Pick out any tropical vacation postcard – or watch any hurricane advisory – and it’ll likely have a palm in the photo or video clip. The palm tree is not only the symbol of balmy climates, it’s also an ancient survivor that outlived whatever killed all the dinosaurs – petrified palm fossils have been uncovered as far north as Canada!

Various palms

Palm trees are tropically pleasing.

Photo Credit: Felder Rushing

Florida coontie palm

Florida coontie is commonly sold in coastal areas.

Photo Credit: Felder Rushing

Sago palm

Sago palms are often used in the landscape, as well as in containers.

Photo Credit: Felder Rushing

Palms are unique plants, typically having either single or multiple trunks supported by a thick, hairy mass of wiry roots produced at the base or “butt” of the trunks. Large palm leaves or “fronds” are usually either deeply divided fan-shaped (palmate) or feathery (pinnate) with many smaller leaflets on a long, single petiole stem. These leaves are produced one at a time from a single “bud” atop the trunk. Palm trunks are actually old leaf sheaths; with very few exceptions, if the top of a palm is cut off or killed by freezing temperature, that entire trunk will simply die. Very few palms sprout back from their roots.

Most of us think of palms as being tropical plants, which they are. However, many – including our own Southeastern native needle palm and palmetto, and the very cold-hardy Asian windmill palm – can tolerate hard freezes, at least for a few days at a time without protection. Even more are grown in containers that can be dragged indoors during winter.

In areas where it rarely freezes, and a bit beyond that, palms lend a tropical flair to nearly every imaginable landscape setting, from striking single specimen or naturalistic group accents, to street trees, hedges, barriers and comforting container beauties.

Most palms grow best in sun, but most also tolerate quite a bit of shade, especially when young. This shade tolerance, coupled with the plants having a fairly small rootball, make palms very attractive as container plants both indoors and in restricted areas outdoors such as on patios or beside swimming pools.

Because palms are such flamboyant plants, they’re easily overdone to the point where they can become landscape clichés. However, they can be easily combined with evergreen trees and shrubs in nearly any landscape style. And there are quite a few popular palmlike plants, including the related cycad called “sago” palm (Cycas revoluta), commonly used in landscapes from the lower Southeast to the entire West Coast and often prized as container plants elsewhere. Another cycad that’s commonly sold in coastal areas is the Florida coontie (Zamia integrifolia or Zamia pumila).

Whether you live in a warm or cool climate, or even where it really stays cold all winter, there are great palms that grow well enough for you to choose one for nearly any setting – indoors or out.