Palm tree pandemics: even in the Big Easy, winter can be a little difficult.

Many years ago I wrote an article exploring how trees of the palm family are widespread throughout southern Louisiana (specifically the New Orleans region), though they are not indigenous. In other words, they grow there quite easily but it is not their native habitat. If anything, the presence of palms in the southern US—or at least the southeastern US north of Florida—is a human initiative prompted by our cultural affinity for these trees, since they almost universally symbolize the tropics and the warm, agreeable climate. As soon as passengers land at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) and leave the terminal, they will encounter a variety of pygmy date palms, queen palms, sagos, cycads…you name it. And they love it.

But, comfortable though the trees may be in the humid subtropical climate, it is more a region where they survive. But not thrive. I asserted their presence in that old blog article, and, much later (February of this year), I provoked an interesting reader response, Though not without its valid point (namely, that many tropical and subtropical plants are far more versatile and adaptable than we often expect), the respondent also asserted that the North American climate is nowhere near as diverse or cold as I assert it to be. Our respondent, “Declan”, argued that “to fret over ‘bitter cold snaps’ in Louisiana is again another function of American delusion when it comes to the environment they live in.”

While Declan is fully entitled to his vitriol, his belief that Americans tend to overstate the coldness of their climate doesn’t necessarily hold up to evidence, at least the empirical variety, which is the specialty I have cultivated for this blog. Yes, Canada is colder. But the states north of the Mason-Dixon routinely get chillier winter mean temperatures than basically anywhere in Europe, including the Nordic countries (even Iceland).

Those cold snaps are hardly unique to the part of the country that calls its fizzy drinks soda (or pop). Meanwhile, “Coke country” can get many, many standard deviations below its mean temp as well, despite falling within a climate zone largely classified as humid subtropical. A recent trip back to New Orleans clearly bore this out.

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During my first night in town, I noticed that various tropical trees looked pretty zapped throughout the French Quarter. Though I didn’t get any good daytime photos of the Quarter, I found that the condition was hardly isolated to one part of town. Notice the trees below, in City Park a few miles away.New Orleans dead palms in City Park.At first I thought it might have been the product of a recent flooding or storm surge, in which saline or brackish water intruded upon soil that typically only receives fresh water, thereby placing certain, less adaptable tree species into a state of shock. But nothing of the sort happened. In all likelihood, these trees are dead.IMG_9005 (1)

But why?

In the beginning and again in the middle of January 2018, metro New Orleans received some of the coldest weather recorded in the city’s history. Right after locals toasted with their spiked egg nog and watched the big gumbo pot drop, the city’s average temp tied the 1970 record for the coldest first week of the year, at 39.6°F, caused by a polar vortex, according to local climatologists. Less than two weeks later, MSY measured 20 degrees on the 17th of the month, breaking a previous record of 23° for that day, back in 1977. Pipes in the city’s lightly insulated homes froze, and the streets were replete with ice and light snowpack, resulting in particularly hazardous conditions for the unaccustomed motorists. While the temperatures across most of the southern half of the state edged above freezing later that day, they quickly lurched back into the 20s and even teens that next night, resulting in some subzero wind chill temps as far south as the small city of Hammond. The blistering cold continued through the 18th of January.

As evidenced by the photos, palms and other tropical plants from family Aracaceae took a real beating.IMG_8969IMG_8970IMG_8971death of palms after cold snap

It didn’t just thwack the big guys.IMG_8973IMG_9006

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Fortunately, some managed to hold it together.IMG_8974IMG_8995

I’m not an arborist, so I’m not going to attempt to speculate the species distinctions that allowed some palms to endure while others didn’t. It may have something to do with soil conditions, or proximity to other trees, or heat emitted from buildings, or even dumb luck. Regardless, it was obvious that a disproportionate number of palms succumbed to the cold.

In early March, when I was in town, the prevailing sentiment was cynical, but a glimmer of hope remained: just a few weeks prior, local media was advising property owners on how to resuscitate their palms. (Contrary to popular belief, wrapping them in plastic often has a deleterious effect.) But by Palm Sunday, the game was up: churches were facing a shortage of the traditional queen palms and had to make do with the heartier sago palms.

There’s nothing too profound about this predicament facing a city famous for retaining much of its verdure throughout the winter. It only proves that tropical plants are not indigenous to this subtropical region and routinely face hardship when confronted with temperature extreme that are unheard of in, for example, Jamaica. Or coastal Hawaii. Or (I’m guessing) even southern Florida. Notice the contrast with another signature New Orleans tree, the live oak, which seems to have managed the punishing January weather just fine.IMG_8982IMG_8993

Clearly, thanks to those live oaks, New Orleans still boasts some of the most remarkable tree canopy you’ll find in an American city. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina a decade ago took out tens of thousands of trees, yet only the locals would ever be able to tell. That said, a city as renowned for its tourist industry as it is for its distinctive appearance—the two go hand-in-hand—is apt to budget a higher-than-average amount for restoring palms along its key public boulevards and grassy neutral grounds (medians), despite the trees’ relatively high mortality rate.IMG_8994And I suspect the homeowners will follow suit, cutting down the dead palms and promptly replacing them. It’s part of the collective buy-in that comes with living in a city which, despite its socioeconomic, cultural and climatic challenges, still prompts a disproportionate number to slap stickers that say “Proud to Call It Home” on their rear bumpers. Even if the mostly (but not always) sultry climate results in annual ravages of termites, buck moth caterpillars, chiggers, and flying cockroaches. Such is the price you pay when you live in the City That Care Forgot. Such is the price you pay when you live in the tropics, too—but at least you get those palm trees. And, beyond just those cold snaps that happen far more often and yield considerably greater impact than Declan would care to admit, New Orleanians have to contend with a mean little thunderstorm now and then.

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28 thoughts on “Palm tree pandemics: even in the Big Easy, winter can be a little difficult.

  1. AvatarKaren Mackey

    A few are starting to come back. I am afraid the others are not just mostly dead. They are dead dead.

    Reply
  2. AvatarChris Leeuw

    Guilty of the “culture” of liking palm trees wherever they may survive hah. I’ve kinda wanted to plant one in Indiana for the summer lol

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      With enough TLC, it just might be possible! I’ve seen the occasional palm or cycad in the front yards of houses in Arlington VA. That climate is only a little bit warmer than central Indiana. Just don’t expect it to have the life span of a…well…tree.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

        Well you’re one up on me–I’ve never heard of those, but a quick read suggests they’re pretty versatile.

        Reply
  3. AvatarGreg Q

    Not recognizable by normal people but my Braken’s Brown Magnolia tree certainly isn’t native or hardy enough for Indy. I tolerate the every few year defoliation for the pride of a few beautiful flowers this far north. I’ll share guilty with New Orleans any day.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Yeah, Greg, if you live where I think you live, you’re definitely above the magnolia Mason-Dixon line. About the farthest south I’ve seen them grow is Philadelphia, which is about the same latitude as Indy but definitely doesn’t get as cold in the winter…

      Reply
    2. AvatarGreg Q

      40 minutes north of where my formative years took place and rebelling against the “you can’t do that here” or “that won’t work” communal attitude that you are all too familiar with. Thankfully it’s less formidable on the other side of the I70 Mason Dixon line.

      Reply
  4. Avatarchris spohn

    i think las vegas is in a constant state of replacing palm trees…. big palm tree farms in florida.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      It wouldn’t surprise me, but I wonder if Vegas gets the occasional severe cold snaps that New Orleans does. I don’t know much about the Las Vegas climate, but I would expect it still can get pretty frigid there every few years. And if not through cold spells, why does Las Vegas routinely need to replace its trees? What keeps zapping them?

      Reply
      1. Avatarchris spohn

        i suppose it’s a combination of factors… cold, drought, poor planning/maintenance… commitment to facade at all costs. unfortunately philly did a number on the ginkgo trees a while back… actually, that was so long ago that whatever trees they replaced them with are now pretty big. i think philly still has a free tree program.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          It has to be pretty rough treatment to kill a gingko. They’re usually seen as one of the optimal trees for downtowns in temperate climates because they’re so tough, low-maintenance, beautiful leaves in the fall and can handle pollution. From what little I know, there are only a few negatives: very slow-growing and the female trees have stinky fruit.

          Still better than a Bradford pear.

          Reply
        2. Avatarchris spohn

          yeah, gingko trees are amazing. chinese communities roast the nuts, but need to handle the fruit with gloves on…. supposed to be great!

          Reply
    2. AvatarKristy F

      Big palm tree farms along I-8 en route to San Diego as well. Here in Phoenix, where palms are often used in landscaping despite offering no shade and creating a nuisance of more palms everywhere with their seeds scattering on the wind, they tend to get cut down or replaced when they get too tall.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

        Which probably means they live no more than about ten years, right? In other words, about a twentieth of their real potential. Then again, urban street trees rarely reach full maturity, regardless of the specie. We keep pushing for more greenery in our downtowns, even though only a handful of trees (such as gingkos) show much sign of long-term survivability.

        Reply
        1. AvatarBrian M

          But if you choose the wrong sex….ewwwwww.

          When I was a student at UVA decades ago, I honestly thought one “fragrant” sidewalk stroll was the victim of…overindulgent…frat boys losing their stomach contents. Nope. it was the beautiful, beautiful Golden Rain Tree fruit!

          Reply
        2. AvatarKristy F

          I’ve only been back in AZ for five years, so not sure of long term lifespan of these palms. Obviously we have no trouble with freeze warnings here, but I see a fair amount of stumps in my 50 year old neighborhood where palms have been removed. We do have specimens over 50 feet tall around our neighborhood, though.

          Reply
  5. AvatarBrian M

    The palms versus “natives” is an ongoing (eternal?) argument in Northern California as well. We probably have fewer cold snaps than New Orleans, but the coasts have cooler overall temperatures. Yet San Francisco consistently has used palm trees in major ceremonial settings, including the Embarcadero.

    My town has a row of huge palm trees along the axial ceremonial street terminating in the county courthouse.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      I’d be curious to know how big your municipal budget is for tree replacement each year. Does the city have an annual budget for tree replacement? For that matter, is there any part of California where palm trees are native?

      Reply
      1. AvatarBrian M

        It was cut severely over the years.

        The County government maintains the palm trees, though. They are on their property.

        The desert resort area east of Los Angeles has native palms (Palm Springs is not just a marketing name, I understand.)

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          Good to know there’s at least a sliver of the contiguous 48 states that actually is meant to support palm trees. Might be another sliver in the southern half of Florida; I’m not sure. But I suspect they’re not native to the Panhandle.

          San Francisco seems like an interesting test of the resiliency of palms. Clearly it doesn’t have to be hot for them to make it, since SF doesn’t really get hot that much at all. The bigger factor is the extreme cold. Almost makes me think Seattle could support palm trees. (And maybe it does.)

          Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Good to see, and down there they probably really are native! Further evidence that they are fully equipped to withstand some climatological conditions (i.e. hurricanes) but not others.

      Reply

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