By Katherine Maidman, former Curator of Palms
Here's a selection of tried-and-true palms which grow successfully in South Florida yards and gardens, recommended by palm experts at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Many thrive with minimal care. Reliable landscape plants, they have few if any pest and disease problems. In particular, they are generally resistant to lethal yellowing and ganoderma, palm diseases that are ongoing concerns. All are tolerant of South Florida's cool winter temperatures, seasonal rainfall, and alkaline limestone and marl soils.
This spectacular Cuban species, which is found in dry savannahs and woodlands, should be grown in well-drained soil. It does best in sunny areas but can tolerate partial shade. Although very slow-growing and not easy to find, it is a magnificent palm we'd like to see grown more. Mature plants have massive smooth gray trunks. Even young plants without developed trunks are desirable for their large fan leaves which make striking patterns of light and shadow.
40' / low availability / very responsive to fertilization
A native of New Caledonian forests of low altitude and high rainfall, this palm does very well in our climate. It requires well-drained soil and shade when young, after which it can take full sun. It has been quite cold-tolerant at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. It grows slowly, producing only four to five leaves a year. However, these are a brilliant red when newly expanded, a reward for patience, althought not every specimen has this trait. This is a graceful plant, with a slender ringed trunk and an open crown of just a few arching fronds. Flowers are pink to cream-colored, and the fruit is crimson.
20' / low availability / responds well to fertilization
A native of western Madagascar savannahs, this palm is extraordinarily tough and well-adapted in South Florida. It's very sensitive to transplanting, but root pruning helps avoid shock to the plant. The Bismarck palm has a stout trunk and massive fan leaves, light blue-gray shot with silver.
30-50' / high availability / slow growing before establishment
A tall rainforest species from the Philippines and adjacent islands, it grows well in South Florida and can handle our coldest temperatures if planted in a sheltered spot. It grows slowly when immature. Its arching leaves and delicate proportions make it a lovely specimen even when young.
50' / low to moderate availability / responds well to fertilization
Sargent's cherry palm of the Florida Keys, Yucatan and northern Caribbean islands grows in sand or limestone in areas of little rainfall. Nearly lost in the Keys from habitat loss and poaching for use as landscape plants, wild populations have been restored by a Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden endangered species conservation project. It has a prominent crownshaft and a round crown of silvery blue-green pinnate leaves. Large yellow inflorescences among the leaves are followed by dense clusters of red fruit. A beautiful specimen plant, it is also lovely in group plantings. It requires well-drained soil.
10' / moderate availability / very responsive to fertilization
From the Florida Keys and much of the Caribbean, this palm grows on limestone outcrops and alkaline soils. It tolerates drought, low soil fertility, and exposure to salt water. Consider this native for its unusual color; the fan leaves are pale grey-blue with a striking silver underside. Long inflorescences arch well past the leaves. Flowers and fruit are white; the fruit are dense clusters of small berries. A slow-grower, it is most often available in small sizes. Also consider Thrinax radiata, which is more readily available.
10-20' / moderate availability / needs well-drained soil
Natives of the South Pacific islands, these palms are fast growing with slender trunks, elegant form and prominent clusters of orange to red fruit. They are particularly effective in informal groups. Young plants are susceptible to frost damage in South Florida, but Veitchia spp. are noted for their ability to withstand hurricane winds. V. macdanielsii is one of the best; also try V. joannis and V. winin. Avoid the widely planted V. merrillii, which is highly susceptible to lethal yellowing.
30-50' / moderate to high availability
From Mexico to Honduras, this solitary slender palm species occurs in the rainforest understory. The trunk has raised annular rings; the sparsely divided leaves form an attractive crown. A diminutive plant for the shade, it does best in well-drained soil and is fairly drought tolerant. Until recently a collector's plant, it's now becoming more widely available.
6-10' / low to moderate availability
Cocos nucifera 'Maypan'
The Maypan coconut is recommended for its resistance to lethal yellowing. It is a hybrid which combines the resistance of the 'Malayan Dwarf' cultivars and the size and hardiness of the 'Panama Tall.' It has the classic coconut palm's tall trunk tapering to a wide base.
60' / high availability
There are 28 species of Ptychosperma from New Guinea and the surrounding islands, growing in a range of habitats. P. elegans has proven itself reliable in the South Florida area. Tall, with a slender trunk and attractive leaves, it has a prominent inflorescence and bright red fruit. It is somewhat cold-tender and benefits from a sheltered position. P. macarthurii and P. lineare are also recommended.
15-40' / moderate availability / responds well to fertilization