Typically, when we think ‘palm tree’, we think of hot, tropical climates. In fact, being one of the most essential ingredients to an exotic garden, it seems highly unlikely that a plant like this would survive a harsh winter. But surprisingly, they do.
Also known as ‘Chusan Palm’ or ‘Trachycarpus Fortunei’, Windmill Palms are known and recalled for their large rounded leaves atop a slender trunk. The overall look creates a windmill-like appearance. But what is the best way to care for your new palm? And what makes them such a good choice for your garden, patio, or outdoor oasis?
Behind The Fronds
Above anything else, windmill palms are known for their incredible hardiness and tolerance to poor weather conditions. In fact, despite originating in China, the Windmill Palm grows well in USDA hardiness zones, and even down to freezing temperatures of 5F to 10F). It's a dream come true for those who want island-inspired good looks in colder climates.
Because of this, during winter months, your palm shouldn't require much care at all. For most parts, your palm should be effectively dormant during colder weather and therefore left to see the winter through without any maintenance - providing they are of reasonable size and age. Seedlings and newly-planted additions are more vulnerable to the cold, due to palm stems thickening with age.
With their impressive tolerance, windmill palms are also a good choice for planting near the ocean since it is of very few palm species that tolerate salt.
Windmill palms grow relatively slowly, but eventually reach a maximum of around 40 feet, if taken care of properly. Most landscape specimens you come across with most likely only reach around 10-20 feet in height, with a spread of around 6-10 feet. If grown indoors, in large pots/containers, the windmill palm typically reaches a height of 3-4m tall.
The fronds themselves feature long leaf stems that end in a fan-like shape, composed of fused leaflets. These grow up to 2-2.5m long, are typically dark green in color, and very nearly round - hence the given nickname of the species.
Often, due to sun exposure, it varies in the way the leaves develop. Typically, palms grown in filtered light or partial shade have longer petioles and the crown of leaves is more open and spreading. Whereas, palms grown in intense light with more sun exposure, tend to be more compact and smaller.
Seeds and Flowers
On windmill palms, flowers branch and appear from the stem among the leaves. They can be both male and female. i.e. in the production of seeds, the pollen from a male flower must make its way to the female blossoms.
Once flowered, they appear within the crown of leaves, typically flaunting a yellow/tan color. That is, until pollinated, in which the flowers will produce small black-fruited seeds that fall from the flower easily.
Caring For Your Windmill Palm
Hardy palms, like the Windmill Palm, thrive better when planted outdoors in the spring/summer. However, they can be planted at any time of the year. We recommend preparing a hole that allows plenty of space for the roots, which should also be given good water before planting. Once planted, back-fill the hole with a free-draining mix.
When planting in pots/containers, place 1-2 inches of the potting mix into the bottom of the pot - preferably a heavy and sturdy pot that's slightly wider and deeper than the palm's root ball - and one that contains a drainage hole. Place the root ball in the center of the container (approx. 1 inch from the top rim of the pot). Fill in around the palm tree's roots with the potting mixture as you normally would, and add fertilizer if necessary. Finally, water the palm slowly until water runs through the drainage hole. What’s great about potted plants is, they are super versatile and can be moved from indoors to the patio when the weather is welcoming, or removed from one corner of the living room to another as you redecorate. Perfect if you like regular change or fresh new looks.
Like most palm trees, the windmill palm requires very little pruning, with the only requirement for maintenance being the removal of dead leaves and tired foliage. As palm leaves ages, they turn brown and crispy-like, eventually drooping down in a downward direction.
As mentioned above, the windmill palm will not boast a petticoat of dead leaves. Over periods of time, these dead leaves will fall from the tree on their own accord. However, most people prefer to remove them when they become less attractive or heavily noticeable.
When it comes to the trunk, you can trim the leaf bases close to the trunk if you prefer, but not into it. Over-trimming can make outdoor potted palms, such as windmill palms, vulnerable to cold damage so be sure not to overdo it.
Despite being slow-growing plants, with the ability to thrive both indoors and outdoors, Windmill Palms do better in the shade or partial shade areas. It should also be noted that the fronds are susceptible to wind damage if situated in gusty areas. To avoid damage, we recommend choosing a partially shady area with some shelter (maybe on the east or west-facing side of your home) to provide that extra bit of protection needed during colder, gustier winter months.
When growing windmill palms, it is important to maintain a routine watering schedule. As said, these trees are not soil particular; however, they do prefer fertile, well-drained soils. Allow the top of the soil to become dry before watering. It is essential that these palms do not sit in water or are generally over-watered.
Windmill palms do not require any specific type of soil, but they do demand fertile soil. Simply put, a windmill palm (or any palm for that matter) cannot grow efficiently with low nutrient levels.
It is recommended to use slow-release fertilizers which are specially designed palm trees - typically once or twice during active growing periods such as spring and summer months. This prevents the risk of deficiencies, such as low magnesium levels which would dramatically affect photosynthesis processes.
Apply fertilizer around the soil beneath the canopy, ensuring you do not place fertilizer directly against the trunk. We recommend following label instructions exactly and watering well before applying to reduce the risk of burning the roots.
Windmill Palms in Landscapes
Windmill palms are sought after for their elegant appeal and their diverse applications for landscape design. Being such a versatile palm species, tolerant to diverse weather conditions and little maintenance, it makes them the ideal candidate for landscape use pretty much everywhere.
With the small and compact crown of leaves, it is incredibly easy to situate windmill palms near buildings or walkways without taking up too much room. This also makes them ideal to plant as small colonies or in groups for a truly exotic and tropical landscape.
For your home, not only will look an absolute treasure indoors, but it could be the perfect finishing touch to your outdoor oasis on a patio, or above a pool to create ultimate zen. Alternatively, why not consider them as an entry point for the front of your home, or alongside the far sides of your backdoor spaces? The possibilities are endless.
The windmill palm species is also a popular and common choice of decor for retail stores, commercial projects and shopping centers. Being low maintenance, there is no demand for employees for consistent maintenance, and they’re also less prone to damage from passers-by.
Things To Look Out For
Like any new investment, your brand new exotic addition to your garden or patio will have a long list of pros and cons. And despite the attractive look, low maintenance, and overall tolerance of the windmill palm, there are some downsides when it comes to palm trees in the snow.
Although generally pest-free in the Pacific Northwest region, windmill palms are more prone to being attacked by scale and palm aphids in some climates.
Like many species of the palm, windmill palms also tend to be more susceptible to leaf spots and Lethal Yellowing Disease - a tropical disease that affects several species of palm. This can, however, be prevented through the use of an antibiotic inoculation program. This procedure is done by drilling a hole into the trunk of the palm, inserting a hollow casing, then injecting it with an antibiotic.
And of course, with any plant under your care, diseases can set it rapidly if your plants don’t have the correct care or energy resources needed to fight off pathogens. For instance, compacted and water-logged soil makes root spread difficult. As a result, the roots of your palm cannot retrieve and absorb the nutrients, moisture of oxygen needed for survival.
It is essential to educate yourself with the general needs and requirements of your plant species before investing, especially if you want to maintain the upkeep of your beautiful at-home tropical oasis.