The Biscayne Times

Jan 23rd
Our Protective Palms PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Shimonski, BT Contributor   
October 2017

Low-bending trunks shield against flying objects

APix_YourGarden_9-17s I write, I’m making preparations at my house for Hurricane Irma. They involve palm trees, as you’ll see.

The photo that accompanies this article is of a delightful little palm called Rhapis humilis, or slender lady palm, that I grow in a container. The fronds are a little larger than my hand if I spread my fingers. It has multiple thin trunks, each about as thick as my index finger, and stands about four feet tall; under optimum conditions, these palms will grow over ten feet tall. I have three of the smaller lady palm species. Each is a bit different, and they all make great container specimens.

Nearly a dozen species of lady palm hail from southern China and Southeast Asia. They all grow very well in our alkaline soil conditions, which means you don’t have to fertilize them. The common lady palm, Rhapis excelsa, has leaves about as large as Frisbees. These palms grow to about 15 feet in my garden.

These palms can be grown from seed if you have male and female palms flowering at the same time so that pollination can occur. I always know when the female palms are in flower because they emit a wonderful fragrance, almost always at night. I used to cut off the male inflorescences (the stalks that hold the flowers) when they were ready to produce pollen and place them in a paper bag. Then when the female flowers bloomed, I’d place the bag with the male flowers over the female flowers and shake. I got lots of viable seeds that way.

The lady palm is the first species of palm I ever transplanted. I dug out a clump of the palms that had been around the old library at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Most of them were 15 feet tall or more. I took them to Parrot Jungle and planted them into containers, and they were all eventually planted into the park. That’s where the Parrot Jungle lady palms came from.

The best and easiest way to propagate lady palms is to divide the clumps, making sure to get stalks with new growth, or runners, coming out of the older trunks. Don’t worry -- these aren’t runners like you see with the invasive species of bamboo; this palm won’t take over your yard.

Don’t let the newly planted palms dry out.

Lady palms also make excellent container specimens. The smaller species can remain in containers for years. All of these palms are actually great indoor plants, as long as you understand they won’t do very well indoors forever. If you have two or three outside, exchange the indoor palm every two to three weeks in rotation with the other two. This plant exchange process can go on indefinitely.

The lady palms also tolerate cold very well. This species was one of only a few palm species we used to grow outdoors at Parrot Jungle that didn’t suffer cold damage in the winter.

My front yard is full of palms. You can’t even see the house from the street. Larger lady palms account for some 30 to 40 percent of the palms and palm trunks. Yes, palms are cool landscape plants, but one of the reasons I’m growing so many around the house is that they respond very well to high winds.

I’ve seen them bend far over in such winds -- and whatever they bent over was protected from flying objects. Now, many of these palms suffered cracked trunks and eventually died, but in previous hurricanes, I saw windows, doors, and roofs stay intact, thanks to the palms, and to large clumps of bamboo.

I have numerous containerized plants in my garden, and I certainly can’t take them inside for storms. Instead, I lay all my container plants on their sides on the ground. We did this at Parrot Jungle when we were preparing our plant nursery for Hurricane Andrew. We laid over all the potted plants, trying to keep the pot ends facing where we thought the wind would come from, and jamming them as close together as possible so they wouldn’t blow around.

A week after the hurricane, when we eventually got to standing the pots back up and cutting off the damaged branches, we found that most of them had survived and we were able to get them to regrow and plant back into the park.

I also discovered in Hurricane Andrew that mulch, wood chips, and compost piles didn’t blow away. They actually stayed pretty intact. I have two compost piles in my backyard, and I’ll put my smaller potted plants in them as Irma approaches. Let’s see if it works again.

Jeff Shimonski is an ISA-certified arborist municipal specialist, retired director of horticulture at Parrot Jungle and Jungle Island, and principal of Tropical Designs of Florida. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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