Before there were azaleas, before camellias, long before live oaks lined the streets, Mobile was a city known for its palms.
Mobile and Baldwin counties have more species of native palms than the entire state of California, and there truly is no tree more historic. In the early days of Mobile, they would have been so thick on the swampy shores of the Mobile River, they’d have been a nuisance, slapping loudly as the stumbling French settlers tried to erect a city here.
They’re still that way in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, where thousands upon thousands of palms stand shoulder to shoulder in soldierly brigades, sometimes barring access to the heart of the islands. Paintings and photographs of the city from the 19th century show them at every turn. Philip Henry Gosse, the famous naturalist, spoke admiringly of the tropical canopy of “palms and honey locust” covering the streets of Downtown Mobile in the 1830s.
It’s hard to explain why modern Mobile has become a city uneasy about its palm heritage. Some remember how folks from Louisiana and Florida took advantage of our uncertainty. When they couldn’t find enough palms to meet their own demands, developers from those states stripped palms from many of Mobile’s streets, including the once famous alley of palms that stretched for miles up and down Spring Hill Avenue.
But your true-blue Mobile ancestors once loved palms. And you should, too.
A palm is, in many ways, an improved version of a tree and is better than most for urban and garden spaces. They fit in places other trees don’t, like those narrow streets of Downtown, where a sprawling live oak would obliterate the beautiful architecture and make sidewalk strolling difficult.
They are also the trees most suitable for planting right next to your house and far more resistant to wind damage than any other tree. After Katrina, when immense live oaks had been ripped from the ground all along the Mississippi coast, palms alone stood their ground.
And there’s no need to worry about what palm roots will do to your sidewalk or your foundation. The roots of most trees (particularly live oaks) are like massive crowbars, with the potential to lift and dislodge anything in their path. Palm roots, on the other hand, resemble limp spaghetti. Hundreds of these long, thin, white noodles emerge from the thick bulb at the base. Don’t be fooled – they’re incredibly tenacious and can get a secure foothold in the most unlikely spots. But try to imagine undermining your foundation or sidewalk with a bowl of overcooked spaghetti noodles, and you understand why palms are so easy to build around.
For similar reasons, they’re my favorite trees for gardens. They provide shade during the hottest part of the day but allow abundant light to penetrate during the coolest daylight hours, promoting an abundance of bloom and fruit in the plants beneath. They’re tolerant of overwatering and underwatering, and they don’t suck the soil dry, as so many trees do, so you can dig right up to the trunk and plant right beneath them.
The palm’s greatest disadvantage is, in fact, one of its greatest strengths. Young palms (unlike the saplings of most other trees) generally don’t transplant well. That’s because most palms have to develop a thick bulb at the base before they can store enough energy to survive a move. But once that bulb is formed, you can transplant full-grown palms. That means you can instantly have a big tree in just the right spot.
Some palm deniers will snap back to the last cold spell when a few palms here or there fell to the cold. But you can’t paint all palms with the same brush. There are some, such as the queen palm, that are a disaster in our climate. But there are, on the other hand, dozens of palms – cabbage palms, bluestem palmettos, needle palms, windmill palms, saw palmettos, western fan palms, to name a few – that grow here superbly without cold damage and have for centuries, if not millennia.
The biggest thing palms have going for them is their architectural beauty. Whether their fronds spread out fan-like, like the leaves of our native cabbage palms, or arching and feather-like, in the manner of those imported heirloom jelly palms, their strong structure is a refreshing antidote to the mushy, formless mass of bushy green that overtakes so many Mobile yards this time of year. The palms’ bold but simple forms complement beautiful homes and buildings without smothering them.
Yes, I know. Not everyone uses palms sensitively. Just because you like them doesn’t mean you have to like the hokey way they plant them around the local used car dealership, dressed up with white rocks and a cheesy fountain. But don’t blame the palm.
In our warm climate, palms are often most handsome when they are companions to other trees, rather than wholesale replacements. The alternating rhythm of palms and live oaks on the streets of Midtown Mobile is our distinctive signature, quite unlike the palm deserts you find around pop-up suburban developments.
Gulf Coast Almanac
Bloom of the Month: Tropical Bush Sage
Quit trying to revive those exhausted dwarf salvias. September is the season when the tropical bush salvias explode. Whether the yellow forsythia sage, the intense purple Mexican sage or the big red vanhouttei sages, they’ll bloom prolifically from here to frost, drawing flocks of hummingbirds.
Signs of the Season
September spells relief, a day at a time. The first day of September is like the last day of August; the last day of September is like the first day of October. Plants can feel the transition, and they respond with a great burst of growth and color.
This is the start of the Gulf Coast’s most important planting season. Sow lettuce, broccoli, collards and kale in pots as soon as possible. It’s the best time of year for planting out marigolds, petunias, zininias and many other annuals.
Your vegetables and annuals long since exhausted that spring fertilizer. Give them a little extra juice for the next three and a half months of bloom. Lawns, shrubs and trees may not need another dose, but if they do, September is your last chance.
Ripe for picking
The typical Mexican and bell peppers, born and bred for drier climates, likely bit the dust in July. So turn to sweet datil, criolla and aji dulce that love the heat and humidity and extra-long growing season of the Gulf Coast. You’ll have so many, you won’t know what to do with them all.
Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.
Text by Bill Finch