Palm Tree Options for Galveston Island

By Jan Brick
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The question of whether Galveston Island is a true tropical island or not has been debated for years. There are differing opinions on this subject because we live on an island that many of us would prefer to call tropical. Dictionary definitions state that tropical islands are situated within or close to the tropics located just north and south of the equator. Additionally, they are known for being warm and humid, and they are frost-free with temperatures high enough to support year-round plant growth given sufficient moisture, such as tropical Florida.

Does Galveston Island qualify under those characterizations? Our geographical region is classified as zone nine where we may be associated with the warm and humid portrayals in the upper temperature ranges, but the annual minimum temperature can be as low as twenty to thirty degrees.

It is because of these occasional lower temperatures that consideration should be particularized as to the cold tolerance of palm trees being selected for our island landscapes.

In recent years, the use of palms has increased as gardeners and property owners alike pursue that dream of the “tropical” landscape. Cities, small communities, and even shopping centers continue the incorporation of large numbers of palm trees along medians and streets hoping to establish attractive settings in the urban context.

Unfortunately, many area garden centers and nurseries neglect to consider the horticultural zones and individual climates, as they may offer exotic tropical species that cannot adapt to our climate.

Palm trees can grow and thrive in many of the states besides just Florida. Most palms can tolerate cold temperatures to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but there are those that can survive as low as -7 degrees Fahrenheit and are flourishing in Texas, California, Georgia, Virginia, and further north.

However, in order for survival in such low temperatures, the palm must be fully established and hardy itself. It can take three or more seasons to grow from a juvenile tree to a mature tree.

Palm trees play an important role in tropical gardens when used as windbreaks, privacy screens, backdrops, or as individual specimen plants whether planted in the ground or in large planters. Not all palms are hardy in zone nine, however.

Placeholder imageIt is important to select wholesome palms that are durable, adaptable to differing soils, and are easy to grow. Listed below are a number of palms trees that fall under these categories.

Pindo Palms
Note that, as a general perception, those palms with the bluest foliage are the most tolerant due to a waxy coating on the fronds. An example of such is the Pindo palm with its feather-like appearance, graceful blue green fronds that arch stunningly from its trunk all but brushing the ground beneath it. This is a slow-growing palm with a sumptuous compact shape.

Blue Hesper Palm
Another specimen in the blue foliage category is the Blue Hesper palm. Native to Baja California, it is drought-tolerant with a brown trunk and silvery-blue foliage. It is slow-growing, adaptable to most soils, withstanding temperatures to 25 degrees Fahrenheit and can tolerate cold, wet winter seasons. However, the Blue Hesper may be expensive and difficult to find.

Bismarck Palm
Not blue in appearance but with handsome silver-green fan shaped foliage is the Bismarck Palm. While not the toughest of palms, it can withstand high winds and high temperatures. The Bismarck is low-maintenance and easy to grow, surviving in 25 degrees Fahrenheit winters.

Sabal Palms
Native to zone nine, the Texas Sabal is a cold tolerant, slow-growing palm with the Sabal minor and the Palmetto (also known as the Florida Palm) being the most robust. The Florida Palm is adapted to zone nine, can thrive in a wide variety of soil types, can withstand drought conditions, and take temperatures to 10 degrees Fahrenheit when mature.

Date Palms
The Canary Island Date palm that has a large pineapple shaped trunk with a crisscross pattern and a large crown of leaves, and the Phoenix Date palm are popular selections for zone nine. Slow-growing, adaptable to most soil conditions, and able to withstand cold to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, both specimens may be quite sizeable at maturity.

Fan Palms
Fan palms are trendy in zone nine and include several varieties, all of which make excellent landscape choices for Galveston Island.

One of the most popular is the Mexican palm, a fast-grower, beautiful at any height with bright green fronds and thin brown bark that eventually falls away to reveal a smooth ringed trunk. The Mexican palm prefers full sun and good drainage.

The Mediterranean or European Fan palm is a slow-growing very attractive, bushy evergreen that is extremely vigorous and can thrive in cold weather to 20 degrees Fahrenheit without permanent damage.

The Chinese Fan palm is another cold resistant fan palm that can endure low temperatures as low as 25 degrees Fahrenheit when mature—anything lower will cause damage to leaves or complete defoliation.

The Needle palm is considered to be the most cold-tolerant palm in the world thriving in climates both warm to hot in summers and cold with snow in winters surviving to -5 degrees Fahrenheit without protection.

The Windmill palm is a distinctive hardy palm recognized by its hairy, narrow brown trunk. This palm will thrive in zone nine when planted in a shady location.

There are many varieties of palm trees that can grow in temperate climates. By using palms from this group listed while also including brightly colored exotic-looking flowers and large attractive plants with vivid foliage, homeowners and gardeners can establish a striking and pleasing tropical-like landscape.

The Sago Cycad, although not technically a palm at all but is of another species, is considered an essential in a “tropical” garden in Galveston. They do share characteristics of palm trees, such as stiff dark green fronds, are durable in this zone and are quite attractive when planted in clusters among larger palm trees.

Palm Tree Winter Protection Some cold is actually beneficial to palms as lower temperatures will kick-start the dormancy process making the tree a bit more cold-resilient for the winter months ahead. The goal is to protect the leaves, stems and the bud that is the heart of the palm tree.
• Apply several inches of mulch on the ground around the tree to prevent the ground itself from deep freezing, thus protecting the roots and the lower portion of the trunk.
• Water the palm with lukewarm water to warm the ground helping to increase water absorption.
• Spray the palm with a specially formulated anti-desiccant that creates a waxy outer layer counteracting water loss from the foliage.
• Wrap Christmas lights around the trunk of the tree. This can actually add two or three degrees of warmth.