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The Big D

by Tony Cerbone, Dallas, Texas, U.S.A.
Chamaerops No. 45, published online 29-01-2003

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From left to right:
- Beautifully colored Sabal uresana from Mexico.
- A small Brahea armata among other Palms in the Cerbone garden.
- View of the Cerbone garden from the street, Trachycarpus fortunei and Washingtonia filifera on the left.
Photos: Tony Cerbone

Palm trees in Dallas, Texas! Most people, when thinking of the Big D, would rephrase this to query: Palm trees in Dallas, Texas???? Many of us have preconceived images of certain places and Dallas is of course one of them. Those kind of folks, when they think of my town, conjure up images of oil wells, cactus, Cowboys (both those on horseback and the football variety), JR Ewing, HOT summers, big hair, and cowboy boots.

Reality: there is not a drop of oil in Dallas County. JR Ewing is fictitious, but a real celebrity, George W., did make his millions here in North Texas. In addition, palm trees not only grow here but are natives!

Dallas is located about 300 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and has a continental climate. This means that it is prone to wide swings in temperature because we don’t have a huge body of water to help moderate things. So averages are just that, and the reality is that it is best to describe the climate in generalities. An extremely wet, hot, cold, or dry year can be followed by the extreme opposite the following year. Dallas has a growing season that is a warm, humid, subtropical type, with an abundance of rain in spring, summer drought with high prolonged heat, followed by a return of rain in the fall.

This transitional climate allows North Texan gardeners to take advantage of a unique gardening experience. It is hot and dry enough in the summer for Southwestern natives like cactus, agaves, yuccas, Chihuahua desert flowers, and desert palms to thrive. With our lush springs, and with supplemental water provided during dry spells, plants from the Southeast are as pleased as punch. Fall brings spectacular fall color! This display comes not only from native trees but also from imported varieties brought in to enhance the original prairies. Winters have enough chill to allow more northern associated plants–like apple trees–to grow and thrive. Overall, we have four distinct seasons.

Dallas, in general, has long, hot summers with an average of 15 days per year where the temperature will reach 100°F (38°C). This extended period of heat (accompanied by very little rain) is great for most cold hardy palms, provided water is supplied on a regular basis. Spring and autumn are long, and are the times when the most precipitation (38 in. / 965 mm per year) occurs. Winters are mild with brief cold spells usually not lasting more than three days at a time. Extreme cold temperatures can occur, and that is one of the limiting factors in palm cultivation in north Texas.

For long-term palm culture there is a way to overcome these periodic cold snaps: select the appropriate varieties and utilize microclimates. The palms that grow the fastest in Dallas are the Washingtonias and Trachycarpus fortunei. So, by planting these particular species within 10 ft. of a wall, fence, or some other wind blocking structure and providing them with regular water during the summer, it is possible to achieve long-term success here in USDA zone 8. The majority of the metro area (population five million) is zone 8a, but using a protected microclimate and being located within the city’s urban heat island means that zone 8b and 9a winter lows can be achieved. In the past 12 years winter lows have fallen between 11°F (-12°C) and 25°F (-4°C) in these protected areas. My yard is one of these areas. My results and observations, therefore, are not typical for zone 8a.

I’ve had my garden for the past 15 years and have had lots of experience trialing very exotic and commonly available palm species. The following is a list of what work best for me, and what my experience with them has revealed.

Washingtonia filifera: needs full sun, and is very drought and high heat tolerant. Produces over 25 fronds in a season. Leaves don’t burn until the temperatures go below 10°F (-12°C), but are susceptible to ice and snow damage.

Trachycarpus fortunei: does best in afternoon shade, and is very fast growing with regular water, producing over 25 fronds a season.

Sabal minor: will grow in sun, shade, part sun, and grows to its largest size in habitat in Dallas’ fertile, black, slightly alkaline clay soils.

Brahea armata: needs full sun, is a stunning powder blue color, produces about 8 fronds a season, and has leaves very resistant to ice and snow.

Sabal x texensis (Brazoria county) and Sabal minor var. louisiana: requirements similar to Sabal minor. It’s very cold hardy, does well in heat, and is resistant to ice.

Sabal mexicana and S. palmetto: need full sun and are slow growers, producing only about 5-8 fronds a season.

Other palms that are doing well in Dallas include Phoenix dactylifera (fast-growing and very surprisingly cold tolerant), Chamaerops humilis, Trachycarpus wagnerianus, Jubaea chilensis, Chamaedorea radicalis, C. microspadix, Nannorrhops ritchiana, and Trachycarpus takil.

Palms that live but don’t look their best in Dallas include Livistona chinensis (defoliates almost every winter but lives through most extreme cold, though doesn’t look good until the end of the growing season) L. saribus, L. decipiens, Sabal rosei and Trachycarpus latisectus.

Palms that shouldn’t be attempted in Dallas are Phoenix canariensis and Washingtonia robusta, as temperatures below 18°F (-8°C) kill them.

My final advice

• Use the appropriate recommended palms for your zone for your foundation plantings.
• Experiment with other types you enjoy, knowing that you may have to modify their environment.
• Protect ALL palms for the first two winters until they have had a chance to become established.
• Don’t over water, over fertilize or over love them to death! Palms are pretty hardy once they are established.
• Be very cautious about introducing any palm specific pests. If you aren’t in a major palm-growing area, don’t introduce a pestilence along with a new addition to your palm collection.
• Have fun, and try to design your palm garden with beauty and restraint, or your yard will end up looking like mine–a jungle out-of-control!

So... rebuke those fire ants and killer bees and make Lady Bird Johnson’s heart swell with pride and plant your corner of the Northcentral Texas prairie with a palm! Bubba won’t know the difference between a Sabal and a Bradford pear anyway!

Don’t forget to check out my website at:

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