Palm trees are what most people think of when they think of a tropical landscape. There are more than 200 different types of palm trees, most tropical or subtropical. A few types of palm are sources of food in modern culture as well as in ancient times.
The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is native to the West African coast where it has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years. The fruits are the source of palm oil, which is a common ingredient in many processed foods such as margarine, ice cream and mayonnaise.
The oil palm is a tropical tree that grows 60- to 80-feet tall. The leaves can reach 25 feet with 300 leaflets. It likes low areas with good drainage and a soil pH of 4 to 7 and will survive periodic flooding.
Saw palmettos (Serenoa repens) are a subtropical species of palm that is native to the coastal south east United States from South Carolina to Florida and west to Louisiana where they inhabit scrubland areas and pineflats, often in poor soil. The small fruits are an important source of food for local wildlife and were also eaten by native people.
Saw palmettos grow as a shrub or as a small tree. Shrubs typically reach 2- to 7-feet tall and single trunk trees grow to 20 to 25 feet. They have large, round fan-shaped leaves that reach up to 3-feet across. They need full sun to part shade and are tolerant of many types of soil. They are hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 through 11.
Coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) are the source of the edible coconut. It is a tropical palm growing to 60 feet in height. It is native to the South Pacific but has been spread all across the tropics. It primarily grows along the ocean where seeds can wash up on the beach and germinate.
Coconut palms are a favorite for street plantings and parking lots, but the nuts are usually removed when young so that they do not fall on cars or pedestrians.
Washington palms (Washingtonia robusta) are an 80- to 90-foot tall stately palm with a straight trunk. They are often seen lining streets and framing buildings in landscapes, The leaves are 3-feet wide and fan shaped. The old foliage is persistent and hangs below the living foliage in a brown mass. This can become a fire hazard and is regularly removed. Washington palms like dry areas with lots of sun and are drought tolerant. They are hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 9 through 11.