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Made in the shade: Pindo palms charm with fronds, flowers, fruits

Tallahassee Democrat 11/26/2022 Janis Piotrowski
A pindo palm provides a shady place to rest. © Janis Piotrowski A pindo palm provides a shady place to rest.

I’ve never been all that fond of palm trees, particularly our state tree, the sabal or cabbage palm. They always look so scraggly with dead and dying fronds hanging down.

I’ve learned that the older leaves, called a skirt or beard, do serve an important purpose. In addition to sheltered habitat for birds, bats, and other wildlife, they protect the central meristem (heart or growing tip) of the tree in storms and severe weather.

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The hanging fronds act like bark, protecting the palm from excess cold, sunburn, dehydration, and disease, and those which show some green on the spine of the frond are still supplying nutrients for the tree. Completely pruning older ratty leaves to neaten up the tree is not a good option.

Despite my ambivalence, a sabal palm that came with my home still stands at the corner of my patio. In addition to its naturally disheveled appearance, it’s been sick since I met it. I have fertilized and watered and consulted, all to no avail. It continues to be a weak sister, but I just can’t seem to give up on it and cut it down.

Pindo palm fruit jelly

In addition to the smaller native saw palmettos and needle palms, there is a type of palm I prefer. Four of these were lined up along the back of my property when I purchased it. They are pindo palms (Butia odorata, formerly Butia capitata), a native of Brazil.

During high school days, I remember walking from school with a friend to her home on a number of occasions. On a vacant lot we passed grew a large pindo palm which at a certain season of the year displayed huge bunches of yellow to orange cherry-sized fruit.

We would gather a few of the fruits where they had fallen to the ground and enjoy the sweet tart taste as we nibbled the sparse fibrous flesh from around the large seed. The pindo fruits when fully ripe are quite tasty but a better way to enjoy them is in the form of jelly, hence the tree’s other common name – jelly palm.

In addition to the fruits, the flowers which precede them are also attractive. They emerge in late spring initially enclosed in a woody spathe which splits apart revealing a three-to-four-foot inflorescence of yellow to orange flower strands attached to a central stalk.

The flowers attract pollinating insects, and the subsequent fruits are savored by larger wildlife.

The ripe fruits fall to the ground where they soon begin to decompose and attract nectar-seeking and scavenging insects. If you want to make jelly, it is a good idea to cut the stalk when the fruit is almost ready and allow it to hang or place it in a bag where you can retrieve the fruit as it finishes ripening.

The mature fruit will last in the refrigerator for up to a week. One tree will produce a lot of fruit – 50 or more pounds from one stalk.

High cold tolerance

While we think of palms as more tropical plants, pindo palms actually grow better in our area than they do farther south. They flourish in cooler climates than other palms and have a reported cold tolerance down to 10 degrees, unusual for palms.

This disease resistant, drought tolerant plant will grow well in either full sun or part shade in most soil types. Pindo palms, like most palms, benefit from regular fertilization with a product made specifically for palms. Plant at least 10 feet from decks and sidewalks to avoid a mess from falling fruit.

In addition, they may need an annual trim as they do not shed dead fronds like many other palms. The frond bases remain on the tree and protect the trunk. They should not be removed until they can be easily pulled off by hand.

Primo place to play

Pindo palms are attractive and relatively trouble free. They are a good medium-sized landscape tree and work well under power lines since they are slow growing and eventually reach only 15 to 20 feet tall. The bluish gray-green feather-shaped leaves are an eye-catching four to six feet long and gently curve downward, reaching almost to the ground.

They are also a good addition to a food forest garden if you have enough space. They produce an edible product and provide food and shelter for native wildlife.

Best of all, pindo palms provide a cool, shady place for children to hang out in a sheltered spot where imaginations bloom and they feel hidden from adults in the area.

I, too, like to linger there in a comfortable chair behind the long fronds, somehow insulated from the waiting work and cares beyond their magic wall.

Janis Piotrowski is a Florida Master Naturalist, a Certified Permaculture Designer, and a Master Gardener Volunteer with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, an Equal Opportunity Institution. She hosts a blog about gardening and sustainable living in North Florida at https://northfloridavegheadz.blogspot.com. For gardening questions, email the extension office at AskAMasterGardener@ifas.ufl.edu.

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Made in the shade: Pindo palms charm with fronds, flowers, fruits

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