Palms: When to Prune? When Not to Prune?

Palm with Brown Leaf Ready to Be Removed

Palm with Brown Leaf Ready to Be Removed

Above is a photo of one of my Queen Palms with a leaf that has turned completely brown, and is ready to be removed. The key word here is “completely”.

The photo below shows the top of the same Queen Palm with a new leaf spear which is just beginning to unfurl:

Queen - New Leaf

Generally speaking, remove brown leaves, but not yellow leaves — and ONLY with a clean blade. If you prune your own palms, as we do — I mean as my husband does — be sure to sterilize the saw blade before taking it from one palm to another. Why? Because, if one of your palms is diseased, the saw blade will take the disease to all your other palms.

What if Your Landscaper or Yard Maintenance Man Refuses?

There are a lot of guys all over this country making a living with a pick-up truck and a lawn mower. That does not mean they know much about plants. Your lawn maintenance man may tell you he doesn’t have time to do this, or that it’s not necessary to clean the blade. If that happens, please DO NOT let him prune your palms. Either find someone else or do it yourself. It takes only a few minutes.

How to Clean the Blade?

  • Rub with a solution of 70% isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol and 30% water, OR
  • Soak in a 50-50 mixture of chlorine bleach and clean water for 15 minutes.  The problem with this is the blade may to rust.

Pruning of palms should be done very carefully, and only when the leaves are completely brown. If you’ve ever grown daffodils or tulips, you will remember that after blooming has finished, the green leaves are not to be cut until they have completely turned brown, because the bulb needs to take nutrients from those leaves. As the nutrients are absorbed by the bulb, they turn yellow, then brown. The same is true with palms. If the yellow leaves are removed before turning brown, the palm will begin drawing nutrients from the next tier of leaves, causing them to turn yellow. If yellow leaves are left until they have turned brown, the leaves above will remain green. Eventually, though the palm will need to draw nutrients again, and the process will repeat itself.

Some palms, such as Sylvesters, get several new leaves at once, creating a whole new tier of leaves. Similarly, they entire lowest tier usually begins yellowing at the same time. Others, such as Queens, get only one, occasionally two, new leaves at a time. When the leaves of a Queen Palm have reached the end of their lives, they turn yellow, then brown, at about the same rate as the new leaves emerge.

Your first instinct may be to remove those yellow leaves. Please don’t follow that instinct. The palm is busy drawing nutrients from that tier of yellow leaves. If they are removed, the palm will begin drawing from the next tier, and those leaves will begin turning yellow. Be sure to allow the yellow leaves to remain untouched until they have turned completely brown. Then, and only then, should they be removed. According to the local master gardeners, brown is a color, too. They say we should leave them alone, and that, when they are ready to fall off, they will.

What if Half the Leaves Are Turning Yellow?

Around our neighborhood, you will see some palms, especially Sylvesters, whose lower tier of leaves has turned yellow. This is okay. On the other hand, if you have a Sylvester with half or more of its leaves turning yellow, this is most likely a mineral deficiency.

How Many Tiers of Leaves Should Be Removed?

Sylvester 9 - 3 - mlm c

If you can picture the face of a clock (not a digital clock), draw an imaginary horizontal line from 9:00 to 3:00. The leaves of your palm should cover the area above that line. It’s okay if they hang below that line, but it is not good if they don’t cover the area above the line, as in the photo below.

Sylvester - Severely Pruned 9 - 3 - mlm c

 

This Sylvester appears to have been given a Mohawk haircut. The poor palm is probably embarrassed.

 

 

 

 

 

What About Hurricane Cuts?

Shouldn’t we do that in preparation for severe weather?

Palms Folding in Wind

The Short Answer:  No. Don’t do it – EVER.

The Long Answer:   In high winds, the leaves of palms will fold upward, protecting the newest leaf buds, as shown in this photo. I paused my TV and snapped a shot of the screen with my phone. This is a perfect example of how the leaves fold upward.  Most of these palms have folded up — the others are working on it.

Hurricane-strength winds and even some straight-line winds will will rip off the bottom tier of leaves, which is the outer layer of leaves when they have folded up as shown above. If all but the top few leaves have already been removed by severe pruning, the winds will remove the remaining leaves. If the green leaf-bud, left unprotected at the center is torn off, the palm will die. It may take a while, but it will happen.

Newly Installed Cabbage & Washingtonian Palms:

Newly Installed Cabbage - mlm c

In areas of new construction, you can see newly installed Cabbage (sabal) Palms and Washingtonians. Most are delivered with their leaves completely removed, and only a few stalks, with the new leaf-bud in the center, sticking up at the top, as shown in this photo of a Cabbage palm. I’m not sure why they do this, except that it must make them easier to handle.

 

Yard Man's Hurricane Cut - mlm c

These Cabbage palms were installed about 18 months ago. The one inside the circle is growing out from the severe cut it had when delivered. The hurricane cut that is done by yard maintenance crews would take your palm back to this stage. Any high winds would then remove the lower tier of leaves, leaving only a very few, if any, at the top.

If left un-pruned prior to a storm, your palms are far more likely to lose only those leaves that are ready or near-ready to fall off anyway. The younger, stronger leaves will fold upward as in the weather photo above and protect the newest leaves.

 

 

2 responses to “Palms: When to Prune? When Not to Prune?

  1. How interesting! Mother Nature knows best, doesn’t she? If left alone, it seems, most palm trees would fare well in a hurricane, but if pruned too soon, and for purely cosmetic purposes, the tree could actually die after a storm took off the remaining leaves.

    Here in San Francisco, our power company comes round and prunes street trees in the ugliest and least beneficial way to trees. Supposedly, this is to keep them from snagging on power lines. Unfortunately, this type of pruning leaves the trees extra vulnerable to high winds in a heavy rain storm. They topple, taking down the lines, and everyone in the neighborhood is in danger, as well as without power, until the power company can remove the tree and fix the lines.

    I often think we would have a lot fewer power outages after storms if the power companies learned how to prune trees without destroying their inherent safety architecture.

    Got a chuckle from “we–meaning my husband.” (Paraphrased)

    Like

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