Seeing a palm tree makes us think of tropical islands and golden beaches, but not all palms need frost-free growing conditions. The Windmill Palm is the hardiest palm tree known and it can be found growing happily in areas that are regularly visited by snow in winter and temperatures well below freezing. Of course it will also grow well in warmer areas too and is an ideal choice for shadier locations because it is also perhaps the most shade-tolerant of palms. You don’t need any kind of special conditions or care to grow this tough and hardy plant. It will be happy in almost any soil that is not waterlogged and it is moderately salt-tolerant, so it can be grown in coastal locations within one sand dune of the beach.
Windmill Palms have been known to survive temperatures as low as minus 170F, but this is only during brief cold-snaps and the more usual lower temperature limit is around minus 40F. Young plants may need protection when temperatures reach 170F. This all translates into making this the hardiest palm there is, surviving with no problems in the warmer parts of zone 8 even when young and with a little protection for the first few years right into the warmest parts of zone 6. So south from Virginia and Kentucky to Kansas and throughout the entire West, you can grace your garden with this beautiful palm.
The Windmill Palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, grew originally in southern China, Burma and parts of India. Unlike most palms, which typically grow in hot, dry places, this palm grows in mountain areas where winters are cold and summer cool and often rainy. So not only is it adapted to cold winters, it is also adapted to the cooler summers that are often also found in areas with colder winters. It has been grown for centuries for the fibers that can be prepared from the leaves and used for ropes, so it was cultivated in Japan and it was from there that seeds were first brought back to Europe in 1830. The first plants were kept in greenhouses, but within a short time plants were tested outdoors and found to be hardy. Windmill Palms can now be found around the world, not only in warm regions, but from North Carolina to Vancouver and even in Scotland.
The Windmill Palm has a tall trunk which is typically narrower at the base than at the top, since the upper stem is covered with the bases of the leaves, which persist for many years and give this palm a shaggy trunk. The stem is always slim and often is no more than 8 inches across on a tall tree. The leaves are fan-shaped and between 2 and 4 feet across, with many folds, like a circular fan. Each leaf has a stalk, 2 or 3 feet long, which holds the leaf out. The leaves are carried in a dense crown on top of the stem. Because the leaves are relatively small and the tree grows from a single trunk, it is quite slim and can be fitted into a small space without outgrowing it. The total spread of the crown is often no more than 6 to 8 feet on a 30 foot tree.
Plants of this palm are either male or female and this cannot be known until the tree flowers, which takes several years from planting. The flowers are carried in a large spray of hundreds of small flowers that comes out from the top of the plant and then hangs downwards. Female plants produce dark-blue seeds.
There are many hundreds of types of palms, so it is important that you plant the right species for its appearance and especially for winter hardiness. Our trees are grown from seeds taken from the hardiest specimens of the correct species, so avoid cheaper palms that can be of uncertain type and origin.
The Windmill Palm will grow in most kinds of soil, from pure sand to clay, but it needs to have good drainage. During the growing season a generous supply of water will keep your palm healthy and producing a dense crown of large leaves. However, once established, this palm is extremely drought-resistant, since it will simply stop growing until water is available again.
Not only is this palm easy to grow and adaptable to various soils, unlike most palms it will grow happily in some shade, and is often planted beneath larger palms and other tall trees. In cooler climates it will do well in full-sun, but in the warmer regions it is best to grow it in light shade, which will produce the most lush and attractive growth.
Choose a location for your Windmill Palm which is sheltered from cold winds. Plant your tree in a hole which is 2 or 3 times the width of the pot, but not much deeper and place the tree at the same depth as it was in the pot. Water thoroughly when planting and keep your tree well watered during the first year. After that good watering will produce the fastest and healthiest growth, but if you do not water, even in drought conditions an established tree will survive. The only care needed is to trim-off dying leaves. Never try to cut the top off a palm to shorten it, as it will not branch out but simply die.
Since the Windmill Palm is so popular for gardens in cooler areas, we may find our stocks in short-supply from time to time, so order now to be sure of having this beautiful tree to grace your garden.