Long term Sabal palmetto in Memphis TN

Sabal palmettos are one of the most recognizable features of the coastal South. From North Carolina to Florida, they are usually found within 25 miles of the coast, though they can certainly be grown much further inland than their native range. The Sabal palmetto is for all intents and purposes a solid zone 8 palm. Though they can handle it, they do not like to dip into the low teens for long. Occasions below 10F, especially for longer durations can be fatal, particularly if the palm is not established yet (after transplanting or if very young). As a result, their long term mostly “hands free” performance in Tennessee is difficult outside of Chattanooga and Memphis.

Hardiness does vary in palmettos and more Northern stands of these palms have been known to produce more cold tolerant offspring. One such famous palm is the “Tifton (GA) Hardy Palmetto” which survived around zero degrees with little to no damage during one of the awful polar freezes of the 1980’s. Though it is uncommon, there are known Sabal palmettos growing long term in certain zone 7b areas in the Carolinas and Virginia.

With Memphis TN being on the 7b/8a line, there are gardeners who have thought it is certainly well worth the attempt here to grow Sabal palmettos. I am lucky to have known a person who decided to try one out in Memphis. He planted the palm in the late 1990’s as a few year old potted palm from South Carolina.

Over the years, it became established and started gaining some size.

Sabal palmettos can take a number of years to start forming a trunk. This one began in the late 2000s.

At about 15 years old or so, the palmetto had grown quite large in our subtropical Memphis climate! For reference, the golden retriever is quite a large male and not a small animal.

The original owners, deciding to do a backyard makeover, offered the palm to me if I could come get it. I was more than happy to have the opportunity to retrieve it for the price of a day’s work.

Palms of the Sabal genus are difficult to transplant due to their root system. If a root is severed, it dies completely to the trunk of the palm and a new one must be regenerated. Because of this, it is almost impossible to keep the original root system intact when transplanting. As a result, palmettos with little to no trunk have little chance at transplant success as they must rely on the water and nutrients stored in the trunk in order to regenerate a root system.

Palmettos also handle the transplant process better when most of the fronds are removed. This helps minimize water loss through evaporation while the palm has no root system. So the first step in my transplanting of one of Memphis TN’s oldest palmettos is to remove the outer fronds. I left a few petioles available to tie up around the bud area and emerging growth so that it would not get damaged during transport to my house.

The next step is to dig a trench around the palm. This allows you to get a better angle with the shovel under the base of the root ball and palm to get leverage to force it out of the ground.

After getting enough of the roots and base free, my helper and I were able to coerce the palm out of its long time position.

Here it is on the dolly, ready to be taken to the truck. It was everything we could do to move it, even with wheels. We estimated that the palm was approximately 600-700 pounds. They hold a considerable amount of water in their trunks and the root ball with compacted soil was also about half of the weight or more.

Ready for transport to its new home. We had several comments in traffic.

Planting was complete on March 31, 2015 in the evening. Here it is the following morning.

It will takes several months for a transplanted palm to regenerate a root system before visible growth will resume. Even once planted and well watered, there is still a chance a palmetto may not survive ultimately. Saving as many of the original roots as possible and heavy daily watering will ensure best chances for survival.

By August 2015, the palmetto had started pushing out growth very slowly. The root system was not yet fully regrown at this point, but had recovered just enough for the palm to resume some normal function.

The Sabal palmetto is not a common sight in Memphis. Our occasional dips into zone 7 in bad winters limit the prospects when they are not planted in favorable locations or are not well established before a harder winter. But proper siting, such as in windless areas for protection from northern cold in winter, and in locations on south facing walls for extra heat radiation at night will help. In the case of this palm, it was in a back yard with plenty of trees to protect from cold wind desiccation. As this featured palmetto is now nearly 20 years old, I can say that they are certainly worth the time and effort in Memphis TN. Others obviously feel the same way as there are now palm importing companies local to Memphis that ship them from the Gulf Coast and Florida for a fee and install them as mature specimens. I now know of a few Sabal palmettos around the Memphis area. The best time of year to install a Sabal palmetto is April or May when the air and ground temperatures are warmer. The palm needs as much summer heat as possible and plenty of water to establish itself before winter sets in. Once they are established, Sabal palmettos can take a good bit of winter harassment and could become one of Memphis TN’s marginal but worthy and highly desirable palms.

There’s nothing like the sight of a Sabal palmetto to catch your neighbors’ eyes!

July 2017, with inflorescences.

Oct 2017, with mature fruit.

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5 thoughts on “Long term Sabal palmetto in Memphis TN

  1. Nice! But they grow slowly. I am thinking of putting mine up near the house on the south facing side.

    Where can I get a Sabal Birmingham?

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  2. Looks good! I recently just planted a Sabal Palmetto in the Atlanta GA area zone 7b/8a. They seem to thrive here quite well once established. Is there any update on this one you’ve transplanted for spring 2017?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I will get some new pics up soon! Thanks for asking. I have had a lot of business in Atlanta over the years, and Sabal palmettos do quite well there. There are dozens around town that I have made note of.

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