For The Answer
Date Palms in Texas
The Coachella Valley, which produces 50% of the dates consumed in the United States, is very similar to South Texas weather conditions. At one time, date palms must have been grown here. The late Ernest Mortensen of Uvalde, recalls the history of date palms in Texas:
"Seedlings of date palms were brought by early Texas settlers at least two hundred years ago. Later plantings were made at Laredo and, until the severe freeze in December 1929, date palms lined the Alamo Plaza in San Antonio. Near Espantosa Lake on the Turkey Creek, midway between Crystal City and Carrizo Springs, a young Swiss immigrant planted an orchard of date palms some 70 years ago and named it "Rancho de las Palmas.
"Some palms were set at Laredo when the first palms were introduced. Laredo was one of the three areas considered suitable for date production. The other two were the Salt River Valley near Phoenix, Arizona, and the Coachella Valley in California. Date palms are especially suited to desert areas with high temperature and sufficient water for irrigation. The Arabs say that the date palm thrives best with "its feet in the water and its head in hell.
"A problem in our area, as well as in the Salt River Valley, is the possibility of rains at ripening time in August and September which will cause splitting and souring of the fruit. ‘Hayany’ is a variety that can be harvested while still firm and ripened in refrigeration. ‘Braim’ is another that can be handled in the same way or may be eaten a few days before it becomes soft.
"About 1927, Vice-president John Nance Garner of Uvalde obtained an appropriation to introduce some date varieties more suitable to lower summer temperatures for planting in the Southwest Texas area. The only research station able to plant them at that time was at Weslaco where they were planted to serve as a source of propagating stock. When the Winter Haven station was established at Crystal City in 1930, arrangements were made to move offshoots from Weslaco to the new Station. A total of 15 varieties were established. At the same time, 1,000 seeds of the ‘Amir Hadj’ variety, which has exceptionally high quality and ripens early, were sent to be planted at the Winter Haven station.
"Date palms will survive in dry years but really need good moisture to succeed; this should be in the soil and not in the atmosphere! Since it is probably the oldest cultivated crop and dependent on man for existence, there is extensive literature on its cultivation and care. The work at Winter Haven and at Weslaco was under the direction of Roy W. Nixon of the U.S. Date Station in Indio, California.
"About 100 seedling of the high quality variety of ‘Amir Hadj’ were planted beside the entrance road to the Winter Haven station near Crystal City. Some are still there although the station is now privately owned.
"If date palms can be successfully grown in this area, why is there no commercial production? Sex and labor problems cause South Texas datelessness! Date palms grown from seed are half male and half female. The male produces only pollen and no fruit. The female produces no pollen and usually has to be pollinated by hand to produce edible fruit because its lack of nectar will not attract pollinating insects. Who says females are always attractive?
"The offshoots brought in from Iraq in the late twenties were female with only one male variety. The pollen does not have to be related to the female so any male palm can supply pollen in the spring. The problems are that the palms do not flower at the same time and the female flower is only receptive for two to three days after opening. This means that the pollen has to be stored in the household refrigerator until the female flower is ready. In rare cases, the female might flower before the male, so pollen had to be stored from the previous season.
"Predators on the fruit were crows and raccoons. Raccoons are especially difficult since they feed at night. In South Texas, the fruit wasp can also be destructive as they eat the fruits.
"Besides the possibility of loosing the fruit after having climbed up and down those large trees hand pollinating date bloom clusters, propagation of trees is also a slow process. Date palms produce their offshoots in the first 8 years so it is necessary to keep planting to maintain nursery stocks. Of course, one can grow seedlings but they do not come true. Also it is impossible to distinguish the females until they flower, which will be in the fourth or fifth year. It is not a crop for as quick results as tomatoes! In fact, from seed to date production may take as long as 20 years!"
After this brief history of dates in South Texas, I doubt
if there will be a run on local nurseries requesting date palms. There
are none available anyway! I hope that this history lesson will serve
to give Palm Sunday church services a more personal meaning and make
the public aware of the trials and tribulations which early horticulturists,
such as Ernest Mortensen, encountered in determining the most adapted,
economical crops for South Texas. Commercial agriculture and the world’s
best-fed country owe much to such men.
One of the privileges of gardening in South Texas is the possibility of including Palms in your landscape plans. The lush year-round greenery and pleasant rustling of the leaves in the wind are garden memories to treasure. And while the San Antonio climate is by no means as tropical as southern Florida or Hawaii, the use of palms in the landscape can be just the right touch to bring a Southwestern flair to our mild, semi-arid climate.
Although South Texas occasionally receives severe blasts of cold weather from the north, a surprising number of palms can endure this unpredictable climate. Most of these are small, which are appropriate for the modest-sized landscapes of today. A few palms, however, can also be considered for use as majestic specimen trees, or for that most enduring image of the sub-tropics, an avenue planting of palms. Of the taller palm trees, the best choice for San Antonio is the California Fan Palm, Washingtonia filifera.
This is the native palm of the Southwest for which such famous resorts as Palm Spring are named. Its botanical name commemorates George Washington, a fitting epithet for a tall, noble American tree. In the wild, the old leaves of this palm build up a thatch beneath the growing crown of the trees, a trait that has earned this palm the nickname of Petticoat Palm. Gardeners may either remove or retain the old leaves according to individual tastes. In either case, the California Fan Palm quickly becomes a massive tree 20 feet tall (and even higher) with a trunk at least 18 inches diameter, and large spiny dully green Fan-shape leaves. Young trees are generally available balled and burlapped or in 5 or 15 gallon containers. Because of the massive size of this palm only smaller (6 feet and under) sizes are usually planted.
Shoppers hoping to purchase a young California Fan Palm should learn the differences between it and its close cousin, the Mexican Fan Palm, Washingtonia robusta. This palm is the most commonly planted of all palms in South Texas because of its fast growth and availability. It is the tall, skinny palm that gives a “Dr. Suess” appearance to landscapes in the Rio Grande Valley and southern California. In San Antonio, Washingtonia robusta often looses its foliage in cold weather, and in cold years, is killed entirely. It differs from its cousin in its smaller, brighter, green leaves that lack the abundant fibers common on the California Fan Palm, its taller height (50 feet plus), and its much skinnier trunk. When buying a Washingtonia, consult your nurseryman to be sure you are getting the hardier California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera).
Of the small to medium-sized palms available in San Antonio, the most popular and the most cold hardy is the Windmill Palm, Trachycarpus fortunei. This furry?trunk palm with dark green fan-shaped leaves comes from China and southern Japan. It has the unusual habit of producing a thicker trunk as it grows older, making for a somewhat top-heavy appearance. This can be disguised by grouping several palms of staggered height together in a planting. All-in-all, this is a wonderful palm for San Antonio gardeners—fast growing, very hardy and easily transplanted, either balled and burlapped or in 5 or 15 gallon containers.
Next in popularity among the smaller palms comes the Mediterranean Fan Palm, Chamaerops humilis. This palm has the distinction of being the only palm native to Europe, where it grows along the Mediterranean coastline as well as in adjacent North Africa. Unlike other San Antonio garden palms, the Mediterranean Fan Palm grows as a cluster, suckering around its base to produce a dense, shrubby mass of silvery green fan-type foliage. Because of this habit, this palm can be kept small by removing stems when they grow too tall for a desired location, or it can be trimmed as a spectacular multi?trunk specimen by selectively removing the suckers from the base of the stems. This versatile palm is ideal for smaller gardens and especially well adapted to San Antonio soils and climate; it is readily available balled and burlapped or in containers.
Whether you select the larger or smaller palms described
above, your choice of these subtropical plants is wider than expected.
Your garden will be more lush and more noble if you include them in
your landscape plans.