Friday, June 10, 2016

Identifying Texas Sabal and Washingtonia Palms

Living in the Rio Grande Valley, it's easy to take for granted the beauty of our native and naturalized palms.  There are many thousand varieties of palms and 15-20 of them are a common sight in this area.   I think we should all be able to identify the plants and trees growing in our landscapes - along with the birds and butterflies that frequent them.   One of the advantages to learning to identify different palm trees is that it makes you take a closer look at the plant, which leads to a greater appreciation of each palms unique characteristics.

Let's just talk about two of the most common palms down here - our native Texas sabal and the
Mexican Fan Palm
Mexican fan or washingtonia palm.   The untrained (or unobservant) eye would say they look the same.  They are both tall with large fan leaves.

The Mexican fan palm grows 36 inches a year, maturing at 80-100 feet.   Although it's not native, it has naturalized here.  Birds have spread the seeds through our brushlines and native habitat.   A few people even consider it invasive.  But it is a wonderful food source for many birds.  We have been lucky enough to observe a flock of small parrots feeding on the ripe fruit.  We kept hearing something hit the ground - it was the seed they spit out after consuming the fruit!   Mexican fan palms line the highways and many boulevards throughout south Texas.   It does well in parking lots, grouped in large open areas, and in the landscape of a tall building.   In a typical residential landscape, it may look more like a telephone pole than a palm.

Texas Sabal
Texas sabal palms are the only palm native to south Texas.   They grow from deep south Texas south to Central America.   Sabals are slower growers, adding 1 or 2 sets of fronds each growing season, which amounts to about a foot a year.   Mature height is 40 or 50 feet but I rarely see any taller than 20 - 25 feet.   It used to be rare to see one growing in the wild, but birds have done a great job of spreading seed.   Texans use sabal fronds when building palapas.    Sabals retain their 'boots' (leaf ends) for a very long time, giving the trunk a heavy cross-hatched look like the palm below.    It is both drought tolerant and salt-tolerant, making it a great choice for coastal plantings.

Similar but not the same.  Here are the differences to look for:

  • Texas sabal has a smooth frond stem with no spines; Mexican fan has short, dark thorns along the base of the leaf stem.
  • Texas sabal has larger fronds (5-8 feet wide) than the Mexican fan (3-5 feet wide)
  • Texas sabal has a larger, fuller canopy.  
  • Texas sabal trunk is thicker than a Mexican fan's - about 30" in diameter - and it is more likely to have its boots. 
Take my challenge to learn to identify different palm trees growing in south Texas!

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