With Fronds Like These...
Venerating palms in a Las Cruces garden.
A palmetto palm and crescent moon, emblazoned in white on a field of blue, proclaim the South Carolina flag's affinity for Arecaceae, the palm family. Since the flag's symbolism alludes to minarets and Mecca as well, unfurling the banner above the rooftop in these parts is not advisable — least a cabal of ISIS recruits quit the Black Range for your front porch.
Jeff Anderson’s gardening style: dense, colorful mixtures of trees and plants—including native species—arranged to achieve a tropical look.
(Photo by Jeffrey L. Anderson)
For South Carolinians, however, the flag commemorates an important event of the American Revolutionary War: a fort on Sullivan's Island near Charleston withstood the whomp of British cannonballs due to "the spongy nature" of palmetto trunks laid over the structure's sand walls.
For me, everything about palms is a blast, including their products — from dates, coconuts and açai juice to raffia, rattan and the cane on old chairs. And who cannot love their shapes, evoking both solitude and adventure?
Sadly, the only semblance of a palm growing at Ditch Cottage is a sago — not a palm at all, but a cycad. Because it has frond-like leaves and grows larger every summer on the patio, I cherish the plant as a palm facsimile.
A few blocks from my place, however, are two healthy Chinese windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) that I have observed for years growing against a wall on the south side of a shady garden.
At Fort Bayard, two 25-foot-tall California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) grow at the steam plant.
Although these few "palmiers" are better than none, I still long — like Cleopatra — to linger in a palm grove.
So what do I do when I'm feeling palmy? Drive to Las Cruces with its Numero 8 growing zone — specifically to Jeff Anderson's newest garden of palms, cacti, native plants and other delights in the historic Alameda Train Depot neighborhood near downtown.
Anderson, the Doña Ana County extension agricultural agent for agronomy and horticulture, has held this position for six years. His previous garden with its southern facade of mostly cacti was a case study of an evolved gardener's plant palette. Located in the same neighborhood, but on a smaller lot, it was featured in this column back in May 2009.
The new garden on a quarter-acre of land showcases 125 palms — more than a doubling of frond friends that now surround the Mediterranean-style house. Simply put, Anderson venerates palms, but not to the exclusion of many other unique tree species that perform well in his area.
Before the garden got underway, the lot was tree-bare and weed-ridden. Essential home remodeling projects — including a new roof and windows for the 1940 structure — postponed gardening for a full year.
Nonetheless, Anderson planted one early tree purchase — a five-foot Montezuma cypress, the national tree of Mexico. Now the cypress, planted in 2010, is 15 feet high and grows near the street edge.
Another drought-hardy exotic species: Bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) also enhances the landscape.
"It's a fast-growing, long-lived tree that enjoys the run-off from the water ponding area in my north-facing front yard," Anderson says. "There are no power lines in the way so it has room to flourish. The eventual shade canopy — plus having two water conservation systems on site — will help keep the utility bills low."
Although many palm species in Anderson's garden are slow-growing, they will create shady groves in a few more years. The largest species include both California and Mexican fan palms. The Chilean wine palm that Anderson grew from seed is now one foot tall with a two-inch-diameter trunk.
The medium-sized specimens comprise Chinese windmill, Mediterranean fan and Moroccan blue palms. Another, the brahea armata palm, stands out for its powder-blue color, while the pindo palm displays feathery fronds.
The smallest palms in the Anderson garden like the needle (Raphidophyllum hystix) and sabal minor are among the hardiest, enduring below-zero temperatures. The needle palm likes shade, while the sabal minor can take shade or sun.
As eye-catching as the garden is, the major objective of Anderson's street candy is to make people grasp the diversity and wonder of plants, inspiring people to grow them and create beauty.
The tall California fan palms growing at Fort Bayard are sometimes called “petticoat palms” because of how dead fronds attach to the trunk. This Zone 8 palm is often seen in Las Cruces.
"Beauty helps neighborhoods and communities thrive, and changes your whole life," Anderson says.
His color palette, designed to achieve a "tropical jungle look," embellishes the bed edges with plantings of low-growing spring bulbs including species of wild tulips (T. clusiana and T. chrysantha); in summer, you see the bright blooms of zephyranthes (rain lily) in pink, coral and red.
Of course, no self-respecting county extension agent could have a garden lacking in edibles, and Anderson is no exception. Harvesting the fruit from his pindo palm, Anderson makes pineapple jelly. There are also fruit trees ranging from apple, pear and peach to fig and pomegranate. In the vegetable garden, Anderson prefers mini-bell peppers ("less prone to sun burn"), eggplant, tomatoes, basil and other herbs.
The plants found throughout Anderson's garden are densely planted to not only keep out weeds and cool roots, but also to test specimens given to him by friends.
Ultimately, the major reason for Anderson's plant trove is that he buys plants he loves, then finds a place for them. Even 125 palms.
Jeff Anderson advises that a palm takes three years to establish. Although palms come from vastly different climate zones, they all like soil with good drainage. Species should be grouped by water requirements. Anderson recommends the book Palms Won't Grow Here and Other Myths by David A. Francko.
Comprising about 2,600 species, palms vary in habit, shape and leaf colors — not just the archetypal tall ones crowned with green fronds. Leaves are either palmate (hand-like) or pinnate (feathery). Trunks can be smooth or patterned with the scars of earlier leaves.
There are palms that grow in Bulgaria, but most range from Asia, the Americas and Australia, to Africa. Most species are tropical and subtropical.
Located at the palm's pinnacle, from which the crown arises, its apical bud represents the largest bud in all of nature. The extraction or harvesting of the palm's heart or apical bud will kill the tree in almost all species. Although fibers and leaf bases protect the bud, severe cold can also kill it.
Palm flowers or inflorescence hang out from the side of the tree between the leaves, as on a date palm. Palm fruit can be as small as a berry or large as a coconut, and tend to be rich in fat, oil and wax.
Raffia palms have the largest leaves, growing to 82 feet on a trunk that can reach 50 feet in height. Rattan (Calamus palms) is a naturally renewable material mainly produced in tropical regions of south and southeast Asia. The core of the rattan can be used in making wicker furniture and cane.
The greatest risk to palms is habitat destruction; approximately 100 species are currently endangered of extinction.
Columnist Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.