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Palm Trees Where You Least Expect Them

Cornish Palms in Cornwall,  County, England
Cornish Palms in Cornwall, County, England (UK Public Domain)

I love palm trees. Who doesn’t? They are symbols of sunshine, holidays, and the tropics, along with deep-brown suntans (and sometimes serious burns when you’re not careful). Places like California, Florida, and Arizona have countless palms. When many of us vacation in these southern states, and/or dozens of other tropical spots around the globe for that matter, we are always in awe of these creations, besides enjoying the weather that is associated with such floral beauty. By the way, the average lifespan of a palm tree is 150 years, and there’s at least 3,000 species of them. The scientific name for palms is Arecaceare: a botanical family of perennials that includes shrubs, flowering plants, as well as palms.

In case you didn’t know, the southwest coast of the British Isles--yes, the British Isles!--has palm trees. However, they are not native to the country: They were brought in from New Zealand in 1820 and have flourished ever since. Thanks to the constant mild weather brought up from the North American Gulf Stream, palms survive quite nicely in a large resort plot of land filled with sandy beaches known as the “English Riviera.” The main tourist attraction is the city of Torquay--population 65,000--which takes up one-third of the borough of Torbay tucked inside Devon County. The palms here are often referred to as Cornish Palms or Torbay Palms, thousands of them and many different species. One such specie is the Windmill Palm, a hardy palm that is making quite a name for itself in northern reaches of the globe.

According to one source, Windmill Palms were brought to Europe from Japan in 1830 and have spread worldwide after that. For example, they now grow in southern parts of Germany, Russia, Ireland, the Alaskan Panhandle, Michigan, Oregon, Washington state, Vancouver, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, and southern New Jersey believe it or not, giving all these areas a tropical feel to their cold winter climates: a dream come true for those living outside the common tropical zones.

They’re called Windmill Palms because their fronds are shaped like a windmill or a garden fan rake and they extend almost 360 degrees. They also have a layer of furry vegetation on its trunk that protects it from the harsh sun and the freezing cold in the northern climate zones. They can tolerate some snow layers and winter temperatures down to -20 Celsius for short periods of time, making them one of the best cold hardy palms in the world. They are also fast-growing and low maintenance; and pest and pollution resistant, ideal for town and city boulevards where you see constant traffic. 

Windmill Palms come in two scientific names: trachycarpus forteunei and trachycarpus wagnerianus. The former can grow as tall as 50 feet, while the latter can reach around 25 feet. A particular New Jersey-based nursery, Tucked Away Farms, specializes in selling palm trees and other tropical plants, with customers in their state and as far away as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Long Island, New York. These northern palms make a perfect addition to the ground cover surrounding the dazzling, blue waters of any pool, especially when you invite family and friends over and watch their reactions to setting their eyes on real palm trees.

Windmill Palm
Windmill Palm (US Public Domain)

But the palms don’t come cheap in bringing the tropics to Eastern Seaboard neighborhoods. Tucked Away Farms charge $150 per foot plus delivery and installation, resulting in some homeowners paying as much as $2,000 or more for their large, ready-made, cold hardy palms. The potted plants are considerably less, but need some tender loving care once they are placed in the ground. The younger trees have to be protected by leaves packed inside a wire cage for the first few winters until the roots get established and the plants mature. Once they grow a few feet in height, they can take the cold, heat, rain and dry periods. Soil with good drainage is the best and they can be planted in either part-shade to full sun.

Twenty years ago, about 60 Windmill Palms were planted on boulevards along the water at English Bay in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada despite some uppity, tight-ass locals very opposed to the undertaking: They felt that it was sacrilegious to see palm trees in Vancouver because they were never native to the region. While two of the original trees have died off, the rest are flourishing today and look absolutely gorgeous.

My sister-in-law in Jacksonville, Florida has two Windmill Palms in her back yard just a few feet from her pool. She also has other varieties spread over the property, ones that are less tolerant to the drop in temperatures to the freezing point and less. Keep in mind that Jacksonville is in northern Florida and is prone to the occasional frost in the winter months that has killed or severely burned many other palm varieties. “I wish all the palms in my yard were Windmill Palms,” she told me recently. “They can take the cold a lot better than the others and they are easy to maintain.”

And they look great, too, I have to add. 


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