Tropical Gardening: Global warming means palms in surprising places

  • Courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE

    Trachycarpus fortunei, or windmill palm, is now found growing in warmer regions of Switzerland and British Columbia. They produce seed and even naturalize.

A visit to Hawaii is the treat of a lifetime to millions of people a year, and many folks who come are friends or relatives of those of us who live here. One of the highlights for them is to experience the lush tropical gardens and forests that are unlike any place in the continental United States.

Many folks who enjoy gardening go home wishing they lived in a tropical place where they could have yards and homes filled with palms and other exotics.


Visitors don’t have to be discouraged. With a little help from kamaaina gardeners, they, too, can have a piece of paradise back home.

Some mainlanders create a mini oasis with lots of houseplants. Others even build solariums or small greenhouses to get their tropical fix, but ambiance can be created in colder parts of the country with the selection of tropical-looking plants in the right design.

The air of freedom and informality in Hawaiian gardens is partly because of the exotic plant materials used. It is also because of the casual style of design found throughout the Islands.

This consists of mixing many bold and colorful shrubs, ground covers and trees in a relaxed, unregimented manner. This type of landscaping gives a sort of well-maintained jungle effect.

The best part is that the hang-loose look can be done anywhere there is a place to grow things. It can be achieved with almost any plants, but to develop that kind of look, the selection should be those with a bold lush look.

There are very hardy warm temperate trees such as some species of rhododendron, magnolia and camellia that can give the tropical effect. This, combined with global warming, has allowed gardeners to grow some plants, for example, that could not be grown in the region 100 years ago.

One tree that is finding its way northward is the Albizzia julibrissin, or Persian silk tree. Although very tropical in appearance, with its poinciana-like foliage and pink pompon flowers, this tree will tolerate conditions below zero degrees. The silk tree is native to Asia and can reach heights of up to 40 feet but is usually much smaller, spreading like an umbrella to 20 feet. The tree’s filtered shade allows grass and other plants to grow underneath. It also makes a very good patio tree.

The Ginkgo biloba, or Maidenhair tree, is another from China that will tolerate subzero temperatures. This tree is a living fossil from the era when tree ferns and palms were growing throughout North America. Cities such as New York are using them as street trees to reduce the negative effect of concrete and asphalt.

When it comes to palms and ferns to create a tropical look, there are those that are fairly hardy. If you live in an area where temperatures seldom reach 10 degrees or colder, the Trachycarpus fortunei, or windmill palm, is a great one for the ultra-tropical look.

It is relatively fast growing to about 30 feet. This palm should be used in groups of three to seven for a dramatic effect.

The many healthy specimens in Seattle attest to this tree’s ability to withstand cold. They can even be found in Scotland and Switzerland.

Another much slower palm that is equally hardy is the Chamaerops humilis, or European fan palm. This clumping type has been known to sustain temperatures of 6 degrees. There are several other palms that will grow as far north as coastal Oregon.

There also are several hardy bamboos that will take temperatures below zero. Close relatives of bamboo such as the arundo from the Mediterranean can be used in areas where temperatures reach below zero. Although this giant reed can freeze down in winter, give it a protective mulch with a good rich soil and it will grow from 6 to 15 feet in a summer.

Another popular bamboo relative is Pampas grass, or Cortaderia sellowana, from Brazil and Argentina. This versatile clumping grass will tolerate dry to wet soils and temperatures close to zero if protected by mulching.

The list of tropical lookalikes goes on. You might consider trees such as the hardy eucalyptus species. These include the cider gum and snow gum that survive temperatures close to zero.

When it comes to fruits, the fig, pomegranate, olive and loquat can all be found growing as far north as Seattle on the West Coast.


Your mainland friends can experiment with these and others nurseries and garden centers carry or try some from more southerly locations.

To avoid discouragement, check with garden books that cover plant hardiness. One good reference is Sunset’s “Western Garden Book,” which can be found in garden shops.