than 3,000 members and several affiliated chapters, including The Palm and Cycad Society of Southwest Florida, with more than 70 members. The group meets on the fourth Saturday of even-numbered months (except December) at 10a.m., usually at a local garden.Visit for a comprehensive overview.


A beautifully landscaped botanical garden renowned for education, horticulture, research and conservation since 1938. In Coral Gables, this 83-acre tropical paradise has an extensive collection of 3,700 palms and each year hosts the world's largest palm show and sale. Call (305) 667-1651 or visit


This book by Don and Anthony Ellison provides the most comprehensive photographic reference to palms in cultivation.
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Author:Smart, Mary Lou
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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