GOT TO HAVE IT: The palm tree is in high demand in NWF - Here's why

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

More than 500 palms have helped welcome passengers at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport for well more than a decade.

For out-of-state visitors, the palms serve as an immediate symbol of the Sunshine State, Okaloosa County Airports Director Tracy Stage said.

“The folks who are coming from the Midwest, palms don’t grow there,” Stage said Thursday. “The palm tree is a perfect visual of ‘Wow, now I’m on vacation.’ ”

More:Oaks instead of palm trees? Florida’s iconic palms don’t cut it with climate change

The palms at VPS include 100 sabal palms that line the airport road just south of State Road 85. The sabal palm, also known as the cabbage palm and other names, was named decades ago as Florida’s official state “tree” and stands in the center of the state seal.

Dozens of palms line the perimeter road at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.

The palms at VPS “put smiles on people’s faces,” Stage said. “And the temperature difference: Where many passengers are coming from, it’s 30 or 40 degrees. They walk into this beautiful climate, and there’s a world of difference.”

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Hundreds of sabal palms also stand outside the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center on Okaloosa Island, and those and other types of palms are found in many other parts of the Destin/Fort Walton Beach area.

For example, the Florida Department of Transportation has planted palms next to relatively recent road projects, such as the State Road 123 flyover northwest of Niceville.

More:PHOTOS: Vehicle plows through palm trees on Okaloosa Island median

Tampa roots

But while the sabals are a common sight in the area, they are not native to Northwest Florida, said Sheila Dunning, the University of Florida/Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences Extension's commercial horticulture agent in Okaloosa County.

And the sabals and other types of palms are grasses, not trees, Dunning said.

“State politicians do not understand botany very well,” she said with a laugh. A palm “is not technically a tree. South Carolina made the same mistake” of listing the sabal as its official tree.

Hundreds of sabal palms stand outside the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center on Okaloosa Island. Sabals and other types of palms are found in many parts of the Destin/Fort Walton Beach area.

According to the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida,” the palm family is a large, distinctive group of flowering plants with about 2,800 species.

“Palms occur naturally in tropical as well as subtropical to warm temperate zones,” according to the guide. “As many as 19 species of palms occur naturally in Florida (some are native while others were introduced and have become naturalized).”

The guide describes sabal palms as having tall, light gray trunks, the upper part of which is latticed with old leaf bases. They grow to 65 feet tall, and their leaves are somewhat fan-shaped and often grow in large groups.

In the United States, the sabal palm’s native range is the coastal plain of the lower East Coast from southeast North Carolina south to Florida and west along the Gulf Coastal plain to Texas, according to Wikipedia.

Palms are reflected in a storefront window along Miracle Strip Parkway in downtown Fort Walton Beach.

“But to be truly native to Florida, there must be documentation when Florida was being explored by mostly the Spanish, but also the French and explorers from other countries,” Dunning said. “There is documentation from the 1500s that shows the sabal palm is truly native to Southwest Florida, the Tampa area.

“Sabal palms are considered naturalized when they show up on their own and continue to grow without human intervention, so they are naturalized in Northwest Florida," she added. "But they were not here when the state was discovered.”

In the 1500s, Northwest Florida was dominated by longleaf pines and wiregrass, Dunning said.

She said the needle palm, found in the Apalachicola area, is the only palm that is a true native to Northwest Florida.

“It’s more like a shrub than a tree,” Dunning said. “It is established in the shade of other trees and is widely used in landscapes, but it does not have a tropical look.”

She said many developers look for more Mediterranean types of palms, such as Phoenix species and Washingtonians, most of which were introduced here from other areas.

The tropical greenery outside of the convention center on Okaloosa Island includes more than 400 sabal palms that were planted in the parking lot medians and other areas not long after the center opened in 2003, Okaloosa County Tourist Development Department Director Jennifer Adams said.

Palms dot parking areas in downtown Fort Walton Beach.

They all came from Southwest Florida, she said.

“The palms line the convention center entryway,” said Adams, who added that people attending events at the center “like when you’re driving in and you’re surrounded by these trees. It makes it feel grand and like Florida. The building is modern, but that drive makes you feel like ‘Florida.’ ”

The palms are very low maintenance, as they are cut back only once a year, she said.

Stage said the county's Airports Department spends about $5,000 annually to clean up dead palm fronds and keep the airport’s more than 500 palms looking pretty.

“So that’s an expense of only about $10 per palm,” he said.

Stage also praised sabal palms for their strong root system that helps them withstand tropical storm-force winds.

“And from an aesthetic standpoint, they definitely serve their purpose,” he said. “For arriving passengers, they know they’re arriving at their Florida destination.”

Dozens of palms line the perimeter road at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.

Leaves of grass

While many people might think it odd to refer to a palm as a type of grass, Dunning said a palm is not a tree because “to be a tree, it must be able to produce bark.”

Palms have a soft, pseudo bark that resembles coconut fiber and is leftover material from previous leaves, she said.

“Palm trunks do not get fatter over time, so there’s the advantage of growing them close to buildings in narrow areas,” Dunning said. “They won’t outgrow those spaces easily. They gain height because they drop their old leaves.”

Overall, palms will be healthier and endure storms if they’re not over-pruned and are allowed to keep more than 75% of their crown canopy, she said. Leaves should remain on a palm until they are completely brown, she said.

“Palms are naturally designed to withstand strong winds because the majority of these palms have developed in coastal areas and islands,” Dunning said. “They’re designed to have the wind pass through them and they have a very tight root system, so they can give in that wind without breaking roots. Palms have massive roots generating from the stem, with spaces between them. They’re like thick guy wires that offer support.”

Palms endure salty coastal air well, and the sabals in particular generally withstand cold and wet conditions and even freezes much better than Mediterranean palms, she said.

Sabal palms grow much better, however, in the nutrient-rich Tampa area compared to most areas of Northwest Florida, which are low in phosphorous, potassium and magnesium, Dunning said.

“Up here on the Appalachian quartz crystal, we don’t have those elements, so we have to manage them for fertility,” she said.

‘Still Florida’

While it’s difficult to picture much of the local landscape without palms, former Destin City Council member Cyron Marler said he never has been enthusiastic about them.

Marler, who just completed his fourth and final council term, is a descendant of one of Destin’s founding families.

He doesn’t remember any palms standing in the Destin area until about four decades ago.

Back then, Shoreline Towers and Sandpiper Cover on unincorporated Holiday Isle were among the first Destin-area properties to have palms, Marler said.

More:The History of Destin

As a councilman, he occasionally spoke out against palms being part of public landscaping projects in Destin. For example, he didn’t want palms to be included in the Florida Department of Transportation's plan to add more plants and trees early next year to U.S. Highway 98 medians in Destin.

“It’s not that I dislike palm trees, but I want something native to the area,” Marler said Thursday. “People think of Florida when they see palm trees, but I would like more native trees.”

Dunning agreed that palms remain a strong symbol of the Sunshine State.

“Tourists are not going to come down here to see something they can see someplace else,” she said, “and Northwest Florida is still Florida.”