Palm Trees & Creating a Tropical Garden

By Janet Tapp, Bexar County Mater Garden

October 2023

Let’s talk about palm trees! Or, “how to relax in your own tropical haven.”

Just picture sitting on warm white sand, blue skies and blue green water with a soft breeze blowing through your hair while you sip on a coconut flavored beverage and watch the winds rustle through the leaves of the palm trees above you.

Palm tree (Photo Galveston County Texas A&M AgriLife Extension)

Tropical and beautiful palms grow in San Antonio, but wait! Where did they come from?

A Brief History of Palm Trees

An interesting fact about palm trees is that they are the oldest fruit tree in existence.  The fruits of palm trees—dates and coconuts — have  been harvested and eaten for centuries.

Assyrians called the palm tree the tree of life.  This is an appropriate name as coconut palm trees provide food, fuel, and drink, and can be made into utensils, musical instruments and so much more.

Historically, date palm trees were a staple of ancient peoples’ diet.  Palm trees were also used to provide shelter.  The leaves were used to create roofs for homes and temples. Pictures and drawings from past times show Egyptians using the palms to fan their royalty.

Many palm trees originate from Africa and found their way into North America. Today, palms are grown mostly in Florida, Texas, Georgia, California, and a handful of other states. They thrive in warm, humid, sunny environments.

Palm Tree Varieties

There are at least 2,600 varieties of palms, some of which grow to 70 feet tall or more.  Experts cite 11 species that are most suitable for the Texas climate (Click here).  While smaller species of palms can be grown indoors, this article focuses on those that are most suitable for the outdoor gardener.

Dwarf palmetto and Texas Sabal palm trees grow wild. Others local palms are cabbage palm, California fan, Mediterranean fan, Mexican blue fan, needle, phoenix sylvestris, pindo, sago, and windmill. These palms trees can survive in milder, cold temperatures, but if the temperatures drop, they will need some kind of winter protection. Most growth in palm trees occurs in the warmth of our summers and giving them a good deep soaking is preferable to shallow watering. Recommendations include watering three feet deep around a six-foot radius every 10 to 12 days.  Unlike planting times for other types of deciduous and conifers in south Texas, the optimal time for planting palm trees is during the months of April through October.

Maintenance & General Care of Palm Trees

Traveling throughout Bexar County, we may see tall palms that have dry brown fronds hanging from the tops of the trees.  These are typically due  to the extreme cold weather in the last few years and/or or high winds. Trimming these brown fronds is not necessary as they provide shade, and birds and bees enjoy using them for their habitat.

Palm trees also love the sun, humidity, and water. They will thrive with proper conditions. Late spring is the ideal time for maintenance and clean up. Another note on those brown fronds: if the fronds are trimmed back too much and are out in the south Texas heat, the tree may suffer. Cut the fronds at least 2 inches from the tree’s trunk.  Do not cut any fronds that show green as they are critical to tree growth.

As you select tools for maintaining your palm trees, consider what the job entails.  You will need a ladder or step stool to reach the fronds.   Its size determines whether a hand pruner or a pruning saw is necessary. For very tall trees, a cherry picker may be necessary to elevate the worker to a safe cutting level.

Clean tools before and after the project. Do not cut a leaf that can fall on you or harm others below. Never use prong spikes to climb the tree as they cause damage to the trunk.

Any south Texas gardener can have an abundance of joy in palm trees, and caring for them is straightforward once you understand the mechanics and timing.