By Ralph E. Mitchell
Can you grow a coconut palm in Charlotte County? The short answer is both “yes” and “no”. While this magnificent symbol of the tropics makes a wonderful landscape feature in some places, it is marginal at best in even protected areas away from the coast. I have always wanted one in my yard, but have learned the hard way that this wish is not coming true.
When I arrived in Charlotte County back in 2000, I vowed that I would have at least one coconut palm in my front yard. I bought one and planted it. A light freeze was on tap in early 2001, so I covered it with what I thought was good protection. There was a little damage, but the coconut was otherwise fine. We had a second heavier freeze within a week and no amount of covering protected my poor little palm. It was toast and I felt defeated! They sold coconut palms at the local box store garden centers – it should have been fine here in Port Charlotte – right? Besides, this is Florida and we are far enough down the peninsula to avoid such frosts and freezes – weren’t we? I quickly learned my lesson that even though I wanted this coconut to survive, it was just not hardy enough where I lived.
But I digress….back to the article! The coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, as per the literature, is best suited for areas that have an average minimum low of seventy-two degrees F. Coconuts can be killed or injured at thirty-two degrees F. Even in the forty’s, chilling injury can damage leaf tissue . That means that the best chance of having a coconut survive in the landscape in our area is one planted very close to, if not right on, the coast. At the coast we can get at least a hardiness zone of 10a which means that the average minimum temperature will be from thirty to thirty-five degrees F. This is cold enough, but may still offer the needed protection. Hardiness zone 10b is even better, but elusive at best to find unless you are in the Miami-Dade area and south. The rest of Charlotte County, as we extend east of 41 and into the interior, is mostly zone 9b – too cold for coconuts. Now, surprisingly, there are a few coconut palms in Port Charlotte, but situated within some very rare and warm “microclimates. I have watched one for years that is still alive and well tucked up next to a house. But for the most part, coconut palms will be found directly along the salt water coast which provides protective warmth during the winter.
Otherwise, coconut palms are very tolerant of wind, flooding and even salt which makes them very pre-adapted to coastal conditions. Most homeowners start with a sprouted seed from a nursery. It is very interesting and novel to see the large coconut husk half way out of the soil with the sprout shooting out of one end. Young coconuts of about six months are ready to be planted in the landscape. Some larger specimens are also available in pots or field dug. Plant container grown specimens so that the juncture of the roots and shoot is about one-inch lower than the soil surface. Field-dug ones should be planted level with the soil line. Water is the most important thing to keep newly planted coconuts growing vigorously. Coconuts require full sun and should be spaced from eighteen to thirty feet apart. There are number of cultivars to pick from ranging in color from green to yellow to gold. The ‘Jamaican Tall”, a quick growing variety, can get up to eighty feet tall, so plan before you plant. The ‘Malayan Dwarf’ and the ‘Fiji Dwarf’ are also available.
While the disease Lethal Yellowing is of concern with coconuts, it is seldom a problem this far north. Various bud rots, scale insects and whiteflies can also be occasional problems. Lightening is also a concern and can strike taller specimens with lethal consequences. Proper fertilizer applications will not only keep your coconut palm in good health, but also increase this palm’s tolerance to cold weather. We recommend the following for all established palms – a granular fertilizer – 8-2-12-4 (or 8-0-12-4) applied in November, February and May as per label directions. In August use a 0-0-16-6, again as per label direction.
It is interesting to note that that the coconut palm is considered a Category II Invasive Plant as per the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council in the southern areas of Florida. The UF/IFAS Invasive Plant Working Group recommends homeowners avoid planting this palm near natural areas and to prevent fruit from entering canals and other flowing waterways. However, It is very unlikely that this would be a problem here and is much more pertinent well south of us. If you still want a coconut and don’t live in a warm area, please consider planting a small specimen in a large container which can be moved in and out of cover as needed. It will provide a short-term novel decorative plant for a patio or deck. For more information on all types of palms, 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.
Broschat, T. K. (2015) Not All Landscape Palm Fertilizers Are Created Equal. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Broschat, T. K. & Crane, J. H. (2014) The Coconut Palm in Florida. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
FLEPPC. 2017. List of Invasive Plant Species. Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council. Internet: www.fleppc.org.
The UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native Plants in Florida’s Natural Areas – https://assessment.ifas.ufl.edu/assessments/cocos-nucifera/
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map – Florida – http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#