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Fairchild’s tropical garden column: The trouble with date palms

Phoenix canariensis (Canary Island date palm) are statement palms that are often improperly trimmed to resemble feather dusters. This type of trimming results in nutrient deficiencies and overall decline of the palm.
Phoenix canariensis (Canary Island date palm) are statement palms that are often improperly trimmed to resemble feather dusters. This type of trimming results in nutrient deficiencies and overall decline of the palm. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Date palms are strikingly beautiful with their robust, columnar trunks and massive leaves. The true date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) was traditionally cultivated for its sweet fruits and skyrocketed to popularity for use in the landscape. As it shot to fame, it took its whole genus with it.

Now, many different species of date palms are planted in droves in southern Florida simply for their beauty: Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), miniature date palm (Phoenix roebellini), and Senegal date palm (Phoenix reclinata) to name a few.

When questioned on their most beloved palm, many locals say “date palm!” But date palms don’t do their best in Miami. It is similar to driving a Range Rover downtown. While they are still magnificent, they aren’t performing to their fullest ability.

Date palms don’t do their best in Miami. It is similar to driving a Range Rover downtown. While they are still magnificent, they aren’t performing to their fullest ability.

Sara Edelman, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

In their native habitat of northern Africa and the Middle East, these huge trees grow by oases where they can tap into huge sources of fresh water every day of the year. Locals often joke about Miami’s lack of seasons. But for the date palms, our seasons are no joking matter. The dry winter affects the ability of their roots to get essential nutrients and the result is constantly nutrient-deficient leaves.

Leaves of the date palm are large and the lime-yellow streaking is an eyesore. More often than not, these discolored leaves are removed, but then essential nutrients stored in the leaves are removed with them. Thus, the nutrient deficiency is worsened and the result is a very sick date palm that resembles a feather duster.

We don’t have to stop planting these magnificent beauties. We simply have to treat them better. To help your date palms perform better, stop trimming non-brown leaves. As leaves turn from green to brown, they send nutrients back to the heart, where new leaves are developing. When green leaves are trimmed, all those nutrients are removed and can’t go back to the heart to help the palm grow. If any part of the leaf is green, it still has nutrients and should remain on the tree.

To help your date palms perform better, stop trimming non-brown leaves.

Sara Edelman, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Trimming green leaves is harmful for all palms, even healthy ones, but is particularly detrimental for nutrient deficient palms. As the palm becomes more deficient, more leaves are discolored and removed. The cycle continues until we are left with a feather duster. If you love your date palms, show your appreciation of their beauty by not trimming green leaves.

You can also help your date palms by watering them appropriately. Their water issue with southern Florida isn’t the amount of water they get, but how they get it. Date palms grow in very arid areas, where rainwater and humidity are a rarity. Their roots require a lot of water but they prefer their trunk and leaves to stay dry.

Instead of sprinklers, water them by hose or drip irrigation. This is especially important immediately after planting. At maturity, these palms can handle drought. However, when they are planted they need daily watering for two to three months. Not watering them after planting can hurt them in the long run. While they may survive, they will not thrive.

Date palms need to be taken care of properly in order to be their most beautiful. Just like a car, they require attention and appropriate maintenance in order to perform their best. Remember, these green giants are far from home and it is our responsibility to be good hostesses while they are in our yards.

Sara Edelman is Palm and Cycad manager at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

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