Sabal minor - Hardy Palms in Texas

Bying palms in garden centres, we often tend to forget thier 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 1998/99, published online 26-09-1999

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 to flourish.

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