By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
Although many people think of the coconut palm as the quintessential South Florida palm tree, it’s not a native. In fact, the state has 11 native palm trees but not a coconut among them. To explore these indigenous palms, visit the newly reopened and socially distanced Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.
Here, the permanent installation of the Florida 11 is on display throughout the museum’s Sculpture Garden. The planting was funded by a $20,000 grant awarded in 2019.
It came from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust, which supports “organizations working to advance research and/or education in ornamental horticulture.”
Florida’s landscape is flush with palms, but only 11 are indigenous
to the state. You can view them all at the Norton’s Sculpture Garden
Everglades palm, paurotis palm (Acoelorrhaphe wrightii — threatened)
Description: A clustering palm that can reach 30 feet tall. Slow growing, this palm is cold tolerant. Big thorns on leaf stems curve in both directions, so whether you move your hand in or out of the plant, you will get stabbed.
Growing conditions: Can be grown from extreme South Florida north to Orlando. These much-used palms are a wetland species requiring full sun and more moisture than irrigation systems can deliver.
Available: At native nurseries.
Key thatch palm, brittle thatch palm (Leucothrinax morrisii — threatened)
Description: Resembles the Thrinax radiata (green thatch palm), but this palm has silver underleaves and stiffer foliage. Small and slow growing with a thick trunk and open crown that reaches 5 to 7 feet wide. Older specimens reach 15 to 20 feet tall, well proportioned to backyards.
Growing conditions: Found in dry, deciduous forests and coastal areas. Requires sun to partial shade with little water once established in the landscape. Likes alkaline soil; in nature it grows on lime rock. Drought tolerant. Well adapted to heat, drought, storms and salt spray.
Available: At native nurseries where they tend to be pricey.
Florida royal palm (Roystonea elata — endangered)
Note: Often confused with the Cuban royal palm (Roystonea regia), and it is difficult to tell them apart. But the Florida palms have been distinct for 1,000 years so that they are a slightly different adaptation found only in Florida. The only natural stands of these palms existing today are in the Fakahatchee swamp and in the royal palm hammock of Everglades National Park.
Description: With a concrete-like trunk, this fast-growing palm often reaches 20 inches in diameter and 40 feet tall. Hurricane tolerant. Drops its large fronds. That’s fine in the wild but in the home landscape, the fronds can damage nearby trees and buildings, so they are often removed before they drop.
Growing conditions: Does well in swamps but, once it’s established, can resist drought. Although you often see them growing along streets or as singular trees, in nature they grow in dense hardwood or cypress forests where they push their crowns above the other trees to get light. Available: If it is available from native growers, the true native variety will have been grown from legally collected seeds.
Cabbage palm, also called palmetto, Carolina palmetto, swamp cabbage (Sabal palmetto)
Description: Our state tree comes booted (leaf bases remain on tree after leaves fall) or slick (leaf bases fall off with leaves or are trimmed for a smoother trunk). No need to trim these trees, as they provide habitat for animals, nectar for pollinators, and berries for birds and other animals. Bats that roost in the hanging brown leaves eat mosquitoes. Requires about 15 years’ growth before developing a trunk and then grows 6 inches in a good year.
Growing conditions: Grows in just about any soil as well as in swamps and beach areas. Hurricane resistant and salt tolerant.
Available: A common species grown from seeds in native nurseries. Or they are harvested fully grown from cattle grazing land. These full-size specimens are expensive to purchase in small quantities, cheaper by the trailer truckload.
Needle palm, porcupine palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix)
Description: This clumping fan palm has dark green foliage with a small trunk that slowly grows to only about 3 feet tall. Has needlelike spines between the leaves.
Growing conditions: The needle is a north Florida species, with Palm Beach County just outside the historic growing range.
Likes shady, moist areas and average-to-rich organic soil, but will tolerate drought. Best planted in the understory of trees such as live oaks, cypress trees and slash pines.
Available: A commercially exploited palm that has been over-harvested in its native locations because it is one of the few palms that can grow in temperate climates. Grows very slowly from seed in native nurseries.
Silver palm, silver thatch palm (Coccothrinax argentata — threatened)
Description: Seeds have been spread by birds using the East Coast flyway for more than 1,000 years, so this palm grows in the Florida Keys up through Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. In Palm Beach it was first reported in the 1920s.
It is a single-stemmed or non-clustering palm with small, fan-shaped dark green leaves attached to a thin stem. The leaves twist in the wind, exposing their silvery undersides.
It grows about ½ to 1 inch a year, reaching 8 to 10 feet at maturity with some living over 100 years. Good for backyard planting as the trees remain in scale to one- and two-story homes.
Growing conditions: Requires full sun and alkaline soil that can be created by amending with lime rock pea gravel. Hurricane resistant. Very low maintenance.
Available: At native nurseries.
Buccaneer palm, hog palm, cherry palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii — endangered)
Description: Leaves resemble feathers; the slow-growing silver-blue trunk is smooth. Large clusters of yellowish-white flowers become big red seeds and then fruits that in the past were fed to hogs. This stopped reproduction of these palms, resulting in a dying out of the species.
Growing conditions: Thrives in the home garden in full sun; very drought tolerant.
Available: Often at high prices from native nurseries that cultivate these palms.
Green thatch palm, buffalo-top palm (Thrinax radiata — endangered)
Description: Fast growing with a delicate trunk and green leaves that have a pleasant “plastic” feel. Best planted in groupings, not as a hedge. Perfect for a dooryard or by a backyard pool.
Growing conditions: Shade or sun, wet or dry.
Available: Endangered due to habitat loss but grown commercially.
Dwarf palmetto, little blue-stem (Sabal minor)
Description: Its usual southern growing limit is around Lake Placid, northwest of Lake Okeechobee. Resembles a Sabal palm without a trunk. A small bushy palm with a bluish green cast; good filler among native plantings.
In the landscape, it resembles a bunch of leaves that grow 5 feet high and 5 feet wide. Has absolutely flat fan leaves with slits halfway up the middle. Very cold tolerant.
Growing conditions: Shady, moist habitat (needs more water than can be achieved with irrigation). Prefers the shady understory of a wet forest or cypress swamp.
Available: At native nurseries.
Scrub palmetto (Sabal etonia)
Description: Resembles a Sabal palm without a trunk because the trunk spirals underground for 10 to 20 feet and then grows skyward so that leaves reach 6 feet above ground. When they appear, the fans have curling mid-rib leaves.
The underground trunk was a survival mechanism for this plant, which originally grew in scrubland prone to wildfires. And it was probably sought after by ancient animals such as grazing mastodons and ground sloths.
Growing conditions: Found naturally nowhere else in the world but Florida, where it thrives from Broward County to Ocala. Full sun and well-drained soil; withstands fire.
Available: At native nurseries where they are raised from seeds in small quantities.
Saw palmetto, silver saw palm (Serenoa repens)
Note: The seeds are used as a holistic treatment for prostate problems. Cattle ranchers have been known to sell the berries from these palms growing on their property. The berries can earn them more than do the cattle they raise.
Jonathan Dickinson, a shipwrecked merchant from the late 1600s, was fed saw palmetto berries by the native population and described the fruit as tasting like “rotten cheese steeped in tobacco juice.”
Description: Leaf stems have sharp spines that give the species its common name. It is a slow-growing fan palm with trunk that usually hugs the ground to protect it from fire. Branches radiate from central spot. Many have dark green leaves but coastal varieties often are silvery white.
Clusters of small flowers smell like coconut and attract bees, producing what some consider to be the best honey available. Provides food and habitat to more than 10 bird species, 27 mammals, 25 amphibians, 61 reptiles and countless insects and butterflies.
Growing conditions: Grows in clumps or dense thickets in sandy coastal areas, and as undergrowth in elevated areas with acidic yet organic-rich soil. Adapts well to salt spray. Use to fill a corner or create a screen.
Available: At native nurseries where they are grown from seeds legally collected from the wild (seeds are not grown commercially for harvest).
Information sources: Amber Mathis, former director of horticulture at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, and Richard Moyroud, Lake Worth native nursery owner and conservationist.
Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star and provided by the Institute for Regional Conservation, Wikipedia and the Florida Native Plant Society