Melissa holds a bachelor's degree in biology and is a plant and animal enthusiast with multiple pets.
Cold Hardy Palm Trees
An unusually warm winter revived my interest in northern tropical gardening. It is not news that overall, mean temperature gradients are increasing across the country. This may promote better results with semi-tropical gardening. It may come as a surprise to many that some gardeners experiment with palms and palm trees in their gardens in states such as New York, Ohio, and Illinois.
In fact, palms and other semi-tropical plants grow with little or no protection with vigor in states such as Virginia, despite cold winters. Gardeners that live in states with harsher winters just need to administer a little protection to cold hardy palms to keep them in the ground all year round.
Tips for Protecting Palms Through Winter
- Plant palms if possible in the warmest micro-climate with south exposure.
- Wrap the leaves in burlap or similar landscape fabric.
- Apply a copper-based fungicide during wet weather and in the early spring.
- Apply anti-desiccant to the leaves before severe cold spells.
- Mulch the base and the crown of the plant a few inches.
What to Expect (Realistically)
In my experience, the weather patterns that affect palms the most are wet, cold weather and, in my southern New York Zone 6B location, about twice every winter we receive an ‘arctic blast’ with temperatures that dip into the single digits (°F) and don’t rise much higher for 24 hours. I’ve had plants that have done fine with temperatures in the range of 15–30° F only to succumb to these annual occurrences.
When plants survive these cold spells, they are typically defoliated completely (with my lenient protection), but they will produce leaves again in the spring if they have adequate growing conditions. Due to this, expect that the beautiful leaves on your newly planted palm will not be anywhere near as elegant the following year unless you use intensive protection. However, such an interesting garden specimen is worth it, in my opinion.
Methods for Optimum Success
Depending on the weather conditions your area experiences, semi-tropical plants may or may not need extensive protection, however protecting palms will provide the greatest chances of success, or preserve more plant tissue and possibly leaves if blessed with a mild winter. At a minimum, palms should have a copper-based fungicide applied to the leaves, stem, and crown before and after wet conditions.
Keep Them Dry
If the new growth of the palm "pull" out of the crown, the plant is in decline and will require a dousing with the fungicide in that area. The palm should also be treated with an anti-desiccant such as Wilt Pruf, which will help the plant hold water in freezing conditions. The key to aiding palms in the winter is to keep them as dry as possible (especially the crown, where damage can be fatal), and keep them desiccated. It would even be beneficial to water the plant with warm water after long periods of dry or freezing weather.
Protecting the palm with mulching can increase the temperature and prevent strong wind chills from affecting the leaves so severely. If your area is expected to have such prolonged low-temperature drops (-5–15F), a makeshift cage filled with dried leaves, straw, or other similar substrate is a good idea. The 'cage' will prevent the mulch from being blown away. Surprisingly, snow acts as an insulator and is beneficial.
Factors to Consider
Cold hardy palms have had success reports all over the map, and some are very impressive sounding. This may be a decent guide to provide insight into a plant’s potential hardiness, but remember that what will really determine your plant’s success is its location near wind-barring structures, the duration of extremely cold temperatures, the amount of damaging ice (freezing rain) and the frequency of wet weather between periods of cold.
The Hardiest of the Hardy Palm Selections
- The Needle Palm
- The Windmill Palm
- The Saw Palmetto
- The Pindo Palm
The Needle Palm
Without a doubt, the needle palm and its many developed cultivars are the best choice for beginner northern palm enthusiasts or even for gardeners just looking to add an unusual specimen to the landscape. These plants are hardy enough to not require protection and could possibly emerge from winter with little damage as well.
Their drawback is that they grow very slowly and won’t really achieve visual interest until they mature over the course of several years. This is why I highly recommend purchasing mature specimens that have at least an inch or two of the trunk, even if they are relatively expensive. Older plants also have the advantage of being hardier. I would protect the plant for the first winter if making the investment for the best results. These plants can be found on specialty websites and eBay.
The Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei)
Another popular choice, this palm and its cultivars (several other varieties have been introduced as even hardier) are known to be the hardiest palm trees in the world. Yes, an actual palm tree. Well, that word excited me. If the tree were to be a success in your Zone 5–7 garden it would never fail to impress and provide endless bragging rights for you. When purchased young, they make for attractive tropical-looking shrubs, but if you really wanted to take the plunge and buy a specimen so mature that it has developed a visible trunk, for most climates north of southern New Jersey there will be unfortunate damage to the tree that will be apparent during the summer.
A possible exception may be a flawless micro-climate along with protection that would essentially add another zone of warmth and a shield against damaging arctic blast winds. Windmill palms in tree-form may be perfect for the intensive palm enthusiast who is willing to invest time and money in the endeavor. They will also look great as understory shrubs with their gorgeous palm palmate leaves that cannot be replicated with true north hardy plants.
The Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) and Sabal Minor
The Sabal Minor, also known as the dwarf palmetto, is actually native to the southeastern United States up to North Carolina. The saw palmetto may sound familiar from health stores and is also a native to the more northern southern states. They are the palms that begin to dot the middle of the traffic islands on your road trips toward the Carolinas. Each are low-lying palms in the north that have similar hardiness to the needle palm. A dense planting of young specimens hosts the ability to look exquisite and exotic in the northern garden with the right design.
The Pindo Palm (Butia capitata)
These pinnate leafed palms are exciting for being one of the very few tropical "palmy" looking plants that are unmistakable. I haven’t had success with this plant, but I also lack adequate light in my shady garden. However, this plant more than likely requires all the aforementioned protection methods from a determined gardener. With success, the plant will return late spring re-growing a few elegant palm leaves that islands are famous for. Among an intelligently planned garden with other tropical-looking plants, it will make a dramatic statement. At almost any age they are beautiful, but larger plants yield better results.
There are many other palms that can be experimented with in the northern garden, and specialty plant shops are developing specially bred varieties for their ability to acclimate to the conditions of the northern states. The Chinese fan palm is a plant that, well not as hardy, can be cheaply purchased at stores such as Home Depot and is worth a try. With more weird winters, garden experimentation should be mandatory. Plant palms alongside other hardy tropical-looking plants to give people something to look at apart from the massive plantings of rhododendrons and forsythia bushes.
Questions & Answers
Question: Which palm tree bears dates in zone 7?
Answer: The most cold-hardy date palm is Phoenix Dactylifera, and that is barely hardy to zone 8, depending on other climate conditions. So it is doubtful you'd get fruit, and extensive protection is a must. Butia Capitata produces edible fruit, but it is also delicate in colder climates.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on July 21, 2020:
joe mama Really? How big are they? How many winters have they lasted?
Joey on July 18, 2020:
Which plan is best for zone 5a borderline zone 4b?
joe mama on July 16, 2020:
im growing medjool date palms in dc :)
Michael on May 30, 2020:
i live in zone 5 some of your ideas don't work . i no i try them .i have growing palm trees outside my house for 7 years . i even have fruit growing out of my palms. so u can grow palmtree in zone 5 6 or 7 but you have to box them heat them . i am proud to live in the Philadelphia area with cool palm tree growing outside my house
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on August 11, 2019:
Maddie: I don't know what a 'cactus palm' is but if it is a Madagascar plant, it will definitely die in New Jersey.
Maddie on August 10, 2019:
I have a cactus palm 6ft tall I have never seen another one and I bring it in for the winter and back out for the summer but it is now too big to handle. I live in south jersey and would like to know if I can plant it in my yard where it can get full sun all winter
chaz517 on February 08, 2019:
I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you! Anytime I can read about palm trees is a good thing lol. I sell palm trees in NY, CT, NJ. We actually sell them and rent them for the season. So if you just wanted to rent them you could! www.ctpalmtrees.com
Also, the fungacides you mentioned are very effective. You definitely know your stuff!
IslandWidePalm on March 13, 2018:
Great article I have been selling these palm trees in New York for over 8 years and have been successfully rapping them with our new system for the past 3 years. The great thing about our system is that it's reusable year after year. It is also very easy to set up and take down. I would love to talk to you can you please give me a call at 6 31714 7256 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Marvin Heuser on April 08, 2017:
Can you tell me what palms hold their leaves all winter long? Or how long they hold their green lesves?
Dan- Long Island, NY on October 08, 2016:
I planted a Brazoria Sabal Palm 4 years ago outside and it's doing fine. I do not cover it. One year it had leaf burn but it's growing faster each year. I fertilize it in spring with palm fertilizer but it seems to grow better when I leave it alone. Great palm for New York.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 20, 2016:
Hi Gisle, the most important part to spray is the crown of the plant where the leaves protrude. Since I am in the U.S. I don't know where to get this in Norway. Here I would use Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-...
Gisle Obrestad on May 14, 2016:
Hi:) I live in the southern parts of Norway, and keep a couple of windmill palms in the garden. The winters are mild(for Norway at least), wet and windy. You mention a copper-based fungicide for wet climates. Do you know any web-sites who sells this? Any recommendations? And you simply spray this on the leaves? A lot of questions, hope you´ll take the time to answer:)
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 10, 2016:
LI is a 6b-7a. Windmill palms are the only tree palms you can try in this climate, although at that height they can be pricey, and they will need protection.
Frank H on May 10, 2016:
What type of palm tree can I plant on Long Island. I am looking for something 5 or 6 feet high
Frank H on May 10, 2016:
What Zone is Long Island New York.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 05, 2016:
Yo on May 05, 2016:
Will this grow in lehi utah
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 30, 2014:
We're in the same zone but we have longer bouts of cold and inclement weather, I imagine. I fear that my spears will pull once it starts to warm up. It happened to me a few years ago, that's when the fungus starts to set it.
Anthony Iroler on January 30, 2014:
My needle palm and sabal palm are doing great so far no leaf burn or anything, but my windmill palm has lost all of its fronds as they have all dried out and turned brown. There is no spear pull yet I hope it makes it though fingers crossed I am in Virginia zone 6b.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 29, 2014:
rlhart, this winter is TERRIBLE. The palms in this video are doing pretty poorly, their leaves are already goners. I'll be elated if they make it through this alive. I haven't protected them too much, but have already done more than I did last year.
rlhart on January 29, 2014:
Love this site. Hope to see it expand. I have a windmill palm that I've over wintered for the past two years, and planted it outside this summer. I live in S.E. Ohio zone 6 and have had -10 F temps. Not the best winter to try.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on September 08, 2013:
Good luck jillbear! Zone 5 will be a challenge, but if you don't get annoying weather like ice storms and/or if you protect them well it can be done.
jillbear on September 08, 2013:
Thanks Melissa! couldn't figure out my planting zone until i went here http://gardenbuddy.org/planting-zones then found your post, trying to grow palm trees in zone 5 is hard, love the tips :)