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Pruning Palms

palm treePruning Palms

Guest Article for the Tallahassee Democrat

Photo by Dr. Tim Broschat, University of Florida: An over-pruned Sabal palmetto.

April 25, 2013, Release for Tallahassee Democrat

By Ed Duke

Palms are a prominent part of our Florida landscapes.   Many of us include them in our Florida gardens because these plants are considered low maintenance.  It’s important to remember that low maintenance doesn’t mean no maintenance.  One of the maintenance tasks that must be performed is pruning.  Palms require regular pruning to keep them attractive and safe. 

Knowing how palms grow is important in understanding how to care for them.  Palms are fairly unique in their growth habits. Unlike most other plants, palms produce new leafy growth only from their apex (top).  Most plants develop new growing points when they are pruned.  In this way, gardeners are able to maintain their plants at a desired size.   Palms do not develop new growing points and cannot be pruned to control size.  Pruning the top off of a palm will ensure the demise of the plant.

Removal of dead and dying fronds is an important reason to prune palms.  This not only improves the appearance of the plant, but it also is important as a safety feature.  Dead and dying fronds are loosely attached to some palms, and can place people and property at risk.  Ideally no live or green fronds should be removed from a palm. The green leaves are the source of food (photosynthates) for plants and are the storage site of many essential nutrients.  Removal of green leaves deprives the plant of these needed resources. 

If live, healthy fronds must be removed, only those which are growing downward at less than a 90-degree angle from the trunk should come off.  Avoid removing those fronds which are growing horizontally or growing upward.  Fronds should be removed close to the base of the petiole but care should be taken not to damage living trunk tissue.  Palms do not have a true bark and are unable to seal over wounds.

A word or two should be said about the practice of “hurricane pruning” of palms.  Those words are “no” and “no.”  Hurricane pruning entails the removal of most of the leaves on a palm, and on some palms, like the Canary Island Date Palm, leaving a pineapple-like shape at the base of the fronds.  This practice does not prevent damage to the plant in the case of high winds.  In fact, in the long run, it may promote wind damage.  Repeated over-removal of leaves weakens the plant, making it more prone to mechanical damage and more susceptible to insects and disease.

There is one time when most of the fronds on a palm should be removed, and that is at transplanting.  Certain palms like Sabal and Washingtonia transplant best when all of their roots are removed.  The Removal of roots removes the source of water uptake for the plant.  Leaving fronds on the palm would create a problem because of continued water loss through transpiration.  Removing the green fronds at transplanting reduces the loss of water from the plant, and actually allows the plant to survive.

An additional point on pruning is the removal of flower stalks and fruit clusters.  Falling flower and fruit debris can be messy as well as hazardous.  In addition, several palm species produce large amounts of seedlings near the base of the plant.  Removing flowers or fruit reduces the number of potential seedings.

Palms are wonderful additions to Florida landscapes, however they must be properly maintained to keep them looking their best.

Ed Duke is an Associate Professor of Ornamental Horticulture at Florida A&M University and a member of the Leon County/UF IFAS Extension Urban Forestry/Horticulture Advisory Committee.   For more information about gardening in our area, visit the UF/ IFAS Leon County Extension website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu.  For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov

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