Windmill palm tree

Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chinese windmill palm

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.


5 thoughts on “Windmill palm tree

  1. Just recently, I acquired seed for the dwarf palmetto from the southeast corner of Oklahoma. Sabal minor ‘McCurtain’ was selected from the same region, in McCurtain County of Oklahoma, although mine are not of that selected variety. (I specifically wanted something comparable to wild seed.) I know they are nothing special to those who are familiar with them, but I have my reasons for wanting to grow them here, even though I can grow almost as many palms as those that can be grown in the Los Angeles region.
    Anyway, windmill palm is one of the more common palms here, and is the only palm I have seen in the Pacific Northwest. My #5 sister has one in here front garden in Renton in Washington. I saw a few in Portland. They apparently do well in Oklahoma City too. I have always liked them. The specimen in my former garden was shaved to expose an elegantly narrow trunk. Other species have become available in the past several years, including at least one (Trachycarpus takil) that supposedly sheds the shaggy petiole bases from its trunk.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I sort of expect them to be shaggy, but shaved the specimen in my own garden just to demonstrate that it could be done. However, I do not recommend it unless someone REALLY wants a bare trunk. It is WAY too much work. That is why the Trachycarpus takil appealed to me. Although I sort of doubt that it sheds its shag naturally, I suspect that the shag is easier to remove. I sort of doubt that such insulation is necessary in North Carolina. You might want to investigate the frost tolerance of Trachycarpus takil, or some of the other species that are becoming available.

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        1. I could not find many pictures of it, so I do not know how it compares to Trachycarpus fortunei. If they were together, one might look like the other but with something wrong with it. I sort of think they would be more compatible if they looked more different from each other, so at least they would look like two different species.

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