Before you get too judgmental about keeping trees as pets, remember there was a time back in the 70’s when over a million people bought and kept “pet rocks.” At least palms are alive.
Shortly after I retired and built a house on the family lake lot, I was driving in Charlotte near Queens University and happened to turn onto Westfield Drive. On the first block of Westfield off Selwyn Avenue, virtually every house had a few palm trees in their front yard. Several had half a dozen or so. It looked like Tampa or St. Petersburg, Florida.
I stopped in front of the house with the lushest grove and knocked on the door to ask “How can this be?”
The lady who answered to door was most gracious (I assume that she had grown accustomed to such interruptions) and that’s how I met trachycarpus fortune — A.K.A. the Chinese windmill palm. It’s one of a few varieties of cold-tolerant palm trees that thrive here in the Piedmont region. “Trachycarpus” means “rough to hold” and it refers to the trunk’s typical palm look. Windmill palms have a burlap-looking natural cloth-like wrapping that adds to their exotic, topical flair.
Today a lot of houses in and around Mooresville have specimen palm trees — one or two — but back in the late 1990’s, when I got the bug in Charlotte, palms were still quite rare.
After my encounter in Charlotte, I got on the Internet and found a nursery near Raleigh and bought a couple of palms for the new yard. By shear good fortune, I got a male and a female.
When windmill palms bloom (after about six-to-eight years), it’s spectacular up close but unnoticeable from a distance. One day a golden thingy about the size and shape of a banana pops out from the trunk among the fronds. Within just a couple of days, it gets to be over two feet long on both the male and the female tree. After about a month, the male flower withers but the female grows a thousand or so green seeds which, over the summer, grow to be about the size and color of blueberries.
Soon I learned that my palm fetish isn’t all that unusual. From other palm growers online, I learned that there are several varieties that love it here. One, the needle palm, can stand dips to well below zero Fahrenheit.
Five needle palms decorate the lake front of our house. They have no trunks above ground. They grow up to about five feet and just stay that size. In 20 years mine have never needed trimming. Very rarely a frond turns brown; lop it off and another takes its place.
One enthusiast online pointed out that you can take a handful of windmill palm seeds and just throw them out in the woods. Soon you’ll you have palms galore. I did that, and now I have 50 to 100 palms from a few inches in height to Adam and Eve, my first two palms, which have grown a bit over a foot each annually in the 20 years I’ve had them. They now tower over the porch.
Not all Carolina palms are imports. If you follow U.S. Highway 21 down to the sea, it ends at Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina. The park is a maritime forest. Visit it and you can see what coastal forests were like before Europeans came to the new world.
Hunting Island is a delightful mix of palms, pine and leafy trees. The native tall palms are palmettos. In the American Revolution, a fort built of sabal palmettos and sand withstood a British naval bombardment so well it shares South Carolina’s blue state flag with a gorget (no, not a crescent moon). There are also low-growing palms in the park with enormous fronds, perhaps 8-to-10 feet long.
Spanish moss also loves Lake Norman. It’s actually not moss at all but a form of bromeliad — a distant relative of the pineapple.
A lush, deep-South drapery of Spanish moss adorns the lake-front crepe myrtles by our pier. In Beaufort, South Carolina, right after the hurricane season 20 years ago, we found the streets filled with wind-fall “moss”. I invited some home with us and it’s been here ever since. Birds love it for nest lining but nary a sprig has ever appeared in a tree where we didn’t drape it deliberately.
It’s the mist from the lake’s water, not the temperature that enables Spanish moss to thrive. Lush over the lake, it won’t live at all by the road, a few hundred feet away. From a distance it looks grey but see it up close after rain and it’s a deep green.
Palms make delightful pet trees. Nothing eats them. They don’t shed anything to rake or mulch. Their only dietary quirk is the need for a handful of Epsom salts every year to compensate for beach minerals missing from Piedmont soils.
But don’t just spot a couple of palms by the steps as dainty show-off specimens. Bum a handful of seeds from a neighbor this fall and fling them out into the rough and, in a very few years, you’ll enjoy an inland Carolina maritime forest of your very own.
Mooresville’s Stan Thompson is a retired strategic planner and environmental and transportation futurist for AT&T. Email him at HST2nd@aol.com or via Twitter at @mediarethink.