Native to the Southern United States, the Sabal minor or Dwarf Palmetto is a smaller and much shorter cousin to the familiar Sabal palmetto that lines the streets and palisades of cities in the Deep South, where the fronds were once cut to make ladies’ hand fans. Part of the Dwarf Palmetto’s native range includes the extreme southeastern portion of Virginia. As a result, S. minor is one of the most cold-hardy palms that can be grown in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
S. minor features evergreen, deep blue-green fanlike fronds of one to three feet in length, depending on the age of the plant. A shrubby, clumping palm, it may form short trunks of one to three feet after many years of growth. At maturity, S. minor can range from six to eight feet tall and wide.
Many specimens have endured Zone 7 and lower winter temperatures and being covered in thick ice and deep snow with little or no damage. Given the proper conditions and period of establishment, S. minor should be hardy throughout all Virginia zones. (See Resources, below, to determine your USDA Zone.)
In the Landscape
Sabal minor is ideal as an understory palm for larger trunking palms like the Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) or the Sabal palmetto, as well as temperate trees such as Crape Myrtle or dogwood. You can also use Sabal minor as a focal point or specimen planting or in groups to create the classic formal groupings often seen in the Deep South. Entrance planting beds near office buildings or housing communities are also ideal spots for S. minor. The plant lends an attractive, tropical look in summer with the benefit of evergreen interest in the winter and the economy afforded by a hardy shrub.
One advantage S. minor has over some of the other palms that may be considered for planting in Virginia is its ability to grow a deep subterranean trunk (up to 5 feet deep) that keeps many of its vital parts below the frost line in winter and helps it to endure long hot periods of drought in summer. As a result, large, established S. minors can be difficult to remove permanently. Keep this in mind when planting this palm.
Planting and Care
Sabal minor will tolerate a wide range of soil textures, from almost pure sand to red clay. It can also stand “wet feet ” (roots in standing water) from time to time. In the wild, it grows in everything from coastal swamps to mountain slopes. Sabal minor tolerates a wide range of pHs from acid bog soils to limestone or coastal soils. In the garden, you can plant this palm in virtually any soil conditions that are encountered in Virginia.
Like most palms, S. minor appreciates soils that are rich in manganese and magnesium, and a soil test will allow you to determine if additional fertilizer is needed. Contact your local Extension office for a soil test kit and fertilizer recommendations. Most palms are not fast growers, and the grower’s goal is to provide conditions for good, steady growth throughout the growing season. This will allow the plant foliage to harden off in the fall. Fertilize early with a well-balanced and palm-specific product (usually containing proper amounts of magnesium, calcium, and micronutrients), if available and recommended. Do not apply additional fertilizer after July 4 in order to avoid
excessive young growth that may be unable to harden off sufficiently for winter.
In clay soils, adding organic matter is often recommended. However, be careful not to create a clay-edged “planting pocket” of enriched soil because the plant roots may tend to stay only within this pocket and not extend beyond the pocket. Planting pockets also create the risk of drowning a plant because water can pond at the bottom of the pocket, where water takes longer to drain into the clay. Gardeners should focus on enriching and digging out a wide area within the bed, paying attention to sloping the hole or building up the bed, if possible, to “create” drainage in the root zone.
Good mulch and water are essential during the first two growing seasons. Prune any fronds that are more than 50 percent brown or are dead.
Microclimate and Siting
Sabal minor does best when planted in a sunny microclimate that provides protection from winter winds. It does best in full sun but will also grow in light shade.
Several “ecotypes,” or genetically distinct varieties of S. minor that have adapted to a particular environment exist. Sabal minor ‘McCurtain,’ for example, originated in McCurtain County, Okla., where the palm grows wild in local forests, surviving the winters without any intervention from the human hand. It is one of the hardiest ecotypes of S. minor and worth pursuing for the Virginia garden.
Similarly, S. minor ‘Emerald Isle Blue Giant,’ originating in North Carolina, is reliably hardy to at least Zone 7. Sabal minor ‘Arkansas’ from western Arkansas should be hardy throughout most of Virginia. Sabal ‘Louisiana’ spp. is not very winter hardy in most Virginia locations, unless acclimatized over many years and in a good microclimate.
Even the most cold-hardy palm species can benefit from some extra attention during Virginia’s coldest, wettest winter months. Winter damage on palms can range from mild to severe burn on frond tips or margins to browning of one or more fronds.
While this damage will not kill a palm, it certainly sets the plant back, making it more vulnerable to disease and less attractive in the spring garden. In the most severe cases, damage or disease can settle into the crown, from which the newest frond, or “spear” will emerge.
The spear is an important indicator of the health of a palm. Examine it on a regular basis, especially on new plantings. Give a firm tug to yellowed or spotted spears, and if the spear pulls from the crown, the plant may have a fungal infection and may need treatment with an appropriate fungicide. Contact your local Extension office for recommendations. However, palms are monocots and have only one apical meristem located in the crown. Significant damage to the apical meristem usually results in the death of the palm, and the spear leaf is connected just below the bud (apical meristem).
As with many plants, providing a heavy mulch to retain moisture and regulate soil temperatures will help young plantings of S. minor during the winter. You can also use frost cloth to reduce windburn and keep the crown area dry.
Cover small or seedling sized palms with pine straw, wood mulch or shredded leaves for the winter months, removing the excess in the spring. Protection is not typically needed after the second season of growing S. minor in the ground, as the roots will have established themselves enough to allow for water, sugar and carbohydrate transfer to the fronds in cold weather.
Palm enthusiasts can find The Virginia Palm Society on Facebook under “Virginia Palm Society and Exotic Tropicals” (https://www.facebook.com/groups/135150320200/)
Email questions to VPSpalms@comcast.net
Ralph and Kathy Denton of Pungo Palms Nursery in Virginia Beach specialize in rare and hardy palm trees, cold hardy cactus, and hardy sub-tropical plants. Their contact info: Pungo Palms Nursery, 1201 N Muddy Creek Rd, Virginia Beach, VA 23456-4133; 757-426-3677.
Sean McFall of Chilly Palm Tree Co. (www.chillypalmtree.com) raises cold-hardy palms near Charlotte, NC. His site contains valuable planting and care information as well as insights from his nursery and client experience in various USDA zones.
Often cited as the “Bible” of temperate tropical gardeners, Palms Won’t Grow Here (and other myths) by David Francko (2003 Timber Press) is a thorough and engaging discussion of palm and tropical research conducted by Francko at Miami University of Ohio.
Other recommended books are:
Betrock’s Cold Hardy Palms, Alan Meerow, Betrock Information System, 2005.
- Hardy Palms for the Southeast, Tom McClendon, Will Roberds and Joe LeVert, Southeastern Palm Society. 2007; http://www.sepalms.org/
To determine your USDA Hardiness Zone, use this map: http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/
Holly Scoggins, Associate Professor, Virginia Tech Horticulture Department, Blacksburg, Virginia.
John A. Saia, the President of The Virginia Palm Society has been growing and cultivating hardy palms in Northern Virginia since 2005.
Joseph W. Seamone is co-founder of the Virginia Palm Society and has been growing and cultivating hardy palms in Maryland since 1997. Joe is a horticulturist for McFall & Berry Landscape Management in Brookeville, Md., and a Certified Professional Horticulturist with the Maryland Nursery and Landscape Association.
Susanne E. Zilberfarb is a Fairfax County Extension Master Gardener.
Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, reprint, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.
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May 29, 2019