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Palm Reading- Identifying and preventing the spread of the first confirmed case of lethal TPPD in Seminole County

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.

This palm shows typical signs of Texas Phoenix Palm Decline with brown older fronds, and a dead spearleaf, the newest frond at the top center of the palm.


Thousands of dollars for a palm tree? Yes. It happens in landscapes and along roadways all across Florida.

Are you listening now?

Palm Research

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.

18 Comments on “Palm Reading- Identifying and preventing the spread of the first confirmed case of lethal TPPD in Seminole County

  1. I believe I also have a Sylvester palm that may be suffering from this disease. I live in Citrus Cnty. . I have ordered the treatment for the disease mentioned which will arrive tomorrow. Sad to think it may be to late but I will try and hope for the best.

    • Hi John! It never hurts to reach out to your local UF/IFAS Citrus County Extension Office for some guidance on diagnosis and treatment. Here is their email:
      I would get a confirmation of diagnosis of TPPD as treatment is not cheap and it is continual. Good luck with your sylvester palm!

  2. where do you get the treatment for TPPD of which our landscaper has diagnosed our tree having this problem. Can this treament be done by us the homeowner or do we need to hire a landscaper to apply the treatment and what exactly is the process etc. We read the articles and testing menthods done but done have contact info on purchasing the product.please advise

    • Hi Terese,

      Palms that are surviving with TPPD can be treated with Oxytetracycline (OTC) trunk injections for the rest of the life of the tree. This could get expensive, so I would recommend evaluating the value of the tree and whether it is worth treating for the remainder of its life. Palms come at all different price tags! Best of luck!

  3. I have been treating palms for quite a while in Orlando, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve even seen a Canary expire from Ganoderma (no mistaking those conchs) then same spot replanted with Sylvester, no soil change out and it has been doing well for 10+ years…go figure!

    • Hi Chris,

      That is interesting and thank you for sharing! I wonder what the status will be in another 10 or 20 years? Can we get a follow up in 2029? Very best!

  4. Hello, I am the president of Bonafide Landscaping. I have a dear client that it appears has this Texas Phoenix Palm Decline aka TPPD. I have had multiple arborist look at her palm to try and help save it. I came across this and would love if I could ask for help. She has a beautiful Palm and would loose such a great house curb appeal if this palm dies.

  5. How do we do the test for diagnosis of TPPD?

    We have three Sylvester’s just installed in August 2018 and two appear to be on their way out.

    • Hi Stefanie, It is best to work with a professional for diagnosis. If you send your local Extension Agent food photos, that can tell us a lot. If we suspect something more, we will recommend taking trunk samples, which again, is something you should work with a pro to do. It involves opening a wound directly into the tissue of the tree, and if not done properly, could be an invitation for disease.

  6. Ihave two selvester palms about 8foot tall and they both have trees i the ground for about 3 mounths. They are loseing tree branches layer by layer .iv done everything. Inow and still turning brown.if you have someone locol that i can talk to would be very much appreciated my numer is 561 #######. My name is randy gillespie i am in west palm beach.if you have any body i can hire. Or look at these trees i will defiantly take care of them.idont want to lose these tree’s. Thanks or email this. Address back.

  7. I had a Sylvester palm planted almost 6 months ago that is suffering with this disease. Our llandscapers who planted the tree are going to replace it with another Sylvester. But I’m a little concerned, will the next one suffer the same fate being planted in the same hole? What are my best options for the new palm tree to thrive? TIA

    • Hi Lauren, the best practice is to replace with something different that is not susceptible to the disease.

  8. We are in the market to purchase a sylvester palm. What should we look for to identify a healthy palm? We have seen many with yellowing fronds. Are yellowing fronds an indication of a problem?
    Is it better to purchase a palm with a diamond cut trunk or better to have the diamond cut done after planting in our yard?

    • Hi Janice, yellowing fronds are typically an indication of a nutrient deficiency which can usually be corrected with a good palm fertilizer for Florida. The diamond cut should be okay whether done before or after transplanting, but in general, we do not recommend pruning off palm fronds that are alive… only prune off dead brown fronds. This will prevent the opportunity for a disease to enter an open wound.

  9. Any thoughts about a central spear leaf yellow, but not (yet) brown or bottom fronds browning?? Two years after transplanting two ten ft sylvesters.

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