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"Hardy" Palms

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This page gives a list of some palms which I have seen described as hardy, with comments about their form as well as their reputed hardiness.:

Contents of this page:

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Trachycarpus fortunei

This palm (known variously as Chusan, Chinese, windmill or fan palm) has a head of fan shaped leaves at the top of a very hairy trunk. On the young tree in my garden the leaves are about 30-31 inches wide and 19 inches long, on stiff 21 inch leaf stems. The leaves are rather susceptible to wind damage. It likes moderately warm conditions, plenty of moisture and a rich soil. I have seen specimens over 20 feet tall in two different localities in the London area, but I think they are more attractive when somewhat smaller.

Many authorities regard this as the hardiest true palm (it is generally accepted that it is the hardiest trunk forming palm), and it is the only one at all widely grown in Britain. It is common in public parks around the south west coastal areas of England and is also grown in south west Scotland. The Royal Horticultural Society is widely regarded as the ultimate fount of all wisdom on horticultural matters in Britain, and its "Gardeners' Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers" classifies it as hardy down to -5C (23F). (The book has only 4 categories: tender, down to 0C (32F), down to -5C (23F) and down to -15C (5F)). Huw Collingbourne, who grows it in north Devon, England, claims it can take -15C or lower, and says it has been known to survive -20C. Richard Woo, in Canada, rates it the third hardiest palm and puts it in the category that can take 5F to 10F. Leonard Holmes, in Virginia says it loses its leaves below 10F and is killed below 5F. Mine is still thriving (22nd December 1997) following our coldest January for 10 years and snow again earlier this month (132,822 byte picture).

This is the plant I would recommend as the key feature for any exotic garden in the southern half of Britain (and perhaps beyond) other than the mildest parts of Cornwall where more tender plants will thrive. The alternatives are either less effective or less reliably hardy. These photos (total of 114,401 bytes) give some idea what it looks like.

Trachycarpus wagneriensis

This is considered by many to be merely a variety of fortunei rather than a separate species. It is very similar, but has somewhat smaller, stiffer leaves. This means it is less prone to wind damage, but I would think (I haven't seen it) a little less attractive.

Rhapidophyllum hystrix

Generally known as the needle palm, this probably is really the world's hardiest palm. Since it has no trunk, I consider it inferior in appearance to Trachycarpus fortunei for use in areas such as Britain, but well worth while in colder areas where the latter is unreliable. The leaves are not dissimilar to Trachycarpus, but start just above the ground. In time it will spread sideways by suckering, but so far as I know has no tendency to be invasive.
Mark Glicksman is the expert on this plant and his web page includes photos of it and cultural tips.

The RHS book does not list it, so no guidance on hardiness is available there. Huw Collingbourne says it will stand -15C (5F) or lower. Richard Woo rates it the hardiest, capable of surviving 0F to -5F (-18C to -20C)! Leonard Holme also gives this temperature, but for established plants, and adds that it likes warm summers. It may well be that it is less hardy in Britain, where summers are cooler and winters wetter, than in Philadelphia or Canada.

Nannorrhops ritchiana

Another shrubby palm with fan shaped leaves, probably second only to Rhapidophyllum hystrix for hardiness and similar to it in other ways. It is less well-known than either Rhapidophyllum or Sabal minor. Richard Woo puts it in the same temperature range as the former, but Leonard Holme more cautiously says 0F when established.

Sabal minor

Yet another shrubby fan palm, similar to Nannorrhops ritchiana for hardiness but needs heat in summer. However, the RHS book quoted above says it needs a minimum temperature of 5C (41F). It also quotes a height of about 3 feet and says it is prone to attack by red spider mite. Richard Woo puts it in the range 0F to 5F, and Leonard Holmes also says it can stand 0F when established. This major difference of opinion could again be a result of the difference between Britain and inland north America in terms of summer heat and winter wet. The RHS says it needs good drainage, but David Pruitt tells me he recently (January 2002) saw this thoroughly disproved. He tells me this "native population of Sabal minor (is) growing just east of Arkadelphia Arkansas. That is in USDA zone 7. The soil is a heavy yellow/ brown clay nearly devoid of any organic matter. ... there are no palms on the small, approximately 4 foot rise yet they cluster tightly along the stream. You can see a few completely submerged." This palm has sprays of small white flowers followed by shiny black berries.

Chamaerops humilis

The European fan palm is also a shrubby, fan leaved type. It is a little less hardy than Trachycarpus fortunei, but is less prone to damage from strong winds because its leaves are stiffer. It has a single very short stem when young, and grows additional stems with age. It grows five feet high and the same across, and has tiny yellow flowers in summer.

The RHS book classifies it as standing 0C (32F). Huw Collingbourne says it can take -10C (14F), and this is also in Britain. Richard Woo classifies it with Trachycarpus fortunei in the 5F to 10F range. Leonard Holmes gives no temperature range for it except to say it is rated as a zone 8 palm. He also says it likes dryish winter soil and gives it very well drained conditions "as for a cactus bed".

Butia capitata

This is (one of) the hardiest of the feather-leaved palms, those with the graceful fronds six feet or more in length, clothed for most of that length in leaflets. The feather leaved palms, certainly in my view, look considerably more exotic than those with fan shaped leaves, but unfortunately they are generally less hardy. This species, known as the Jelly palm, certainly makes a magnificent tree with glaucous arching fronds if you can grow it successfully for the many years it takes to grow to full size.

The RHS book, however, says it needs a minimum temperature of 5C (41F). Huw Collingbourne says it can stand -10C (14F), not significantly different from Leonard Holmes who says it is often killed below 10F. Richard Woo puts it in the 10F to 15F category.

Andrew Withey, who grows it in his garden in Reading, says it is "probably hardy to about -10C. I wrap my specimen up well during winter as I have found that, whilst the plant does not seem to mind them, hard frosts cause unsightly spots on affected fronds".

I may be tempted to try it if the Phoenix fails (see next item).

Phoenix canariensis

The Canary Island date palm is another relatively hardy feather-leaved palm, which I am told can withstand -5C (23F) when mature. There is a large specimen (by the standards of outdoor palms in UK - I would guess from memory about 15-20 feet tall, maybe more) in the grounds of The Palm Centre not far Hampton Court, west London.

Small specimens were widely available in ordinary shops around here during summer 2000, so compared with most palms they were cheap to buy. I tried a larger specimen from a nursery and planted it in a raised bed with added grit. During the winter I tied the fronds together and wrapped it in several layers of fleece to protect the growing point from frost. We had an exceptionally wet, mild autumn and winter, so much so that at one time it was standing in water. In spring the younger, central fronds rotted at the base, leading me to think it had drowned, but in late summer it produced several new ones. This winter (2001-2) I have left it unwrapped to encourage air flow in the centre - of course we have had a drier, colder winter so far!

Other palms

There are numerous other palms for which degrees of hardiness are claimed, but which I do not intend to discuss here because I doubt if they would prove capable of survivng in the open in most parts of Britain outside Cornwall. The longest list I have seen, from which I have quoted some figures above, is that compiled by Richard Woo and published on the net by
Huw Collingbourne.

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