LIers turn to palm trees to spruce up yards

Kokomo Trading Co. founder Jason Bash talks about why palm trees would interest homeowners on Long Island. Videojournalist: Nicole Levy (July 1, 2013)

The palm tree, a symbol of tropical vacations and castaway islands, may be taking root on Long Island.

In the past two years the sale of warm-weather palms as annual plants has increased by about a third at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, said Hicks horticulturist Walt Dworkin. The "big boom," as Dworkin called it, started when the economy went south, making the staycation an appealing alternative to the equatorial getaway. Long Islanders who traveled less frequently "were fixing up their yards with things that looked tropical," Dworkin said. " . . . It gave them their vacation at home."

Cold-hardy palms have taken on new significance since superstorm Sandy, which toppled 11,000 trees in Nassau County alone, according to the county executive's office. In the Mandalay neighborhood of Wantagh, homemaker Debra Doria said she is replacing trees she lost in her backyard with five 5-foot windmill palms, trunked trees with fanlike fronds, from Roslyn-based Kokomo Trading Co.

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Kokomo founder Jason Bash is selling hardy palms -- at prices up to $1,299 with installation -- as insurance against the costs of future storm damage. A landscaping contractor planted the first of Bash's palms at a Syosset home Monday morning.

"Palm trees don't have branches," said Bash, who lost power at his Roslyn home for three weeks after Sandy downed neighborhood trees. Palm fronds detach more easily than branches, making the trees less likely to uproot in stormy weather, he said. "They have been designed by Mother Nature to survive hurricanes."

Laura Weill, president of the Long Island Horticulture Society, agrees. "If there's high winds . . . [palms] tend to just bend and sway," she said.

Hardy palms may survive hurricane winds on Long Island, but can they weather the winter chill?

Expert opinions differ. Palms grow in many different climate zones, said Michael Mauro, a horticulturist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Long Island is split between zones 7a and 7b, on a scale from 0, the coldest, to 12, the hottest. In the region, plants must be able to withstand temperatures as low as zero degrees Fahrenheit.

Home gardeners with palm dreams should be realistic, said Caroline Kiang, a horticulturist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. "Hardy palms can only tolerate brief periods with temperatures in the 0 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit" range. "In my opinion, it's always a good idea and safer to recommend plants are hardy at least for zone 6 to gardeners in zone 7," Kiang said in an email.

Mauro shelters the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's outdoor needle palm in the winter, usually with burlap. He has learned that hardy species dislike precipitation in cold weather.

"If the heart gets wet and temperatures dip below freezing, it could freeze," Mauro explained. Palm fronds can also burn in the winter sun when moisture escapes through the porelike stomates in their leaves.

A new hardy palm bred and grown from seed in Mattituck by Landcraft Environments, a wholesaler that sells tropical plants to nearby nurseries, may be more resistant to Long Island winters, Landcraft co-owner Dennis Schrader said. A cross between two of the most winter-hardy trunked palms, one from the Himalayas and the other from Bulgaria, the Trachycarpus fortunei "Landcraft" points to the future of Bash's business: This year, Kokomo is transporting mature field-grown palms from a nursery in Florida, but he plans to set up a Long Island nursery in one or two years.

For now, most of the customers who buy Landcraft's 18-inch hardy palm saplings for as little as $30 are, as Pam Healey, manager for Lynch's Garden Center in Southampton, said, "die-hard gardeners" who like a challenge.

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