Deep in McCurtain County, almost lost among the dense foliage of Southeast Oklahoma, the state’s only native palm tree remains almost a mystery. Why this should remain a mystery is, frankly, a mystery. The Sabal minor, more commonly known as the Dwarf or Bush Palmetto, is actually one of the few species of tropical palm tree that thrives in Oklahoma.
One would expect to find these tropical trees in Florida or California, and while they’re very prominent in those tropical states, there are thousands of square acres of them located in Southeast Oklahoma. They can be found hidden in the brush alongside state highways or tucked away amongst the elms and oak trees on rural farms.
Besides the Dwarf Palmettos that abound in Oklahoma, several other species of tropical palms and other tropical plants also thrive in the state. Among the most popular in Oklahoma, the Chinese Windmill Palm, Needle Palm, and Umbrella Palm seem to flourish across most of the state. Some popular tropical plants in Oklahoma include the Japanese Fiber Banana, Trunking Beaked Yucca, Giant Elephant Ear, and the Yucca Cane Tree (Spineless Yucca).
McCurtain County’s Sabal minor ('McCurtain' Strand)
This elusive little palm tree can be found in almost all parts of southeastern Oklahoma. This Scrub Palm grows most densely in McCurtain County, just west of Folsom, Arkansas near the red river. Even though it grows vigorously in this area, don’t expect to sight it off the main roads; it tends to blend in with the foliage around it.
Since the McCurtain strand of the Sabal minor is native to Oklahoma, it can be planted virtually anywhere in the state without fear or worry of damage. Seedlings of this strand have survived temperatures of -24° F without any major damage. Typically growing faster than normal Sabal minors, it serves as the perfect Oklahoma tropical centerpiece in any garden.
The Chinese Windmill Palm Tree
Not only does the Chinese Windmill Palm Tree do well in Oklahoma, but it has also been planted everywhere from California up to Washington. It has been found in Vancouver, Detroit, and the windy city of Chicago. Native to China, this beautiful tree has stiff, perfectly symmetrical leaves that almost seem to spin in the breeze, which is how it comes by its name.
This large tropical palm prefers cooler growing conditions, preferably with ample afternoon shelter from the sun and the cool winter winds. When planting this tree in Oklahoma, winter protection is critical during the first few years. While the Windmill Palm matures, it becomes more winter hardy.
As is typical for this type of palm tree, it forms a very fibrous trunk. After it reaches 20’ in height, these fibers begin to fall off, leaving a trunk of around 4" to 6” in diameter. Since the Windmill Palm is considered one of the faster-growing cold-hardy palm trees, after planting you can expect it to grow at a rate of around 12” per year. As with all palm trees planted in Oklahoma, it benefits from ample fertilizer and water.
The Needle Palm Tree
Generally considered one of the hardiest palms found in the United States, the Needle palm thrives in Oklahoma. They easily survive zone six winters with no damage and tend to grow more resistive to cold weather as they mature.
As its name implies, the Needle Palm grows very long and sharp needles around its base. These needles, sometimes growing up to 10” long, serve to protect the seeds that grow at the base of the tree. The needles also serve as an excellent deterrent for browsing animals, which can easily wreak havoc in any Oklahoma garden.
Besides being one of the most cold-tolerant palms in the world, the needle palm thrives almost anywhere that it is planted. Either they can serve as the focal point of a tropical-styled garden, or they can be used to cover those hard-to-fill shady areas. Needle palms have also been known to be extremely tolerant of areas that are prone to flooding.
Since this versatile palm tree grows under just about any condition, it serves as one of Oklahoma’s perfect tropical choices. Occasionally, you can find this native palm growing as far east as Poteau. However, because of the long needles the tree produces, many times the seeds can be hard to find. If you have young children that frequently play around your garden area, remember to use caution when planting the Needle Palm.
The Umbrella Palm Tree
While this stunning palm specimen can survive Oklahoma winters, it does need a little tender loving care when temperatures drop too low. Perfectly suited for the tropics, this plant has been known to survive winters outdoors as far north as Kansas. If left unprotected during the winter, the Umbrella Palm has been known to bounce back after losing all of its leaves. Simply remove the dead foliage, add a little mulch to help keep the root system warm, and wait for spring.
The Umbrella Palm Tree is native to Madagascar and is closely related to the well-known papyrus once used to make paper. It serves as an excellent accent plant for both ponds and patios and provides an exciting, tropical feel to any Oklahoma landscape.
This quick-growing tropical plant seems to thrive just about anywhere it is planted but prefers wetter conditions. As such, it is most suited for water or bog gardens and fully thrives in these conditions.
Umbrella Palms usually have 24 to 72-inch high stems. Arrayed out like miniature umbrellas, thin blades spread out from the top of the stems, adding a wonderfully tropical feel to any Oklahoma garden. It is common for them to achieve this height within one growing season. Once mature, they may spread easily from 12” to 48” in diameter.
As these plants can quickly overtake a garden, it is recommended that they be planted in nutrient-rich soil in 2- to 5-gallon containers. They prefer 1 to 6 inches of water and should be placed in sun to partial shade.
Questions & Answers
Question: I want to buy a 7-foot Chinese Windmill palm that descended from a wild parent palm grown outside. Do you know any shops near Tulsa, Oklahoma where I could buy one of these?
Answer: You might try Southwood Landscape & Garden Center in Tulsa. They are one of the largest centers that I'm aware of. If they don't have it, they should be able to order it for you.
© 2011 Eric Standridge