By Gary L. Wade
University of Georgia
To most folks, the word palm triggers thoughts of Florida, Hawaii or Georgia's coastal islands. But you don't have to live in any of these areas to enjoy palms.
A few cold-hardy palms will grow as far north as Tennessee and North Carolina, where the average winter may reach minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is one of the hardiest. It will grow throughout Georgia and has survived cold as low as minus 10. This January, windmill palms in Athens, Ga., weathered 9 degrees without a scratch.
This palm looks particularly nice in groups of three to five at the corner of a building or courtyard entrance. It's great around swimming pools, too, because it doesn't litter the water as deciduous trees do. At 20 to 25 feet tall, it has fan-shaped leaves and a brown trunk covered with burlap-like fibers.
Needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) is a clumping, understory palm with deep green, fan-shaped leaves. It's a Southeastern native and an endangered species, with its native habitat increasingly destroyed by development.
Its name stems from the many needle-like spines along its petioles. These aren't a problem until pruning becomes necessary. Once established, it's a carefree plant and one of the hardiest palms, surviving winters as low as minus 5.
Surprisingly, needle palm does better inland than along the coast (it doesn't like salt spray). It grows 5 feet tall and wide, so a single specimen will fill a large space. Some beautiful, old needle palms grow at historic estates in Madison, Ga.
Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) is native to Southeastern river flood plains. It grows 4 to 5 feet high and wide with green to blue-green fronds. It's not as hardy as needle palm. But it's been reported to withstand temperatures down to 10 degrees.
Each plant bears no more than six fronds, so it looks best when planted in clumps of three to five. It prefers moist, sunny sites.
Unlike the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) that grows rampantly in south Georgia and Florida woodlands, dwarf palmetto isn't invasive and doesn't have needle-like spines.
Cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto) is also called palmetto palm. The state tree of South Carolina and Florida, it's native to coastal areas from North Carolina to Florida. It's found in the wild throughout the Florida panhandle and parts of south Georgia, too.
It usually can be grown without cold protection along a line from Columbus to Augusta. But cold protection is best to the north of that line.
This means planting it in a sheltered courtyard or on the southeast side of a structure, where it's sheltered from cold winter winds, and wrapping the fronds and center bud in blankets to protect them from temperatures below 25 degrees. A courtyard planting in Greensboro, Ga., contains some beautiful cabbage palms.
Jelly palm (Butia capitata) is native to Uruguay and southern Brazil but is planted widely throughout Florida and coastal Georgia. As the name implies, its fruit is used to make jelly.
It grows up to 30 feet tall and bears blue-green, feather- like fronds. Like the cabbage palm, it requires winter protection when temperatures drop below 25 degrees.
This involves tying the fronds together in bundles and covering them with burlap or blankets. Protecting the central bud is critical, because that where new growth starts.
The Southeast Palm and Exotic Plant Society has an excellent reference manual for growing palms in the Southeast. Get it from your county University of Georgia Extension office or at pubs.caes.uga.edu/caespubs/horticulture/Palmreader.html.
Some sources of cold-hardy palms include Woodlanders, Inc., in Aiken, S.C.; Nurseries at North Glen in Glen St. Mary, Fla.; Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, N.C.; and Gerry's Jungle in McDonough, Ga.