Palms – the root of no problems

By Ralph E. Mitchell

Palms are a big part of our landscape and as such are fairly closely observed and sometimes obsessed over.  Amongst the “normal abnormalities” that may be observed on palms are the weird roots they possess.  Seemingly odd and maybe problematic, many times palm roots are just doing what comes naturally and are in fact, just fine.   What types of things might you see that could set off alarms which are perfectly normal and require no panic?

All palm roots grow from base of the trunk at a spot called the root initiation zone.  Centrally located at the bottom of the palm stem, it continues to expand and spread out over time.  Eventually it grows its way up and around the base of the trunk – up to one foot in most species of palms.  In some types of palms, the root initiation zone can continue several feet up from the base of trunk.  This can give these palms a strange look and many homeowners may sense a problem.  This condition is perfectly normal and no panic is required.  Not only is it normal, but the palm is well anchored if that is a concern.  These excess aerial roots which begin to grow encounter air instead of soil, do not have enough moisture, and simply stop where they are.

Another odd root/trunk manifestation occurs on mature palm where the outer cortex or bark of the palm splits and flares at the base.  This is just another awkward-looking root initiation development.  The roots push and force the bark at the base of the palm out in flared manner that reminds me of the appearance of an exploded cigar seen in cartoons.  These can really send homeowners into a panic as it can appear damaged.  This is just another case of don’t worry – all is well!

Just to balance out the discussion a bit, there can be cases where palms were in fact planted too shallow.  If you look at the base of the palm in question you will see what looks like an inverted cone where the root tips show, but few ever reach the ground.  Small specimens could be replanted at the proper depth, while larger subjects can be stabilized by mounding soil around the base so that the root stubs can contact the soil.  These new roots will rapidly grow into the new soil provided and quickly anchor the palm.

Filed under “Normal Abnormalities” apparent palm root problems are seldom real problems.  As with many things, a picture is worth a thousand words.  As such, please free to e-mail me (shadowed@ufl.edu)  digital photos of palm concerns and other landscape issues.  Not only can I get a good picture of what is going on, but I can also send the photos to colleagues and UF/IFAS Specialists for their opinion as well.

The good news is that many plant problems need positive identification before any action is taken.  While some problems can be serious, others may simply be mistaken identity, and once correctly identified, provide peace of mind.  For more information on all types of palm problems, real and not so real,  please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times – http://charlotte.ifas.ufl.edu/horticulture/Plant%20Clinics%20Schedule.pdf.

Resource:
Broschat, T. K. & Elliott, M. L. (2016) Normal “Abnormalities” in Palms.  The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Broschat, T. K. (2014) Physiological Disorders of Landscape Palms.  The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.

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