Palm maintenance is often misunderstood, and pruning tops the list. Just before hurricane season, landscape crews go door to door offering their palm-pruning services. The result is usually a palm with eight to 10 leaves sticking out of the top, giving the tree a mohawk haircut. These palms have been over-pruned, and repeating this practice year after year will have serious long-term effects on the tree.
If palms are part of your landscape and they are too tall for you to maintain, educate yourself on the correct way to prune them so you can insist that the job be done correctly. A healthy palm should have a full canopy of leaves going right down to the trunk of the palm. Old leaves at the base will die, hang down and eventually drop off. Seed heads are messy and can leave undesirable seedlings throughout the landscape, so it is beneficial to remove these before seeds drop.
The primary goal in pruning palms is to remove the flower stalks, or seed heads, and leaves that are completely dead. The easiest way to describe it is to think of the hands on the face of a clock. Leaves should not be removed above the 9 and 3 o'clock positions. However, most palms are pruned at the 11 and 1 o'clock positions. Perhaps one reason they are over-pruned is because it is easier to remove the flowers/seed heads if all the leaves below them are removed. The practice is so common in the commercial trade that most clients think this is the preferred method.
So what's the big deal about over-pruning? The main problem is that removing too many leaves from the canopy puts the palm in a deficit mode by taking away the plant's food-producing capacity. If this practice is repeated year after year, leaves will get smaller and trunk diameter will also get smaller.
Most landscape palms suffer from potassium deficiency because they are not fertilized correctly. Older leaves develop yellowish-orange spots and leaf tips turn brown. Potassium is mobile within the plant, so when the plant is deficient, potassium is moved to new leaves. Even though older leaves may not look great, they are providing potassium to the new growth. It is best to maintain these leaves until they are completely brown and that fertilizer applications are adjusted to compensate for the deficiency. Heavy pruning will make potassium deficiency more severe and can lead to death of the palm.
Another reason to avoid over-pruning is that it makes the new bud more susceptible to wind damage. The hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 showed that palms with "hurricane-cuts" were more likely to have the tops snapped off compared to palms with full crowns. It is also suspected that a full crown of leaves provides some cold protection to tender buds in the event of a hard freeze.
Whenever palms are pruned, you run the risk of attracting pests and/or spreading diseases. When cutting the leaf bases of palms, a volatile chemical is released that attracts palm weevils, the largest weevil in North America. The larvae of this weevil feed on the soft tissue in the developing bud and are deadly to the palm. In addition, some diseases (Fusarium wilt of Canary Island date palm) are spread by infected pruning tools. Pruning tools should be sterilized with a disinfectant for five minutes to kill the disease before moving to the next palm.
To avoid diseases such as trunk rot, remove the leaves close to the trunk but don't cut into the trunk and never pull off leaves as this will create an open wound on the trunk. Do not allow pruning crews to use pruning spikes on the palms because that also creates wounds to the trunk.
It's expensive to remove dead palms or trees from the landscape, so take charge and insist that the job be done right to ensure the health of the plant.
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