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Palms: When to Prune? When Not to Prune?

Maria is a master gardener and master of public health. She & her husband, known online as The Gardener & The Cook, live in coastal Alabama.

The one brown leaf on this Queen Palm is ready to be removed.

The one brown leaf on this Queen Palm is ready to be removed.

Above is a photo of a Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) in central Florida. It has one leaf that has turned completely brown, and is ready to be removed. The key word here is "completely".

Your first instinct may be to remove any yellow leaves. Please don't follow that instinct. The palm is busy drawing nutrients from that tier of yellow leaves. Be sure to allow the yellow leaves to remain untouched until they have turned completely brown. Then, and only then, should they be removed.

Nutrients Are Taken From the Lowest Tier of Leaves

As nutrients are taken up by the plant, the lowest tier of leaves will turn yellow, then brown. If the yellow leaves are removed before turning brown, the palm will begin drawing nutrients from the next tier of leaves, causing them to turn yellow. If yellow leaves are left until they have turned brown, the leaves above will remain green. Eventually, though the palm will need to draw nutrients again, and the process will repeat itself.

Some palms, Sylvesters (Phoenix sylvestris), get several new leaves at once, creating a whole new tier of leaves. Similarly, all the leaves on their entire lowest tier usually begins yellowing at the same time.

Others, such as Queens, get only one, occasionally two, new leaves at a time. When the leaves of a Queen Palm have reached the end of their lives, they turn yellow, then brown, at about the same rate as the new leaves emerge.

Your first instinct may be to remove those yellow leaves. Please don't follow that instinct. The palm is busy drawing nutrients from that tier of yellow leaves. Be sure to allow the yellow leaves to remain untouched until they have turned completely brown. Then, and only then, should they be removed.

These Cabbage Palms have suffered not only a hurricane cut but also a pineapple cut. The pineapple cut involves removing all but the top boots, and trimming them so that the palm resembles a pineapple plant.

These Cabbage Palms have suffered not only a hurricane cut but also a pineapple cut. The pineapple cut involves removing all but the top boots, and trimming them so that the palm resembles a pineapple plant.

What if Half the Leaves Are Turning Yellow?

Around our former neighborhood, we could see some palms, especially Sylvesters, whose lower tier of leaves had turned yellow. This is okay. On the other hand, if you have a Sylvester with half or more of its leaves turning yellow, this is most likely a mineral deficiency. In that case, fertilizer is required.

How Many Tiers of Leaves Should Be Removed?

There is no specific number, and again, remove only the brown leaves. If you can picture the face of a clock (not a digital clock), draw an imaginary horizontal line from 9:00 to 3:00. The leaves of your palm should cover the area above that imaginary line. This gives them the overall shape of a half-circle. It's good if they hang below that line, but it is not good if they don't cover the area above the line.

Hurricane-strength winds and even some straight-line winds will rip off the bottom tier of leaves, which is the outer layer of leaves when they have folded up as shown in the photo at the top of this page. If all but the top few leaves have already been removed by severe pruning, the winds will remove the remaining leaves. If the green leaf-bud, left unprotected at the center is torn off, the palm will die. It may take a while, but it will happen.

When to Prune?

Pruning of palms should be done very carefully, and only when the leaves are completely brown. If you've ever grown daffodils or tulips, you will remember that after blooming has finished, the green leaves are not to be cut off until they have turned completely brown, because the bulb needs to take nutrients from those leaves. As the nutrients are absorbed by the bulb, the leaves turn yellow, then brown. The same is true with palms.

The photo below shows some of my daffodil leaves after the bloom cycle was complete in mid-March of 2020. Tying them down like this will keep the unsightly brown leaves from being so noticeable in the garden while you’re waiting for later flowers to come up and bloom.

Daffodil Leaves Tied Down to Turn Brown

Like these daffodils, palm leaves should be left alone until they turn completely brown.

Like these daffodils, palm leaves should be left alone until they turn completely brown.

If left un-pruned prior to a hurricane or severe storm, your palms are far more likely to lose only those leaves that are ready or near-ready to fall off anyway. The younger, stronger leaves will fold upward, as shown in the photo above to protect the newest leaves.

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Remove Only Brown Leaves

Generally speaking, remove brown leaves, but not yellow leaves — and ONLY with sterilized pruners, or a cleaned & sterilized saw blade. If you prune your own palms, as we did when we lived in Florida — um, I mean as my husband did — be sure to sterilize the saw blade before taking it from one palm to another. Why? Because, if one of your palms has a disease or pest that is not yet visible, the saw blade will take the disease to all other plants where it is used.

How to Clean the Blade?

  • Spray or rub with a solution of 70% isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, OR
  • Soak in a 50-50 mixture of chlorine bleach and clean water for 15 minutes. The problem with using bleach is the blade may rust.
I use this little spray bottle filled with 70% isopropyl alcohol (common rubbing alcohol) to spray my pruners, loppers, and saws after each use, before moving on to another plant or tree.

I use this little spray bottle filled with 70% isopropyl alcohol (common rubbing alcohol) to spray my pruners, loppers, and saws after each use, before moving on to another plant or tree.

What if Your Landscaper or Yard Maintenance Crew Refuses to Clean Their Saws?

There are a lot of guys all over this country making a living with a pick-up truck, a lawn mower, and an edge trimmer. That does not mean they know much about plants, particularly palms. Your lawn maintenance people may tell you they don't have time to clean the blade, or that it's not necessary.

If that happens, please DO NOT let them prune your palms, and do not allow anyone to use a chain saw on your palms. Either find someone who will respect your wishes, or do it yourself. It takes only a few minutes.

Those lower leaves on this Sylvester had to go so I could pull weeds from around the stem.

Those lower leaves on this Sylvester had to go so I could pull weeds from around the stem.

Are There Exceptions to These Rules?

There is an exception to almost every rule. For example, when we first got our Sylvester Palm, the leaves on that young plant hung almost to the ground. As you can see in the photo above, this made it difficult to pull weeds that came up through the too-thin layer of mulch around it. So we went ahead and removed two tiers of green leaves.

Another exception (shown below) was when one of our Queen Palm leaves hung in front of one of our outdoor light fixtures. Not only did those leaves block the light at night, it also blocked the view of the Christmas wreath I hung on the lamp. So that leaf had to go.

That long leaf was blocking my Christmas wreath and the lamp, so it had to go.

That long leaf was blocking my Christmas wreath and the lamp, so it had to go.

Sometimes Yellowing Leaves Can Indicate Nutrient Deficiency

When you see yellowing in only certain places, not the entire leaf, you likely have a nutrient deficiency or a disease. Remember, the normal drawing of nutrients changes the color of the whole leaf not just parts of it.

The photo below shows the leaf of a Dwarf Sugar Palm with the V-shaped green area along the center of the leaf, with another V-shaped yellow area surrounding the green tissue. This is a sign of a manganese (Mg) and/or potassium (K) deficiency. This palm needed a really good palm fertilizer.

The proper fertilizer will prevent new leaves from being discolored, but will not help those leaves already damaged. Still, that leaf should not be removed until the entire leave has turned brown. Watch for more information on palm fertilizers, good and bad, in a future article.

This v-shaped discoloration is indicative of nutrient deficiencies. This Dwarf Sugar Palm needs fertilizer.

This v-shaped discoloration is indicative of nutrient deficiencies. This Dwarf Sugar Palm needs fertilizer.

As with all plants, there are other nutrient deficiencies in palms, but that will have to be the topic of another article, as well. Meanwhile, enjoy your palms, but don't prune them too soon, unless there are some leaves that just have to go.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 MariaMontgomery

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