Recently, Ranter Allen Bush drew our attention to an NPR segment on the problem with palm trees in Florida. In Miami Beach, they make up almost 60% of the tree canopy (mainly the familiar Royal palms), but, as you can imagine, don’t provide much shade. Local arborists and city officials are trying to be as subtle as possible, adding more shade trees without displacing too many of the beloved palms.

I am a regular visitor to another Florida area, Key West (shown in top photo), which is also blessed with many palms (the commonly used “palm” represents a sprawling group of genera with many different shapes and forms). Sure, I see the familiar towering varieties, which many say look out of place, around my beach hotel.  In fact, I posted from Key West in 2019 and got this comment on the photo above: “The excessive amount of silly palms show an irrational infatuation that ruins every imaginable garden installation. Palms clash with every bush, tree, plants one can think of. Heights with bare trunks and tons of heavy fronds and seeds that take forever to decompose unless reduced with a powerful shredder.” 

I do enjoy the tall ones, especially in a beach setting, but there are lots of shorter palm varieties that play very nicely in a tropical garden situation (as above). Key West-based garden designer Patrick Tierney, who passed away in May, 2020, was known as a palm collector and expert who used his personal garden as a research station for rare varieties. He’s known for designing the Key West library gardens as well as many private commissions, including a large estate in Sunset Key that received an Architectural Digest write-up. I was urged to look him up when I made my January 2020 trip and missed the opportunity.

Triangle palms (neodypsis), buccaneer palms (pseudophoenix, lady palms (rhapsis), and other small-to-medium varieties can be found throughout Key West and mix well with the draecaenae, crotons, musa, heliconia, alocasia, and bougainvillea, among many others. Of course, almost everything requires rigorous pruning in this climate.

My Key West visit last month made me feel more defensive of palms than ever; certainly, this is a not a group of plants that deserves a wholesale write-off. It’s just too big and has too many wildly diverse species. Had I a garden in the appropriate area, I would certainly search out some interesting palm varieties.

Edit: Though the NPR article does refer to palm “trees,” only some of this huge group of plants take a single-trunk form; others are multi-stemmed and vining. I have tried to keep to the single word “palms” except for the NPR reference.