Scouting Palm Issues
Palms trees are the icons of the Florida landscape. With eleven beautiful palms native to Florida’s subtropical climate, it is easy to see why people brought many palms from around the world here to thrive. Though palms are generally well adapted for this climate, they still suffer from lethal nutrient issues and deadly diseases. In fact, the first confirmed Seminole County case of the deadly and mysterious palm phytoplasma disease, Texas Phoenix Palm Decline aka TPPD, was scouted by a landscaper with professional training and a keen eye.
Nico Hernandez, owner of Florida’s Eden, Inc., noticed an imperiled date palm in one of the landscapes he manages. The palm in trouble was a Phoenix sylvestris, commonly known as the Wild Date Palm or Sylvester Palm , a majestic tree with blueish green leaves, a textured trunk, and yellow flower spikes originally moved to the US from the Indian subcontinent. The homeowner lovingly selected two tall Sylvester Palms for exact placement in the landscape. At a height of at least 16 feet each, the trees, transportation, and installation for this palm species will run about $4000 each, minimum.
Thousands of dollars for a palm tree? Yes. It happens in landscapes and along roadways all across Florida.
Are you listening now?
Fear not- research and education is on your side! The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has been researching palms for many decades. Dr. Monica Elliot and Dr. Timothy Broschat are the go- to palm experts working out of the UF Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, and lucky for the rest of us, they take their show on the road.
“Palm Management in the Florida Landscape” aka “Palm School” is a two day class taught by the palm experts for landscape professionals who learn how to “read” palm trees for nutrient issues and diseases. As soon as I received the urgent call from Nico Hernandez about an imperiled palm, I could tell he was a Palm School grad.
We exchanged information seamlessly, and the way this palm was reading, we were hot on the trail for finding the first case of Texas Phoenix Palm Decline in Seminole County.
Palm Reading- Diagnostics
First, we determined the species of the palm. Some palm diseases are species specific. Currently, TPPD is known to affect Canary Island date palm, edible date palm, wild date palm, and our state tree, the cabbage palm. Then, we observed the pattern of dead leaves. TPPD will typically start by showing more dead lower and older leaves on a palm than is normal. Next, the spear leaf will start to turn brown and die. The spear leaf is the youngest, newest leaf that looks like a spear shooting out of the top of the palm tree. With TPPD, sometimes the spear will break off and dangle. Once that spear leaf is dead, the palm tree is a goner and needs to be removed immediately to prevent further spread of the disease.
The TPPD phytoplasma disease is spread by a tiny insect called a planthopper that sucks plant sap from leaves and hops plant to plant. To be completely honest, even the experts do not know much about the disease, so UF hired a new researcher, Dr. Brian Bahder, committed to learning more.
Luckily, we do have diagnostic tools and treatments for a variety of diseases including TPPD if you catch it in time. In the Seminole County case, Nico and I met up to pull palm tree trunk samples to overnight to Dr. Badher, who was willing to expedite the process for this case. We pulled samples from one tree that was dying and another Sylvester Palm that appeared healthy. If the tree that appeared healthy was in fact still healthy, the management option of preventatively treating the palm with an antibiotic oxytetracycline (OTC) trunk injection could save the tree and the homeowner at least $4000.
The results came in, and while one palm was confirmed diseased with a lethal case of TPPD requiring immediate removal, the other palm tested healthy providing an opportunity for antibiotic treatments. Many folks probably do not realize the value of quality landscaping and an educated landscaper, but trust me, they exist and they keep our communities thriving with beauty! Landscapers have professional associations, continuing education, and certifications just like many other professions.
With at least one new arthropod introduced to Florida each month, and who knows how many new diseases, the dissemination of UF/IFAS research and education to clientele is providing “solutions for your life” every single day.
Palm Maintenance- The Basics
Here are some basic recommendations for maintaining healthy palm trees:
- Provide good nutrition with a quality palm fertilizer
- Diseases are spread from:
- Environment- wind, insects, rain or overhead irrigation
- Contaminated pruning tools
- Disinfect between trees with blow torch or disinfectant
- Palm health declines when overpruned and risk of disease introduction with every open wound
- Climbing spikes opens unhealable wounds on palms
- Do not plant too deep
Remember all of the things that can kill your palm for reasons known and unknown when selecting plants for your landscape. Now that you realize the monetary and aesthetic value of palms, and their persistent battle with nutrition and disease issues, you too can become a palm reader and a better steward for your local environment.