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Plant Profiles

Bulgarian Windmill Palm

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If any palm can survive the Winter in Rhode Island, this is it: A strain of windmill palm from Bulgaria.  Trachycarpus fortunei is native to high elevations in China, where it's cold (comparatively) in the Winter, and none too hot (comparatively) in the Summer.  And a quartet of old Trachycarpus growing in Bulgaria (of all places) has survived a legendary Winter when temperatures collapsed to 17 below zero.  Fahrenheit.  At least for one night, those Bulgarian palms survived temperatures that would have been impressively brutal for February in Chicago.

 

My Bulgarians are seedlings of those Bulgarians.  I may never plant my quartet in the garden, though.  All that cold tolerance makes them that much more blasé about Winter in the "warm" greenhouse, which is only heated to 50 degrees.  For true tropicals, months of fifty-degree nights are the absolute lower limit of unrelenting chill.  For plants that have survived even one night of fifteen below, fifty above is balmy indeed.  And with balmy Winters and sunny warm Summers, these Bulgarians should grow as fast and as big as possible.

 

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For northern gardeners, palms are a temptation as well as a conundrum.  You can't get that iconic foliage in your garden any other way.  But if you just dot palm trees around, it looks like there was a truckload sale at Home Depot, whose cheap palms have made even expensive ones suspect.  We northerners see a palm frond—any palm frond—and we think it's one of the "cheap" tropicals.  Cheap in all senses, too.  If they're not to seem like budget stunts in a cold-climate garden, palm trees need to be handled with creativity and context. 

 

So I'm going to keep mine in containers.  Each Spring, they'll be "placed proud" in the garden—as a quartet of pots at the intersection of two pathways—not snuck into the general plantings.  That would be ridiculous: Palm trees aren't annuals, and big ones (which these will become, insha'Allah) are expensive.  Placing them prominently shows that these palms are not those palms.  Even if you don't know why, you'll realize by their placement alone that they're important.  You'll know that these palms didn't come from a truck sale.  That they're worth an important place in the garden.  That they're so worth that important place that I have four of them, not just one.  

 

Worthy, indeed.

 

 

Here's how to grow this uniquely hardy palm:


Latin Name

Trachycarpus fortunei var. bulgaria

Common Name

Bulgarian Windmill Palm

Family

Arecaceae, the Fan Palm family.

What kind of plant is it?

Palm Tree. 

Hardiness

Zones 7 - 10.

Habit

Vertical and single-trunked, topped with a ruff of palmate fronds.

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

In climates that are not at the extreme of its cold-weather tolerance, perhaps to twelve feet tall, with a foliage canopy four or five feet across.  Slower growing in colder climates as well as in containers, and not as tall.  In-ground in milder climates, to forty feet or more. 

Texture

Iconically palmy, with a narrow trunk and a top-knot of relatively short fronds.

Grown for

its unique suitability for cool climates with comparatively cold winters:  A few other palms—Sabal, Chamaerops, Rhapidophyllum—can survive as low Winter temperatures.  But they need hot weather in Summer to revive, let alone burgeon.  The rule of thumb for hardy palms is that unless Summer temperatures regularly climb into the 90's, the palms won't make much progress.  Trachycarpus is the big exception, actually preferring cooler Summer temperatures.  It thrives in such notably cool-Summer locales as Scotland, Norway, and southeastern Alaska.

 

its orderly habit: Windmill palms are ramrod-vertical.

Flowering season

Spring.  The small yellow-to-green flowers are not showy in themselves, but are born by the hundreds on a large panicle that can be almost a yard long, so they're collectively impressive.  Containered specimens are much less likely to flower.

Color combinations

Trachycarpus doesn't bring distinctive color to a landscape, so it goes with everything. 

Partner plants

Growing in-ground, windmill palms provide two quite contrasting options.  Because their trunks are so straight and their growth reasonably consistent one plant to another, they can be planted where they can be enjoyed fully, from top to bottom, and with minimal horticulture at their base beyond a low groundcover or turf.  In this usage, they are highly engaging when planted in geometric groups or in large groves. 

 

Their narrow trunks and high crown of foliage, however, are also very appealing when combined with exuberant and diverse underplantings.  The comparatively short and round fronds cast little shade, and palms don't have very wide-growing roots, either.  So companion plantings can be diverse as well as vigorous.  Large solid leaves—bananas, cannas, elephant ears, as well as big-scale succulents and cacti—would be an exciting counterpoint to the much-divided fan leaves of the palm.  

 

Shrubs and perennials of mounding habit would pair nicely with its trunk and small-scale crown of foliage, too.  Pittosporum tobira, Aucuba japonica, Scaevola taccada, and Griselinia littoralis would be particularly compatible for shore-line locations, in that they are also very wind- and salt-tolerant.  Inland, large-scale philodendron would be an effective underplanting, too; although its foliage is also divided, it's more leaf than air; the fronds of Bulgarian Trachycarpus are more air than leaf.

Where to use it in your garden

Whether in-ground or in containers, a group of Trachycarpus can be used architecturally, in geometric array and with simple companion plantings.  They would be a handsome and dignified welcome in a courtyard, or as vertical punctuation to a terrace.  

 

Because the fronds are short compared to the tree's eventual height, and the trunks are so reliably vertical, Trachycarpus is also effective in groups or even groves.  Planting eight feet apart would be the minimum spacing, to ensure clearance between fronds of adjacent plants.  A group of three Trachycarpus erupting from a larger underplanting of, say, variegated pittosporum?  Elegant as well as inspired.

 

Trachycarpus is least effective when in a line-up, which only calls attention to any individual variance in height or vigor.  

 

Especially where Trachycarpus isn't solidly hardy, using one in-ground as part of a larger mixed planting is best instead of gambling on a group of them to form a geometric and inherently focal gesture.  If the solitary palm has an especially rough Winter—or dies outright—the overall composition isn't ruined.   

Culture

Full sun and well-drained soil.  Perfect Winter drainage is essential for hardiness at the cold end of its range.

How to handle it: The Basics

Growing a windmill palm in a container is easy.  If you're gardening in Zone 8 and warmer, you could leave your containered Trachycarpus outside year-round.  In Zone 7 and colder, though, the palm will be outdoors only in the warm months.  In any location, give it full sun and, especially if you're gardening north of the palm's usual range, all possible heat.  Fertilize in the Spring and early Summer; rose fertilizer is particularly good because it supplies micronutrients that palm also appreciates.  Water as needed; you want to encourage growth, so be attentive. 

 

Potted palms that have trunks usually become top-heavy.  Sometimes this is because the trunk is assisting in water storage in the event of a drought.  The trunk also elevates the crown of foliage that much higher from the pot, increasing its exposure to wind and also increasing the wind-driven leverage that the crown would apply, down through the trunk to the pot, to tip the whole plant over.  Either place the pot where there isn't much wind or give the entire plant, pot and all, serious staking.  Wood or bamboo stakes will probably not be strong enough; pound two lengths of thick (half-inch minimum) rebar into the ground on either side of the pot.  Tie some tasteful rope between the rebars, looping gently around the trunk of the palm just below the lowest frond.

 

Move into shelter before serious frost, into as bright light as you can provide.  Windmill palms are remarkably cold-hardy, remember, so a location that becomes cool (but not freezing) at night is fine.  What's most important is that the palm continue to receive bright light all Winter.  Reduce watering as soon as you've brought the palm into shelter; wait until the top inch of soil is definitely dry before watering.  Overall size can be controlled by allowing the palm to become pot-bound, or encouraged by repotting into a slightly larger pot each Spring.  Don't resume fertilizing until the palm has become more active in late Winter or early Spring.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

In-ground where windmill palms are solidly hardy, this is an easy-care tree.  It tolerates even windy and seashore locations.

 

At the colder end of hardiness, strategic siting is important.  Perfect Winter drainage is essential, as is shelter (but not shade) from nearby taller evergreens, fences, and buildings.  Planting in a relatively small courtyard, with buildings on all four sides, would be particularly helpful, because there would be little wind. 

 

Attempting to establish Trachycarpus in an even colder climate?  New York City, say?  You could wrap the trunk with strands of Christmas mini-lights, which use little electricity and, believe it or not, will keep the trunk just that little bit warmer.  Then wrap the trunk with wind-baffle fabric.  Spray the fronds with antidessicant; you can also try tying the fronds up and together, to protect the palm's single growth point, and then wrapping the entire head of tied fronds with more wind-baffle fabric.  You could even rig up a miniature greenhouse over the tree.

 

At least to me, the technical achievement of growing a palm in-ground is not as satisfying as growing a palm that's truly happy and vigorous, which is more likely to happen when the palm is growing in a container.  An in-ground palm that's still surviving—what a miracle!—but gets beat up every Winter seems a bit of a cruelty.  But if you're into the tinkering and the labor of overwintering in-ground palms farther north than they'd care to live on their own, go for it.

Quirks or special cases

You can leave old fronds in place, in which case the trunk will acquire a thick brown skirt.  Or you could clip brown fronds off as soon as you notice them.  Or you could clip them off of only the lower reaches of the trunk.  Windmill palms growing in containers are most coveniently handled when old fronds are removed; they also take up less room indoors.

Downsides

Besides not being hardy to Nova Scotia, I can't think of one.

Variants

Trachycarpus species and cultivars—and there are over a dozen all told—are quite similar; differing more in their tolerance for cold weather than in their appearance.  It's unlikely you'd want to have a Trachycarpus collection: One variety has fronds that are a bit larger, or a bit shorter; one trunk is a bit thicker, one grows a bit taller—and, overall, so what?  There isn't the dramatic diversity of features from one species to another (or among the cultivars of any one species) that there would be in a collection of, say, hostas, where you could feature tiny dwarves as well as giants, with leaves of radically different shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns of variegation.

 

The species that's most unlike the rest of the windmill plams is Trachycarpus nanus, which never gets taller than three feet.  Its trunk is formed mostly underground, and can extend six feet deep. 

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

Trachycarpus does not off-set or branch, so probably by division or stem cuttings isn't feasible.  Leaf propagation isn't possible, either.  Trachycarpus is propagated from seed. 

Native habitat

Trachycarpus fortunei is native to higher-elevation mountains of southern China.  This variant is a seedling of a group of windmill palms in Bulgaria that famously (at least in hardy-palm circles) survived an episode of -17 F. 

 
 
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