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Palm Tree Prognosis PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Shimonski, BT Contributor   
December 2016

A checklist for your storm-damaged trees

APix_YourGarden_12-16ssessing the damage to trees from hurricanes is a task I’m quite familiar with, having worked as a professional horticulturist in South Florida for more than 40 years. I’ve been responsible for determining which trees and palms are salvageable, and how to go about saving these valuable assets.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was a critical test of the horticultural skills for many of us. Living and working inside that path of destruction was quite challenging, and at the time we had to make some tough and very expensive choices as to which palms and trees would be saved. But it was also very rewarding because these many years later, we see those salvaged trees and palms thriving,

I go through a mental checklist when I’m looking at hurricane-damaged trees and palms. A critical component of this list concerns the health and structure of the tree before the storm occurred. Structure here refers to the branch and trunk structure. For example, did the tree have a good branch structure, or had it been growing in a shaded location with mostly vertical branches.

Were those branches thin, measuring nearly the same diameter from top to bottom, and with poor taper? Had the tree been “over-lifted” by pruning off all the lower branches? Were its branches lion-tailed, leaving little tufts of foliage at the very ends? And what was the general health of the tree?

Over-pruned trees or trees with poor branch structure tend not to be good candidates for saving. Large branches can end up getting ripped out of the trunks, or the trunks may just snap in half. It’s a shame when much of the critical damage could have been prevented by insisting on proper pruning. It doesn’t take hurricane-force winds to see that planting cheap trees with poor branch structure is not a good investment for the long term.

The same advice goes for palms. Take the coconut palm: In natural tropical conditions, the fronds form a ball, an almost 360-degree circle of foliage. With our warmer winter temperatures, coconut palms are growing year round and have very little cooler weather that would ordinarily slow growth.

I’m seeing coconut palms growing in good conditions, untouched by an overly exuberant arborist’s chainsaw, and forming that round ball of fronds. This is one healthy palm, and believe it or not, it will respond better to hurricane-force winds than an over-pruned palm.

That’s right, palms that have been hurricane-pruned are likely to have more damage, and usually more micro-nutrient issues, too. There are many reasons not to over-prune palms, but let’s stick with that checklist. Which palms will be worth saving after a severe wind event?

I recently had the opportunity to inspect hundreds of trees and palms in the Bahamas after Hurricane Matthew. This storm attacked some parts of the Bahamas with category 3 and 4 winds. There were sustained winds of over 119 mph measured at Exuma International Airport. I had a firsthand opportunity to see how palms survive or (or don’t) in high winds.

Many of the palms had broken fronds hanging down; at first look, they seemed to be lost and dead. But after a few weeks, especially on the palms that had green fronds still attached, even if they were hanging straight down, the bud or crown of the palm pushing out a new leaf.

The healthiest palms, those with the greenest fronds, did the best. Remember, a nice healthy green color in the foliage, tree, or palm means that the food-making machinery is still making food and assisting the tree or palm to recover and alleviate stress. Stressed palms and trees can attract insects that will take advantage of their poor health, often leading to their death.

Getting back to palms that are hurricane-pruned, the palms with only three or four fronds sticking straight up, making the palm look like a weird pineapple on a stick? Those don’t recover well. Most of the fronds have been removed, reducing food-making ability and ultimately the survivability of the palm.

I’ll hear people protest that they’ll just fertilize the palm. Great, we should all have so much money to waste. Without the healthy foliage to process that fertilizer and turn it into food, the fertilizer goes to waste and just becomes more pollution in our groundwater.

Of the hundreds of palms I inspected last month, very few had their trunks snapped off. And where I could get closer to inspect the breaks, all of them were in locations that had suffered previous damage.

So don’t over-prune your palms, and definitely don’t damage the trunks. The holes on palm trunks, including nail holes, never heal.

 

Jeff Shimonski is an ISA-certified arborist municipal specialist, retired director of horticulture at Parrot Jungle and Jungle Island, and principal of Tropical Designs of Florida. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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