New Varieties of Palms Add Strong Forms to Austin Area Gardens


by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden


Newly planted Sabal mexicana in my garden.


Several years ago, while working on a documentary about the Texas – Mexico borderlands, I visited the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary just outside of Brownsville, Texas. This small preserve is the last relict of what once was a vast palm forest that stretched along the banks of the Rio Grande. I remember listening to the distinct rattling sound the fronds made as they rustled in the breeze overhead, and feeling the welcome coolness of the paths that wound their way through the trees. I imagined how the aboriginal people of the area must have revered this verdant oasis set amid the arid plains of South Texas and Northern Mexico. I could scarcely believe I was in Texas and felt a pang of loss knowing that an estimated forty thousand acres of similar forest had been cut to the ground over a century ago, the sturdy trunks of the palms used as building material or as fuel.


For the past few weeks, my imagination has once again been stirred by the thought of palm fronds rustling in the wind. Increasingly drawn to plants with striking forms, my attention has turned to the palms with their fountain-like sprays of foliage and column-like trunks. Despite the fact that Windmill Palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) were among the signature plants of my first Austin garden, I have never really paid much attention to palms as a group- they just seemed so foreign. Perhaps my northern upbringing prevented me from thinking about them as anything but cold sensitive garden wards. But now, after reading about many exciting new introductions to our palm palette, I find myself scheming about where I can add some of these plants to my new garden.


For the longest time, most Austin gardeners used only two or three species of palm: the trusty Windmill Palm that I used in my old garden, the Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia robusta,) and the Mediterranean Fan Palm (Chamaerops humulis) a cold hardy clumping species that has been a favorite for years. These are all worthwhile plants, but there are now many new choices, including some Texas natives which are now commercially available.


The Texas Sabal Palm (Sabal mexicana or Sabal texana) is the native palm of the Lower Rio Grande Valley that I encountered at the Audubon Sanctuary. This cold hardy species is slow growing but will eventually form a trunk that is topped with broad fronds. This species can grow as high as fifty feet, but one planted now would take generations to reach that height. The best news about this plant is its drought tolerance; a quality one usually doesn’t associate with palms. Its cousin, the Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor) is the plant made famous locally by Palmetto State Park. Dwarf Palmettos are trunkless plants with a vast range extending from the sheltered canyons of the Hill Country all the way across the nation to the mid-Atlantic coast. Usually found in moist settings, like river bottoms, Dwarf Palmettos are surprisingly drought tolerant once established. Planted singly, or in clumps, these shade tolerant little plants make great understory plants for Austin area gardens. They produce a spray of foliage that can reach to about six feet tall adding strong evergreen forms to the landscape.


Jelly or Pindo Palm (Butia capitata) is one of my favorite species. I love its distinctive arching fronds and gray green coloration. This is a stately plant that requires a fair amount of space, especially when it is young and the trunk hasn’t lifted the foliage up to a height where you can walk underneath. The “jelly” reference comes from the fruit, which is supposed to be quite tasty.


Yucca-do Nursery, in Hempstead, Texas, (a pilgrimage site for many Austin gardeners) has introduced several exciting new palm species to the American market. For the most part, these new introductions have been collected by the Yucca-do team on excursions into Mexico and Central America. Many of these palms have been collected from high altitude locations and are proving to be cold-hardy here in the Austin area.


Rock Palm (Brahea berlandieri) is a fan palm that was found growing out of rocky cliff faces of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. It is prized for its smaller, more delicate fans and apparent adaptability. It sounds like a most promising addition to our local plant palette, especially for folks gardening in the hills. It has bright green foliage and grows to about twenty feet in its native habitat.


The Yucca-do introductions that most excite my imagination are two species with pale coloration: Silver Palm (Serenoa repens) and Powder Palm (Brahea moorei.) Silver Palm has a clumping form and is described as having “ghostly silver-blue” coloration, and the photographs certainly bear this out. The folks at Yucca-do recommend using this plant as a contrast to the deep green of some our landscape standards, such as boxwood. I personally would love to see a planting of Silver Palm interspersed with the column shaped Will Fleming Yaupon, I think the effect would be striking.


Powder Palm is distinguished by having typically dark green fronds with contrasting backsides that are a chalky white. On a windy day would I’m sure the alternating display of dark green and powdery white would be very cool. This is a trunkless variety that grows only about three feet tall and would certainly mix well into perennial beds.


Palm forests may have all but vanished from Texas, but there’s no reason we should banish them from our gardens. Get out there and explore the bold new world of palms!


(Another great source of palms in the Austin area is The Great Outdoors, check them out!)


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