When compared with Europe and North America our climate is remarkably mild and free from devastating frosts. This allows New Zealand gardeners to grow the types of palms that one could only dream of in similar latitudes elsewhere. On occasion however a relatively heavy frost can still wreak havoc with more temperate palms.
The drawback of our maritime climate is wind. Both salty sea winds and drying, cold polar winds. These can ruin sensitive palms
If you’re in a windy or frost prone spot and don’t want to run the risk of dead or damaged palm trees we suggest some wonderful tough palms that look good year-round.
A stunning silver-blue fan palm hardy to around -8°C the Mexican Blue Palm is best suited to dryer climates with low humidity such as Hawke’s Bay and Canterbury. Brahea edulis, the Guadalupe Palm, is a robust bright green palm better suited to northern New Zealand.
A familiar palm throughout much of NZ the Jelly Palm is one of the hardiest feather leaf palms. With a range of colours from green to grey to almost silver this is a palm that will not only tolerate bitter cold (our palms in suburban London survived -14°C with barely a blemish) but looks great too. Coastal palms seem unaffected by sea winds.
For such a delicate looking palm the (non-spreading) Bamboo Palm is quite indestructible. We’d not put it in the very windiest location but with light protection from the worst winds and harshest sun it will thrive. Certainly for such a tropical looking palm it will take considerable cold with ease. Chamaedorea radicalis, the Radicalis Palm, and Chamaedorea cataractarum, the Cascade Palm, are other palms in the same genus that, if given a little protection, will always look good.
A tough clustering fan palm from Southern Europe and North Africa the Mediterranean Fan Palm is practically indestructible. It’s a slow grower but every year puts out a new flush of sliver-green leaves. There’s also a rare (and unbelievably slow growing) blue form from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
If you’re lucky enough to live in the northern half of the North Island then the Kentia Palm is just perfect for coastal conditions. It takes wind, sun, salt spray and general neglect with ease. There’s also the Curly Kentia Palm, Howea belmoreana, which has many of the positive attributes of the Kentia Palm
Tough and hardy the Australian Cabbage Palm is also a beautiful palm with bright green semi-divided leaves. It’s not as fast growing as Washingtonia robusta but it does grow at a reasonable clip. In New Zealand’s moist climate we believe it looks even better than it does in its native Australia.
Most species of Phoenix look good all of the time. If we had to pick out just one however it might be the Date Palm. Blue/grey leaves and a much lighter crown than the over-used Phoenix canariensis it’s a winner in practically all climates.
You’ve doubtless seen the poor damaged Nikau palms planted in every new sub-division. Sun and wind battered, they never seem to retain the health that they do in the sheltered gullies they call home. The Norfolk Island Nikau is a bigger and tougher palm altogether. Whilst not the hardiest palm out there it’s perfectly happy in most mild parts of the country and a much better choice for landscaping.
Yes, there are scrubby Chinese Windmill Palms all over the country. And we agree they look awful. When we planted our garden in London we were loathe to include this palm. But then we noticed something interesting. In London most Trachycarpus fortunei look gorgeous. Apparently this species looks better in cooler locations. Certainly our plants would grow to produce a lush crown of leaves up to 2m from the lowest to highest leaves. The good news is that there are other less-common species for warmer parts of New Zealand.
The Mexican Cotton Palm is without doubt a palm that looks good year-round. Even when damaged by extreme winter cold it’s fast to recover in spring. Whilst it’ll take poor, dry soil give it a good feed and regular water in summer and it’ll reward you with fast growth.