Today is Palm Sunday. The current “stay at home” order prevented us from attending Sunday service (our church met online using Zoom instead), but I have nevertheless been thinking about palm trees. The palm fronds that give this Sunday its name were presumably cut from Phoenix dactylifera (date palm), a middle eastern species that could not survive a North Carolina winter. If you want to grow a palm tree in your piedmont garden–to add verisimilitude to your Palm Sunday decorations, for a tropical look, or just to impress your neighbors–there’s only really one choice.
No, not dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor). Although that native of the coastal plain is perfectly hardy in the piedmont, its trunk is entirely subterranean. For a palm tree, with a tall trunk, you want Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chinese windmill palm. T fortunei probably has a native range extending from the Himalayan foothills of India to Japan, but its long history of cultivation makes tracking its original habitat tricky. It is usually rated hardy to USDA Zone 7, although there seems to be some variation in hardiness among different cultivars.
I planted a single T. fortunei seedling about ten years ago, and the trunk is now about six feet (1.8 m) tall. It is growing at the southeast corner of the house, so it is sheltered from the prevailing northwest winds in winter. To the east and south are tall pines and deciduous trees, so the palm gets about four hours of direct sun and bright shade for the rest of the day. When it was very small, I sometimes insulated the trunk and crown with burlap and pine straw in winter, but it is now too tall for that to be practical. Temperatures below about 8-10 F (-13 C) burn the tips of the fronds, but 5 F (-15 C) nights during two winters did not cause any permanent damage.
Last year, the tree produced its first inflorescence, and this year it has multiple inflorescences with thousands of flowers. T. fortunei is dioecious–male and female flowers occur on different trees–and my tree appears to be male.