Sabal minor - Hardy Palms in Texas
Buying palms in garden centres, we often tend to
forget their roots, so to speak. Here we have the chance to see
one of the hardiest palms, in the wild.
by Tony Cerbone, Highgate ln Dallas, Texas, USA
Chamaerops No.33 Winter 1999
Not everything's big in Texas! Sabal minor in habitat
in Dallas County.
It was a shivering, cold January day in Dallas, as
I quickly walked from the DART station, (Dallas' light rail train)
in the West End, to the Dallas World Aquarium.
A blue Norther was rolling in and sleet was forecast.
That night it was supposed to go below freezing with temperatures
in the 20s F/ -6°C. I had taken the train because Dallas is
one place you don't want to be driving around in when icy conditions
are predicted. We were meeting for lunch at the Dallas World Aquarium
to celebrate a friend's recent business success with his internet
company. Inside the Aquarium, the warm humid air of the enclosed
3-story rainforest was very inviting. The live Toucans, monkeys
and lush palms transported one to a South American jungle. A friend
commented on how nice it would be to live in an area with such lush
palms. I told him that he did already.
To prove it, the following weekend when the temperatures
had gone back up into the 70s F/ 22°C, we drove 15 minutes south
of Downtown Dallas, to an area of gravel pits and swamps. What you
first see as you approach the area is the huge Southside Wastewater
Treatment Plant, where the city of Dallas treats more than 100 tons
of sludge every day. As you get closer, you see trucks hauling away
gravel and sand from the nearby pits. The abandoned pits have filled
with water and form a series of ponds and small lakes that have
now become part of the Alligator and Palmetto slough preserve, and
help regenerate the swamp. Overhead you can see red tailed hawks,
while at your feet the tracks of raccoon and coyote. Blue herons
and White egrets can be seen fishing along the banks.
As you enter the swamp, tall trees predominate. Pecan,
Elm, Willow, Oak, and Bois d'arc trees make up the majority of the
types of trees you can find there. The swamp therefore is a series
of small streams and flooded woodlands. As you walk along the muddy
banks you can see large fresh water mussels shell. Most of the plant
life is deciduous but it isn't long before you see some green vegetation.
The 3-5 feet wide leaves of Sabal minor, or Texas palmetto stand
out against the bare ground. All around are seedlings that appear
to be blades of grass. Throughout this immediate area are scattered
groupings of 10-20 plants, about 8 feet tall, with no trunk.
After pushing on in the heavy mud, avoiding the alligators,
rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, you come across a ridge. From the
top of this ridge is an amazing sight. A huge forest of palms! Lush
green palm fronds span this area with the average height being about
8 feet tall, and some specimens about 12 feet. This is the site
one envisions when thinking of South Florida, the Amazon or some
other frost free place, but certainly not the Big D.
The palms themselves are almost always found growing
in the muddy black clay not the nearby sandy loam. They are not
in standing water, but on ridges, that at times can be flooded.
Always growing in the shade, not in open sun. My observation is
that the bare trees in winter allow the strong southern sun (32°
latitude) to warm the palms. Also they act as a windbreak to the
cold Northers blowing off the prairie. In the summer, their thick
leafy canopy reduces the scorching desert-like temperatures. This
all combines to create a microclimate that has allowed the palms
The palms must also be very cold hardy since they
survived the 1983 winter when the Dallas area had an extended record
breaking cold period where the temperatures didn't go above freezing
for 12 days. The low temperature at this time was about 5°F.
According to Mary Phinney an archeologist and administrator for
the Dallas County's park and open space program, this palmetto swamp
with 282 protected acres, is part of a 600 acre swamp that researchers
have estimated goes back anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 years.
So, palms have been in Dallas a long time, and should be used in
local gardens more often. Nandinas and hollies are great, but next
time why not use a palm.. After all they are a native plant and
have evolved to take our cold winters and hot summers. Plus, the
seeds germinate very easily, and overall they are very trouble free.
It is amazing that this beautiful palm forest, which
has been growing here for thousands of years, survived the City
of Dallas' rapid urbanization. It seems that Mary Whitlow, whose
father owned a sand and gravel company, and the land the swamp sits
on, persuaded her Dad not to excavate the area containing the palmettos.
Mr. Whitlow then offered this undeveloped land to the county and
that is how the park was created in 1993.
The area also provides a home to many different types
of wildlife. Alligators are very common here, with 27 breeding pairs
last counted. Most are in the 3-4 feet long range but one is estimated
to be between 10-12 feet long. Its footprint is measured at 8 inches.
Their nests can often be seen in the spring. Water moccasins, rattlesnakes,
poison ivy and fire ants, are very common throughout and discourage
unsupervised visits. Cougars or Pumas, Bob cats, 18 species of turtles,
3 species of mussels, beavers, mink, Alligator gar, (type of fish)
are some of the other denizens. This is not like the swamps of East
Texas with their bald cypress and Spanish moss. None of these plants
can be found here. It is thought that the hotter and drier air in
the summer prevents those epiphytes from succeeding here. What does
thrive, are the beautiful groves of palms. These remnant palm woodlands,
are the farthest north and west of that plant community in this
part of the United States.
About 100 miles north of here there are groves in
S. E. Oklahoma that are furthest North, but also East. Today, of
the 282 acres owned by the county, 120 acres is original swamp.
The rest act as a protective zone to keep the swamp viable. Dallas'
urban palm forest remains unknown to most residents of the Metroplex,
but is now protected from further city growth. The last step in
conserving this area is controlling poachers. It seems that most
of the palms that were visible from the roadside have disappeared
over the years. One possible explanation is that people are digging
up these readily available plants for home use. The largest groves
are deep in the swamp and require wading through alligator and poisonous
snake infested areas. I guess in this area we can just let the residents
10-07-20 - 01:06GMT
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