by Robert Riffle and Richard Travis
© 1999 Robert Riffle and Richard Travis
Reproduced with permission from the Palm Society of South Texas bulletin
|The purpose of this article is to familiarize the southern Texas palm lover with
species which the authors feel are underutilized or nearly unknown in the region but
deserve either greater exposure and/or trial. The word "trial" in the preceding
sentence is important as some of the subjects discussed herein have never been grown
outdoors in southern Texas -- or at least we can find no evidence of their having been.
The text is divided into three sections: 1) palm species that are known (often well known) to thrive in south Texas but are ones we feel need to be even more widely planted because of their ease of culture and/or their beauty; 2) species which we have reasons to believe might do well in this climate and are otherwise worthy of trial cultivation; 3) palms that are marginally hardy in far south Texas but are so desirable that their cultivation warrants consideration, with the proviso that they may sometimes have to be replaced.
We should point out that the area under consideration consists of the "coastal bend" of the Texas coast from Corpus Christi southwards to Brownsville, northwestwards to Laredo and, from that city, a line drawn northeastwards to Corpus Christi encompasses the rest of the inland region. This is roughly the area of Texas in the U.S.D.A. growing zones 9b and 10a.
|Acoelorraphe wrightii (Paurotis palm,
everglades palm) is widespread over much of the Caribbean and Central America,
extending as far north as the Florida Everglades. This thickly clumping palm is fairly
available in Valley nurseries, but is not especially popular in local gardens for some
reason. It is easily grown in South Texas, though it can freeze to the ground in extremely
low temperatures (recovery is good the next year). This palm has a reputation as a
big-time water lover; indeed, it can grow in quite swampy areas, but I have seen several
thriving specimens in the Valley which get only ordinary care at best. Paurotis is
invaluable as a tall screen since the clumps get so dense. I can't think of any other
reliable hedge in the Valley which provides such a tropical effect.
Acrocomia aculeata (MACAW PALM / GRU-GRU PALM / COROJO [ko-RO-ho] PALM and TOTAI [to-TAH-ee] PALM) is a variable (in form), solitary-trunked and pinnate-leaved species from a large area of tropical America. Its variability of form is expressed mainly in its trunk height and whether or not the trunk bears adherent old leaves and leafbases. This changeability of trunk form ranges from a clean but spiny -- especially in the younger (upper) parts -- white stem (usually with a slight bulge somewhere above its middle) to one that is partially hidden (especially in its younger parts) by adherent old, dead and spiny fronds, the rest of the trunk exhibiting adherent leafbases except near the bottom. In the past the shorter leaved specimens were known as A. totai, while trees with the longer more graceful leaves were called A. mexicana. (If you're confused, wait for this: the name Acrocomia armentalis was formerly applied to a group of palms with the relatively new generic name, "Gastrococos." These trees (Gastrococos) bear a striking resemblance to those of A. aculeata froms with non-adherent old leaves and leafbases, being distinguished outwardly from Acrocomia specimens mainly by the much more pronounced bulge in the upper parts of the their trunks!)
The gru-gru or macaw palm has a large and magnificently beautiful crown of great plumose, beautifully arching, dark green leaves, the overall visual effect being that of a spiny and more robust queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) -- the ones with adherent leaves and leafbases with a wilder and more dramatic look.
The species is quite adaptable in its soil requirements, thriving on the oolitic limestone "soil" of southern Florida as well as the more fertile ones of southern Texas. Depending on the provenance of any given specimen (i.e., its particular part of the wide-ranging native habitat) it is hardy to at least the mid 20s, sometines to 20”F. It looks and does best with full sun and is drought tolerant but, of course, looks better and grows best with regular and adequate amounts of water.
Allagoptera arenaria (SEASHORE PALM) The species is fairly rare in cultivation -- anywhere -- because it is still hard to find; but it is one that is so easy of culture in this region that all members should find a source, order it and grow it. It very seldom has a visible trunk because the stem is almost always short and does not rise above the surface of the soil. Some of the literature indicates that the species is clumping but this is erroneous; what appear to be "clumps" are in reality groves of the palm. The inflorescences (flower clusters) bear both male and female flowers and fruit is formed readily and germinates easily and, if not dispersed by winds, tides or animals, results in sometimes extensive stands. Another reason the plants appear to cluster or clump is the fact that the growing tip of the stem (trunk) is often branched and, since it is underground, the plants look as though they sucker since each can have two crowns.
The total hight of the palm is about six feet. The leaves are pinnate (feather shaped) and plumose, with the dark green leaflets arising from the rachis (midrib) in clusters and, within each cluster, at different angles from the rachis.The petiole (the lower leaf stem beneath and before the commencement of the leaflets) is relatively long and the whole leaf is arched. The visual aspect created is that of a dark green queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) crown growing straight from the ground.
The seashore palm is so named because in its native habitat it grows along the coast of central and southern Brazil. It is quite tolerant of salinity and drought (the two characteristics very often go hand in hand) and it grows, of course, in very sandy soil. It is intolerant of complete shade and thrives only with at least half a day's sun. Its only fault is that it a fairly slow grower.
Arenga engleri (FORMOSA PALM / DWARF SUGAR PALM) is a fairly common species in cultivation in the area -- but not common enough in our opinion, being one of the finest landscape subjects for the region and very tropical looking. It is indigenous to the Riukyu islands of Japan and the island of Taiwan (Formosa).
This is a clustering palm with individual trunks that can grow to six feet, giving a total plant height of as much as 15 (or more) feet. There may be as many as 10 trunks to a given clump, each stem covered in a net of black fibers in its upper parts. Each trunk or stem is monocarpic which means that after it flowers and the fruits mature the stem starts dying. The flowering/fruiting process for each stem takes a couple of years and the good news in a landscaping sense is that there are always new trunks forming.
The leaves of older plants may be six to eight feet long, those of younger plants are two to four feet long. They are pinnate and the leaflets spring from the rachis (midrib of the leaf) in a flat plane. Each five to eight-inch long, olive to dark green leaflet is linear but somewhat broader at its apex where it is jagged. There is often a slight twist to the leaf as a whole which gives a slight spiraling visual effect.
The Formosa palm needs a fairly rich, humusy and slightly acidic soil and is not drought tolerant, a regular and adequate supply of moisture being important. It thrives in part shade to full sun. This species grows reasonably quickly and a small plant can turn into a magnificent landscape subject in just a few years.
Attalea cohune (COHUNE PALM, COROZO) comes from a wide area of Mexico and Central America. This is the giant feather palm seen on much of the Mexican West Coast, from Tepic and southwards (plants from this area were formerly known as Orbignya guayacule but have since been lumped into A. cohune).
The cohune seems better adapted here than the Gulf Coast Attalea butryacea (formerly Scheelea liebmanii). This is not totally unexpected since the Pacific has a more pronounced dry season than the humid Veracruz coast. In South Texas, the cohune has not developed a trunk but grows giant leaves in excess of 20 feet which come straight out of the ground. Since the growing point stays below soil level, the plants have proven hardy in freezes, simply regrowing leaves after a cold winter. Several cohunes in Daytona Beach have in fact remained trunkless for nearly 50 years.
This species is more attractive in the trunkless state than A. butryacea, which tends to get tattered, rather ratty looking leaves in windy areas (that would include the Valley). The leaves on cohune do not seem to get beat up or brown quite as badly.
Brahea armata (BLUE HESPER PALM) is indigenous to the Baja California peninsula and coastal area of the state of Sonora in Mexico. It is a fairly familiar landscape subject in southern Texas that, like the above entry, we feel needs to be planted even more widely because of its color and form.
The blue hesper is slow growing and difficult to transplant after it has formed much trunk, which facts are one reason it is not more prevalent anywhere in Texas; but its leaf crown is full and glorious and the wonderful color of those leaves varies from a light bluish green to almost a pure, silvery light blue -- a truly striking and dramatic part of the landscape which is evident in quite small specimens.
The inflorescences (flower clusters) of Brahea armata are also most impressive, consisting of great arching stems arising from and bursting out of the center of the leaf crown, some of these stems reaching as much as 10 feet in length which, in palms with as much as eight feet of trunk, can nevertheless touch the ground. The stems bear large pendent clusters of creamy white bisexual flowers.
The most important cultural consideration for the blue hesper is good drainage. It thrives in the soil types of south Texas and wants a sunny exposure.
There is a form of B. armata that, according to the taxonomy of Andrew Henderson in Feild Guide to the Palms of the Americas (Princeton Univ. Press, 1995) is synonymous with Brahea clara. This form has a more slender trunk than that of the type and leaf segments that are more pendent and usually not as silvery in color. Because of the weeping effect of the leaf divisions it is a very worthwhile landscape subject. It is reportedly more tolerant of humidity.
Brahea brandegeei (SAN JOSE HESPER PALM) has nearly the same natural distribution as does B. armata and is just about as hardy, with similar cultural requirements. It is not quite as spectacular in the landscape as B. armata, having leaves that are not as silvery on their upper surfaces and inflorescences that are not as large; but it grows somewhat taller and faster growing -- and is definitely more at home in south Texas humidity than is B. armata. There is a hybrid with B. edulis which should also do well here (moreso than "straight" B. edulis, which seems to languish in South Texas).
Brahea dulcis (ROCK PALM) has a wider natural distribution than any other Brahea species, one which extend from elevated regions of northeastern Mexico, down into Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, and up the western coast of Mexico. Because of its wide distribution there are a number of slightly differing forms of the species, some of which have, in the past, been given a separate species status like B. bella, B. berlandieri, B. calcarea, B. conzattii and B. salvadorensis, the first synonym usually applied to the form indigenous to northeastern Mexico and, therefore, the one best adapted to the southern Texas climate and soils.
This is a stout-trunked palm that never forms more than 12 feet of stem. The leaves are light to medium green in color, almost round in outline, with slightly pendulous segments that extend about halfway to the leaf petiole (stem). It is not as breathtaking in the landscape as the larger and/or more colorful Brahea species but is nevertheless worth growing for the variety it gives to the south Texas palette of palm species. Culturally the plant needs the same conditions as does B. armata but is usually slower.
Brahea decumbens (no known English common name) is a most spectacular small palm from northeastern Mexico, and one of the hardiest. This is a clumping (or clustering) species whose trunks are reclining or totally prostrate, but always erect at their growing points. A single palnt can grow to as much as eight feet in height with a comparable width, but is usually no more than five feet high and wide. What is spectacular about the species is its leaf color: a true blue-gray. Each leaf is a two to three-foot wide half circle of stiff bluish segments that are quite glaucous (covered with an easily removed waxy bloom) on both sides.
Brahea decumbens is very drought tolerant, slow growing, not very particular as to soil type -- as long as it is not wet and poorly draining) and will thrive in part shade to full sun. It is wonderfully dramatic in the landscape and, because of its thicket forming habit, is one of the best possible subjects for covering ground with color and form. Unfortunately it is hard to come by.
Brahea moorei (no known English common name) grows farther north in northeastern Mexico than any other Brahea species and is likely to be the hardiest (to cold) of all the species. In addition -- and because of its normally underground short stems -- it will probably have an unusual propensity to resprout from freezes. Its worthiness for cultivation lies in its leaf color: a beautiful "chalky white" on the undersurface. The leaves are rather small, usualy only about two feet wide, with stiff and deeply cut segments. It is very drought tolerant, impartial to soil type as long as it is freely draining, and will grow in part shade or full sun.
Butia capitata (PINDO PALM / JELLY PALM) is fairly common in southern Texas, but not common enough. Its ornamental qualities are extraordinary, being one of the few pinnate (feather-shaped) leaved species whose leaves are colored -- in this case a light grayish green to an almost bluish gray in hue. In addition it has one of the most beautiful overall forms of any palm grown anywhere, with its long, stiff but wonderfully arching leaves whose leaflets grow upwards from the rachis. No other palm surpasses this one for the picturesque effect it makes when seen either against the sky or silhouetted against the basic green tints of most other vegetation. It is drought tolerant but can nevertheless (because of its monsoonal native habitat) endure short periods of flooding. It usually needs a humusy amendment in the alkaline soil of the Edwards Plateau, and sometimes in the rest of south Texas. It also needs at least half a day's sun to look its best.
Chamaedorea microspadix (BAMBOO PALM / HARDY BAMBOO PALM) is another fairly common and fairly obtainable palm that needs to be planted even more than it is. It is one of the hardiest of pinnate-leaved species, is small in stature will grow in almost total shade as well as nearly full sun. It is a small (to 8 feet) clumping or clustering species whose thin, ringed stems bear long (often almost three feet in length) leaves with widely spaced, limp and graceful leaflets that are a matte green in color. The little trunks are usually spaced rather far apart, which fact gives an open and airy appearance to the clump and the impression that many separate plants are planted rather than just one. Arguably the most desirable features of the species are the number, size, color and quantity of its fruits which mature in late fall to early winter to a bright and vibrant deep orange or red and which are carried in large and pendent clusters. The species is not terribly particular about the soil it's planted in but does best with prefers a humusy mix and it is not really drought tolerant. It grows moderately fast and, in short time makes a really beautiful small landscape subject that gives much needed form to the more gloomy areas of one's plantings.
Chamaedorea radicalis (DWARF BAMBOO PALM) is not so common a thing as is the hardy bamboo palm and it is often difficult to find, but is known by most palm fanciers. It is a variable (and, alas, slow growing), usually solitary-trunked species which may show no stem or one as much as 12 feet in height and, which rarely may even sucker or clump. Its leaves are even more beautiful and more tropical looking than those of C. microspadix and resemble those of a small, thin-trunked king palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) with an elegant little crownshaft.
The palm is possibly the most cold hardy of all the Chamaedorea species hailing as it does from the hills of northeastern Mexico and grows naturally farther north than even C. microspadix. Like the hardy bamboo palm, its branched and pendent clusters of fruit are extremely ornamental and are just as deep an orange or red in color, but are found at or near the surface of the soil in the non-trunking forms. The species wants some shade and protection from the hot midday sun of summer, needs soil soil amendments of humus in most of south Texas and is slightly drought tolerant. A planting of smaller specimens beneath and around larger ones -- especially if the latter form trunks -- makes a truly exquisite tableau of stem and leaf and color for shady spots; and this effect is enhanced if the form/the silhouette of these graceful creatures can be outlined against a contrasting background of differently colored vegetation or structures.
Chamaedorea seifrizii (BAMBOO PALM) is one of the most underused plants in all of South Texas. It is perplexing that this palm is not seen in every shady nook and cranny of Valley landscapes, given that it is so widely available in stores and nurseries. One of the reasons it does relatively well here is that is comes from limestone areas of the Yucatan peninsula, which can get quite dry away from the rainy season. Most plants will resprout from the ground following extreme cold, though there a few suspicious palms in the Valley (including one in my neighbor's yard) may have had at least some of their trunks survive the 1989 freeze.
Copernicia alba (CARANDAY PALM / CARANDē PALM) is indigenous to eastern Bolivia, extreme north-central Argentina, southwestern Brazil and almost the entire country of Paraguay, and is the only Copernicia species whose native habitat range is at all extra-tropical (southeastern Paraguay), all the others being native mostly to the Caribbean or, to a lesser extent, northern South America; thus it is definitely the hardiest (to cold) known Copernicia species. It is also one of the tallest in the genus, growing to as much as 100 feet in its native haunts, which are mainly grassy plains with a definite monsoonal (floods followed by drought) climate. The palm is exceedingly rare in cultivation in Texas, which is something of an anomaly since it is so choice a landscape subject. It should be almost perfectly hardy to cold in The Valley but is marginal in the rest of southern Texas, one planted in the Memorial Park "arboretum" in Houston succumbed to the cold winter of 1983 but had also been neglected and not cared for.
Guihaia argyrata (no known English common name) is native to southern China where it grows on limestone cliffs. This is a dwarf and clustering (or clumping) landscape subject with palmately segmented leaves whose outline is a complete circle. With age the short trunks produce at their apices sharp and nearly vertically oriented "needles," quite reminiscent of the much more widely known needle palm, Rhapidophyllum hystrix.
The most striking aspect of the palm is the undersides of these leaves, which are a gorgeous tan in color overlain with a bright and tangible white to silvery and chalky pubescence. It is still rare in cultivation but should be more readily available as its beauty becomes more widely known. The palm is probably drought tolerant because of the nearly vertical limestone cliffs upon which it lives in its native habitat; and this provenance also renders it tolerant (indeed, it enjoys) somewhat alkaline soil conditions. No one really knows just how hardy to cold this little gem is but plants in containers have survived a temperature of 24°F. in Houston at Grant Stephenson's Horticultural Consultants.
Livistona australis (AUSTRALIAN FAN PALM) is rather similar to the more widely planted Chinese fan palm, Livistona chinensis. The chief differences are: the Aussie fan palm is slightly faster and definitely taller growing; it has a ringed and notched trunk in older specimens, a characteristic lacking in older L. chinensis trees; the leaves of L. australis are almost always a deeper green -- often with a slight grayish cast -- and are slightly larger than are those of the Chinese fan palm; the leaf segments of L. australis are more deeply cleft and thinner than are those of the Chinese fan palms and they are more pendent or drooping, giving a definite "weeping" effect; the fruits of the Australian fan palm are slightly larger and are brown to black in color as opposed to those of L. chinensis which are blue. Australian fan palm is slightly less hardy to cold -- at least in this writer's experience -- than is the Chinese fan palm, but otherwise has the same cultural requirements: regular and adequate amounts of moisture, sun and a not too infertile soil with good drainage.
Livistona decipiens (RIBBON FAN PALM / WEEPING FAN PALM) is similar to L. australis, the main differences being that L. decipiens grows slightly faster but not as tall as L. australis, and the slightly large leaves are much more deeply divided and the segments thinner, creating the most weeping aspect of all the Livistona species, which is truly wonderful, and gives an almost shimmering curtain effect to the leaf crown. It has the same cultural requirements as the other two commonly planted Livistona species but is not quite as hardy to cold as is the Australian fan palm.
Livistona mariae (central Australian cabbage palm in Australia -- no commonly used American name) is distinguished from all other cultivated Livistona species by its very long leaf petioles, which give a beautiful, rounded and grand aspect to the crowns of older specimens. In addition to this wonderful landscape characteristic, the new foliage of young plants exhibit a beautiful reddish and bronzy purple cast. The palm is indigenous to the hot, dry interior of the Aussie continent and loves heat and sun and is not fussy about soil conditions if the drainage is unimpeded. But, in spite of its desert habitat, the species grows at and near natural springs and is, like almost every other palm species, not completely drought tolerant. It would seem a near perfect candidate for planting in the warmest parts of Texas as it can take only a few degrees of freezing temperatures. It seems especially vulnerable to "wet" cold.
Livistona rigida (no known common English name) is indigenous to northern Australia and is quite similar to L. mariae but is faster growing, and seems a little hardier to cold.
Livistona saribus (TARAW FAN PALM) is indigenous to a large region of the Asian tropics, including the Philippines, parts of Indonesia and Southeast Asia. It nevertheless is tolerant of some frost, being adaptable to the warmer parts of southern Texas, including Corpus. Overall this species is rather similar in appearance to L. australis but its trunk is more robust, it is faster growing and usually taller at maturity. The leaf petioles (stems) are possibly the spiniest in the genus, with wicked looking curved thorns, especially in younger plants; and there are at least two forms, one with green leaf stems (petioles) and one with beautiful cherry red to scarlet stems, the latter supposedly less hardy to cold than the former.
It is exceptionally -- almost breathtakingly -- beautiful and spectacular in the landscape, both as a young specimen and as a mature subject, and can not be too highly recommended. This species has the same cultural requirements (except for cold hardiness) as the Australian fan palm (Livistona australis). In South Texas it does best in wet shade, especially when small.
Nannorrhops ritchieana (MAZARI PALM) is native to desert and elevated regions of the Mideast and the Arabian peninsula. It is one of the world's most cold hardy palm species and, in nature, is covered for months at a time with snow in parts of its natural range. (The other candidate for most cold hardy is, of course, Rhapidophyllum hystrix from the southeast U.S.)
This is a clumping or clustering, fan-leaved (or palmate-leaved) species whose trunks may be subterranean or emergent, sometimes attaining heights of 15 or 18 feet -- one specimen at Fairchild Tropical Garden is about 18 feet wide and more than 12 feet tall. When emergent the trunks are seldom straight and erect but are almost always found snaking around the soil level, erect only at their tips.
This species is not recommended solely to add (in a collector's sense) another species grown in southern Texas -- indeed, it can now be found, but is rare almost everywhere -- but also because of its nearly unique beauty in the landscape, which is due mainly to the color of the leaves, which varies from a bluish green to outright silvery gray and silvery blue. Each leaf describes usually less than a semicircle in form and the segments are deeply cleft, stiff and narrow; some specimens exhibit an unusual and nearly startling limpness of the leaf segments which allows the ends of these segments to be pendulous and which gives an incredible weeping effect to the leaf mass -- there is one of these at the Montgomery Botanical Center in Miami that, to my mind, does not even look like a palm species but rather a fantastically colored giant Cordyline species, a mass of silvery drooping leaves from ground level to about 12 feet in height.
The mazari palm needs perfect drainage, seldom needs watering and is indifferent to almost all soil types except those that are poorly draining -- in fact the poorer the soil the better Nannorrhops seems to do. It also needs as much sun as possible and is, alas, quite slow growing.
Several decades ago there used to exist a nice fruiting specimen at the old Agricultural Experiment Station between Crystal City and Carrizo Springs in the Winter garden area. Sadly, it was reportedly dozed after the station was dismantled.
Phoenix reclinata (SENEGAL DATE), a common African palm, has for some reason never been widely grown in South Texas. With the coming of Lethal Yellowing (or something similar) to the Valley, this resistant species would seem like a logical choice for planting down here. The suckering growth habit also helps insure that the whole plant will not be lost in extreme cold. Most forms of this palm are attractive if a little spiny, and some are really nice. There is a particularly nice form, which may be a hybrid with another species (P. roebelenii?), that makes an especially graceful plant. Not surprisingly, there is considerable variation in the hardiness of the species.
Phoenix rupicola (CLIFF DATE) is native to parts of the Indian subcontinent. It is not as hardy to cold as the much more common Canary Island date and the true (edible) date palm, but is of exceptional beauty, having some of the gracefulness of a coconut palm. Nor is it as thorny as most of the other Phoenix species, the spines (modified leaflets) at the bases of the leaves (near the trunk) being relatively soft and not very long. The leaves are proportiantely as long as are those of the Canary Island date and the edible date, but the leaflets grow from the rachis in a nearly flat plane and are relatively limp and soft. It is the limpness and flatness of the otherwise typical Phoenix-like leaves that makes this such a graceful landscape subject. The species does not grow as tall and is not as robust as either the edible date or the Canary Island date, has a thinner and more delicate trunk that loses its leafbases more readily than either of the afore-mentioned species and has a full, rounded but smaller and more graceful crown of leaves. Its fruits are possibly more spectacular than those of any other Phoenix species because of their vivid orange to orange-red coloring. Its biggest drawback in Texas is that it is not as hardy to cold as either of the two most common species, being marginally safe only in the coastal parts of our region or in the "Magic Valley" itself. It also seems to prefer a better soil than the other two mentioned species and needs generally more water to stay in best condition (although it is drought tolerant); but it is eminently worthy of greater cultivation in the areas where it is safe, because of its great beauty -- definitely one of the most tropical looking Phoenix species.
Phoenix sylvestris (WILD DATE PALM / TODDY PALM) is indigenous to the drier parts of the Indian subcontinent. It is somewhat similar in appearance to the edible date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) but differs principally in its size (shorter), number of leaves in its crown (about 100 as opposed to less than half that number for P. dactylifera), leaf color (a deeper green, often with a bluish cast), in the fact that, unlike the edible date, it does not sucker or clump, and the color of its fruits (orange and purple). In overall appearance it can be compared to a stiffer (the leaflets are as stiff or stiffer than those of P. dactylifera and, unlike the Canary Island date, the leaflets are arranged in groups and, within each group, grow from different angles from the rachis) and somewhat more diminutive Canary Island date palm, with a truly wonderful and massive leaf crown; older specimens are a true prize in the landscape, one that can be planted in somewhat more intimate settings than can the very massive P. canariensis. This species has the same cultural requirements as the Canary Island date but is slightly less hardy to cold, at least in Texas, though this should not be a problem from the Coastal Bend on south. It's biggest drawback here is a likely vulnerability to lethal yellowing.
Rhapidophyllum hystrix (NEEDLE PALM) is native to southern Georgia and Alabama, extreme southeastern South Carolina, extreme southeastern Mississippi and all but the most southern region of the Florida peninsula. It is an endangered species in the wild, originally never that abundant in any given locality, and vastly underexploited as an ornamental/landscape subject. It is a clumping or suckering palm with very short or sometimes apparently non-existent trunks and usually no more than a total of three. The growing points are covered with fibers and a few very long and sharp gray to black, mostly upward pointing spines, which fact gives rise to both the common and botanical (scientific) names. The little palm has wonderful leaves that are long-petioled, with the leaf blade (lamina) forming a semicircle of very deeply divided yellowish green to dark green (mainly depending on how much sun it gets) segments that almost always exhibit a white or grayish midrib. It grows in sun or shade but looks its best, we think, in at least partial shade which makes the petioles even longer and the color of the leaves a deeper green. Individual plants can attain a height of about eight feet and a width of 12 or more feet. There are few small palms that are better suited to planting under a tree canopy. It is not very drought tolerant, but will survive such condition and it likes a fairly decent and humusy soil -- two requirements somewhat difficult to come by in most of southern Texas. Some consider this species to be the world's hardiest to cold; if it isn't it is definitely the second most hardy.
Rhapis excelsa (LADY PALM / LARGE LADY PALM) is fairly commonly planted in the region but, in our opinion, not nearly enough. This is one of the finest and most beautiful of palms to grow anywhere. The large and deeply segmented palmate leaves usually clothe the clump or cluster from the ground up. The thin, black fiber covered canes are exquisite if some are judiciously pruned out of a clump to give a better silhouette to both canes (trunks/stems) and leaves. Individual plants (clumps) can grow to 10 feet but this is fairly unusual, six to eight feet being the norm. Specimens grow slowly and are, therefore, relatively expensive to obtain; but no palm is more worthy of growing. In our part of the country shade -- at least partial shade -- is a necessity and the species is one of the finest for planting under trees, in patio situations and other intimate and possibly gloomy sites; the highly prized and usually quite expensive variegated and/or dwarf cultivars look especially good up close -- sometimes not so wonderful in large landscape situations. The plants are not drought tolerant but also not too finicky about soil, a humusy and well drained medium being, of course, best. Completely root hardy in our region, the species tolerates temperatures in the low 20s unscathed.
Rhapis humilis (SLENDER LADY PALM) is unknown in the wild and all known specimens are of one sex: male. This fact makes R. humilis even more rare and expensive to obtain, as the only means of propagation is by sucker removal; it is worth the trouble and possibly the expense. The plants grow somewhat faster and taller than R. excelsa and the leaves are slightly larger, a deeper green and the segments more limp. Overall, in the opinion of at least one of us, R. humilis is even more attractive than R. excelsa. It is not quite as well adapted to our climate as is the large lady palm (R. excelsa) but grows well enough if given shade and moisture that it seems almost imperative that we plant it. It is also slightly hardier to cold than is R. excelsa.
Sabal bermudana (Bermuda palmetto) and S. causiarum (Puerto Rican hat palm, Puerto Rican palmetto) have been grown for years in Central and South Texas but are rare indeed in this neck of the woods. The Bermuda palmetto is the hardier of the two and can be used in Central Texas; the Puerto Rican one may not be totally hardy north of, say, the Coastal Bend. It's kind of hard to get too worked up over either species, since they are not all that different from our native palmettos, though another similar species, S. domingensis, does have a nice imposing whitish trunk.
Robert Riffle is the author of award-winning The Tropical Look: An Encyclopedia of Dramatic Landscape Plants. He is writing more books about palms and landscaping and is a frequent visitor to message boards listed below. Be sure to visit his tropical image gallery and his "What's in a (Botanical) Name " -- a glossary of botanical names.
Richard Travis lives in San Antonio and travels to the valley at every opportunity. He is the editor of the PSST bulletin and is extremely knowledgeable about palms and other plants too.
© 1999 Robert Riffle and Richard Travis. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission from the Palm Society of South Texas bulletin
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