Why do they leave those ugly dead brown leaves hanging down on some of the palms? And why those palms but not other types? Several people have asked me this. Many who are unfamiliar with tropical plants consider this to be messy and unsightly. I have to admit, when we first moved here, I thought so, too. Since then, I have learned a lot about palms, and changed my opinion.
Those brown leaves hanging down like a grass skirt are called just that, skirts. The skirts are left for a good reason, and only on palmates, not on pinnates. Palmates (also know as “fan palms”) are called this because, like the palm of a hand, the leaves have a solid the center with “fingers” that extend from the center or base of the leaf.
A pinnate, on the other hand, has leaves that look more like the fronds of a fern. The Queen palm, the Sugar palm, the Mule, and the Sylvester, are perfect examples of pinnates. Below is an photo of a Queen palm taken on a very breezy day:
Below are the leaves of a Washingtonian, an example of a palmate. The Cabbage palm, often called the sabal palm (probably because part of its latin name is “sabal”) is another palmate native to this part of central Florida, and many other parts of the U.S.
The spent, fan-shaped leaves of the palmates hang down in layers over each other producing a perfect habitat for certain birds who make their nests inside. These birds eat mosquitoes. Please do not remove them from your palms unless, of course, your palm is so young and small that the skirts drag the ground, causing problems with mowing.
If you are having a problem mowing under the leaves of your palm, it is not properly mulched. This is because palms and trees* should be mulched out to the drip line. The drip line is the tip of the longest leaves or branches where water drips off onto the ground. Proper mulch for a palm is either pine needles or bark chips. Rocks should be kept a minimum of 3 feet away from the trunk of any palm, due to the shallow roots that are only 1 to 3 inches below the soil, and extend laterally about 50 feet. I will discuss this more in a blog post about the best mulches for use in the deep South with our shallow-rooted plants.
I know a lot of so-called landscapers around here install palms with those little concrete borders around the base of the plant. Almost all of them, especially the ones that encircle a single palm, are far too small, and too close to the plant.
* That’s right, a palm is not a tree. Thought you had me there, didn’t you? Palms are classified as grasses, but that’s another topic for another blog post. Oh, yes, about the things wrong with that picture: that’s for another post as well.