Palms: Feature Plants of the Tropics

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tropical-garden-feature-palms
A combination of Coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) planted in the lawn and Foxtail palms (Wodyetia bifurcata) in large tubs around the pool are used as feature plants in this tropical garden. Note how the lawn grass has been removed around the base of the coconut palms. The clumps of Royal palms (Roystonea regia) behind the house complete the use of palms as feature plants in this well-maintained ‘minimalist’ garden. Image: © Michelle Maria

Palms are the glory of any tropical garden. They can be planted singly or in groups, as a landscape feature, a boundary or an avenue, or indeed as the dominant feature of a new garden.

There are several thousand species of palms recorded in the world, although many have limited horticultural value. ln tropical regions there are more than 200 species of palms suitable for home garden planting available, which have exceptional horticultural features.

When growing palms, it is important to remember that unlike trees, or conventional plants, they do not expand their trunk while growing. lnstead, the basal diameter must be that of the mature trunk before vertical growth takes place.

This is why so many palms have a reputation of being “slow”. It is not that they are slow growing, but simply that growth changes are occurring out of sight. Once basal diameter has reached the correct dimension, upwards growth is rapid with most species.

Easy to Grow

Culture for most palms is simple and very basic. You must remember that palms are either native to the wet tropics or to wetter areas within arid zones. This fact tells us that palms require plenty of water and a well-drained, well-aerated root zone.

All too often we see palms weak and stunted, planted in a shallow hole on a rocky lawn. Grass grows right to the trunk, and generally the leaves are yellowed and small. Obviously something is very wrong!

The generalisation of the native habitat of palms gives us the clue, and the two points mentioned above need to be examined.

A shallow site ensures that most water runs off without wetting the subsoils. A small planting hole likewise does not provide a catchment for water. Grass growing up to the stem ensures that most of the water supplied is used before it reaches the palm’s roots.

Drainage is Important

The second point, “a well-drained, well aerated root zone” is equally important. A heavy clay soil does not permit air to penetrate efficiently and so the plant develops a shallow and very inefficient root system.

That sort of root system cannot absorb the nutrients required for satisfactory growth, or sufficient moisture.

For the same reason, shallow rocky sites do not produce good plants, unless the rock is extensively cracked and fissured. Some people make the mistake of digging a shallow hole and filling it with topsoil. This technique can cause as many problems as it purports to solve.

Often, such a hole is dug until the going gets tough, that is until hard or solid rock is reached. This provides a natural basin and in the wet season, the palm may well be sitting in water.

Obviously then, to obtain the two basic requirements for optimum palm growth, some careful planning and hard work must be allowed for, particularly on difficult sites.

Young palms should be planted where they will receive shade for at least part of the day. lf this is not possible, a tripod of old fronds, or a shade cloth or hessian screen should be provided.

lf these ideas are not possible, try planting young papayas or some cassava sticks around the palm. Their rapid growth and broad leaves quickly provide ideal shade and remove the need for artificial shade. Once the palm is established the nurse plants can be removed.

In the tropics, palms can be used in so many ways. Some dwarf suckering species from Thailand and Malaysia are very useful in stabilising creek banks and dam walls, while other suckering species can make excellent screens or even dividing garden walls. Others of course make small, medium or large feature plants or when planted in clumps make excellent focal points for the garden. 

Beside the well-known coconut, in its tall, medium or dwarf forms, many palms also produce excellent and flavourful fruit, ranging from dates, snakeskin fruits and others. These will be described and explained fully in an upcoming article on palm species and their uses.

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