Date Palms and Alternatives
The date palm has been cultivated for its delicious fruit and elegant foliage for centuries. In fact, the oldest known seed to successfully sprout came from a date palm in Israel.
Nicknamed "Methuselah" for its longevity, this particular date palm seed had been buried in the fortress Masada since the famous stronghold's destruction in 70 AD. It was discovered in the 1960s during an excavation of the ruins, in a pile of thousands of date palm seeds. In 2005 a group of Israeli scientists planted three of these seeds and one sprouted. Thus was finally born Methuselah, the 2,000-year-old date palm!
Gardeners hoping to add historic or tropical flair to their landscapes often consider date palms. While this ancient desert species can be cultivated in our humid climate, there are a few things to consider before you purchase such an expensive plant.
Choosing the right date palm species for Florida
Often seen in resorts and other large-scale landscapes, true date palms (Phoenix dactylifera, which have tasty fruit) and Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) can grow to be incredibly large. At 50+ feet high, these giants aren't always recommended for home landscapes, as they can dwarf other landscape plants. They also struggle in Florida humidity. But if you're set on adding a date palm to your landscape, don't be deterred. Read on to learn about moderately sized date palms that thrive here in the Sunshine State.
Senegal Date Palm
The Senegal date palm (Phoenix reclinata) is an elegant specimen tree. It sports multiple slender trunks, offering an interesting silhouette. The fronds are feathery and cast light shade for 12-20 feet. And with a maximum height of about 25-35 feet, this palm won't dwarf everything else in your landscape. It produces dates and showy white flowers, too.
In USDA Hardiness Zones 9B–11 the Senegal date palm is cold hardy, a perfect fit for home landscapes in the coastal areas of Central Florida. Unfortunately this species is known to be invasive in South Florida. For gardeners in this region, we suggest the equally charming pygmy date palm.
Pygmy Date Palm
Another option—and one better suited for smaller homes and landscapes—is the pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii). Cold hardy in USDA Hardiness Zone 10A and south, this is one of South Florida's most popular palms. They are widely grown in zone 9 as well, with cold protection or in containers to move indoors for the winter.
True to their name, pygmy date palms only reach a maximum height of about 12 feet. They are single-stemmed but often planted in clumps. This gives the look of a multi-trunked palm as the group reaches maturity.
For gardeners in North Florida an excellent cold-hardy option is the pindo palm (Butia odorata, previously Butia capitata). Though not a date palm, its feather-like fronds bring a similarly tropical look to the landscape. They are cold hardy down to about 10°F (USDA Zone 8A), but intolerant of salt spray.
Pindo palms are slow-growing and reach a final height of about 15-20 feet. You can sometimes find pindo hybrids known as mule palms (xButiagrus nabonnandii). These are popular for their cold hardiness and darker foliage, though they do grow to be larger than their parent species.
Palms that can handle North Florida's winter chill include windmill, needle, sabal, and Sylvester (also called wild date) palms. These vary in final height and appearance. Queen palms, while beautiful, are listed as a caution plant on the UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-Native Plants ("manage to prevent escape"). They are also susceptible to hurricane damage. For these reasons, queen palms are not on our list of recommended varieties.
Learn more about cold-hardy palm options by clicking the links above, or by consulting Palms for North Florida, an excellent research-based resource from the Electronic Data Information Source (EDIS) of UF/IFAS Extension.
Palm Care and Maintenance
Palms are susceptible to a number of nutrient deficiencies, especially magnesium deficiency. Please take a look at our article on palm nutrition if you suspect your landscape's palms might be affected. We also have helpful articles on planting and pruning palms, to keep them looking their best.
Perhaps the most common issue palms battle in Florida is the wet climate. Tropical palms generally come to Florida from dryer native habitats. While the humidity here doesn't faze our own native palms, like saw palmetto, it can lead to bacterial and fungal disease issues in non-native species.
One disease currently of concern in Florida is a bacterial infection called lethal bronzing disease (LBD). Early symptoms include premature fruit drop, necrotic (blackened) flowers, and leaf discoloration that advances upward. It is spread by a small insect vector called a planthopper.
Lethal bronzing disease progresses rapidly and is spreading throughout Florida. Gardeners must act quickly to save neighboring palms. If you suspect a palm has LBD, please contact your county Extension office immediately. The agents at your Extension office can also answer any other palm questions you may have.
Also on Gardening Solutions
- Senegal Date Palm -- UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas
- Queen Palm -- UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas