Any home can achieve a tropical look with the addition of a few palm trees. As permanent garden plantings—or container plants in less temperate climates—palm trees evoke images of white beaches with rolling surf, or sunlit Mediterranean streets. With advance planning, even northern gardeners can enjoy these trees. Choosing among several cold-hardy palm tree types, says LSU horticulturist Dan Gill, will improve your chances of growing palms successfully.
European Fan Palm
Europe's only native palm, the European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) has several short, curving trunks topped with dense fan-shaped clumps of pale green to silvery, feathery leaves. Slow growth and small stature—up to 15 feet high and 8 feet wide—says University of Florida Professor Edward F. Gilman, Ph.D., make this tree a good choice for containers. Cold hardy to 5 degrees F, it also works as a mass planting, in borders and as a foundation plant.
In spring, European fan palms have yellow flowers. Inconspicuous 1/2-inch brown fruit follows. Plant the disease- and drought-resistant trees 3 to 5 feet apart in a partly shady to partly sunny location. They handle acidic and alkaline sand, loam or clay.
The windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) trunk's saggy fibrous covering resembles burlap, say Professor Gilman and former UF Associate Professor Dennis G. Watson, Ph.D. Another slowly growing tree, windmill palm may reach 40 feet, but normally stands from 10 to 20 feet high and up to 10 feet wide. It makes a good container plant, garden specimen or shrub border accent. Like European fan palm, windmill palm is hardy to a winter temperature of 5 degrees F (USDA hardiness zone 8).
Windmill palm's symmetrical crown has 18-inch-to-3-foot, fan-shaped evergreen leaf fronds extending from 6-inch stalks (petioles). Inconspicuous blue fruit follows small, white or yellow fragrant summer flowers. The tree's thornless trunk is naturally straight. Plant windmill palm in a partly sunny to shady, well-drained location. It tolerates alkaline or acidic sandy, clay, or loamy soil. (References 3 and 5)
Needle Palm Tree
The hardiest of all palms, needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) is an evergreen, shrub-sized plant up to 8 feet high and wide. Its small size, says the University of Florida, makes it a good accent plant beneath larger trees. Although it's native to the coastal areas of Florida, Mississippi and South Carolina, needle palm's tolerance of sub-zero winter temperatures enables this plant to survive outside as far north as New York. Black spines on its trunk add interest and account for the tree's name.
Needle palm prefers a shady location. Position it where its thorns will not bother passersby. Plant it after the soil has warmed in the spring, no deeper in the ground that it was originally growing. Water regularly until it’s established and drought-resistant. Semi-annual feeding with a palm fertilizer will speed its growth.