This blog is about growing tropical-looking plants in the Phoenix, Arizona area

September 4, 2018

How to tell the difference between palm trees and cycads

As someone who is a collector of cycads, and has been for many years, I can easily recognize the difference between a palm tree and a cycad. In the photo at the top of this post, the taller plant in the center is a palm, and the other plants, that look like small palm trees, are actually cycads.

And so you might say, "Ah ha! Cycads are smaller!" Well, not all of the time. You usually see cycads smaller, like what I have in my backyard, but they can get bigger. So just because a palm tree-looking plant is small doesn't mean it's a cycad. It might, after all, just be a small palm tree.

If you're getting frustrated now, calm down. When I became a graphic design teacher, back in the '90s, I quickly realized what was very obvious to me was often absolutely invisible to the untrained eye. Experts get that way, and can be impatient with people who aren't experts. I would just tell my students the same thing that I'm telling you now, spend some time observing. Just because someone can't recognize something doesn't mean it doesn't exist - the best example I give is between real diamonds and fake ones, which I wouldn't see even if you gave me a magnifying glass. I couldn't recognize real gold from fool's gold, either. But there are plenty of people who can! And that's my point.

The best place to start to begin recognizing the difference between palm trees and cycads is the price tag. Yes, go to a gardening center and find two plants that look virtually the same, and if one is a palm and the other is a cycad, the palm will be much less expensive. Palms grow much faster than cycads, and tend to be much easier to grow, and that's why for the same size they're cheaper.

If you make the mistake of asking a cycad expert, they may point out differences that are so wildly obscure you'll wonder if they're kidding, such as cones, or how often the plant grows. Yes, cycads create cones (not flowers) and only grow in a "flush" one or two times a year. By contrast palm trees flower, like almost every other plant on planet earth, and they grow continuously. Of course if you're just standing in a garden, that won't help much, unless you already know what palm flowers look like, and what a cycad cone is.

But there really is a difference, and once you start to see it, you'll also see the subtle differences between the different types of cycads. If you walked into my garden today and said, "Well, that revoluta is doing well, as are the dioons and the zamias!" I'd figure that you're a cycad collector. If you don't, that's fine, too, because I just planted these to give a nice tropical feel to the garden.

I wish that I could make this easier for you, but it will take some time for you to learn to recognize the difference between palm trees and cycads. But the good news is that it will happen, and pretty soon you'll be out in your garden in the summer waiting for a cycad flush, and maybe post it on your Facebook page for all of your cycad friends. It's exciting!

August 28, 2018

Why the base of your miniature palm tree looks so weird

If you have a miniature palm tree, sometimes called a dwarf or pygmy date palm, you may have noticed that the base of it gets kinda weird. But don't panic, that's perfectly normal, and it's how they grow. No, I have no idea why, and it's called "stilting". The roots get exposed and it looks as if the plant isn't really in the ground correctly. But it's fine.

Here at the Tropical Paradise I've had miniature palm trees for over twenty years, and they're doing great. They're big miniatures, over six feet tall now, but they really won't get all that much taller, maybe a few feet. Kind of like "jumbo shrimp"! Of course if they were full-sized palms they'd be thirty feet tall by now, and would have long since outgrown the space, so I'm glad the younger version of me was smart enough to plant miniatures over two decades ago.

And, as I say, they're fine, strong and healthy. And other than looking kinda weird, the stilted roots are perfectly normal. I tried growing stuff around the base to cover it up a bit, but ground cover really doesn't do very good in Phoenix, and I've ended up some piling some river rocks at the base, which is better than nothing.

I hope this helps if you've been worrying about your mini palm. It's fine. And if you have a mini dachshund, even better as these are great place to stand there at attention staring for long periods of time. I think she's looking for lizards. Wait! There's one!