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Langley's Palm Paradise

Nancy and Ted Langley are both members of the Central Florida Palm Society.

Ted and Nancy Langley live in a house he built himself on 1.6 acres in Lutz and landscaped featuring some 350 palms and cycads of perhaps 70 different kinds.

Ted can tell you at once the common name and often the very uncommon botanical name and the story behind each one. For instance, the Trithrinax acanthocoma, Spiny Fiber Palm, has a thorny trunk, a hairy base, beautiful fronds, and such hardiness that it came through the '89 freeze. It is hardy down to 15 degrees. And it is still short enough to prune from the ground.

"Most palms grow quickly," Ted says, "But the cycads are very slow growing. I was told to get them started right away so I could see them at maturity." But even slow growing plants in Florida mature faster than do trees in northen states, and this Florida native has been growing these on this property since 1983. Many are much larger than I ever knew cycads could grow.

The Langleys are definitely specialty gardeners and are members of both the Central Florida Palm and Cycad Society.

One of their cycads, the Encephalartos hildebrandtii, lost all its foliage a few years ago. At such times, the friendship of other growers helps immensely. From other society members the Langleys learned that defoliation sometimes happens and can last as long as four years. Theirs grew a few new small fronds after two years. It took two more years for full scale growth to resume, but now the plant is large, lush, and thriving again.

Chamaedorea radicalis grows only 3 feet tall but have longer stems that sprawl. It does well in low to medium light.

"This is a mule palm, a cross between the pindo and the queen palms, Syagrus romanzoffiana x Butia capitata, and the seeds are sterile." Ted pointed out a handsome tree. Most palms drop many seeds and he often grows them on to trade with other growers for kinds he doesn't have yet. But many palms put out too many seedlings and a mule is a relief.

He says the Livistona species, including the Chinese fan palm and the ribbon palm, are among the best for Florida. The farther south one lives in the state, the more palm choices he has. Some of the Langley's palms are marginally hardy but their theory is, "If it survives it survives, if it doesn't, it doesn't." Ted can tell you in a minute which are most cold hardy, and also, especially after our dry spring, which are most drought tolerant.

Palms are mostly different shades of green, blue, and silver with a few, like his variegated cabbage palms, having creamy yellow near the center of the fronds. The taller ones give useful dappled shade in which many other plants thrive, so Nancy has added bromeliads to the understory for more color. Among them blooms a gloriosa lily that echos the colors of the bromeliad blooms.

In late summer and fall, two large floss silk trees are covered with orchid-like flowers. One is white and the second one almost purple. These are fast growing and already bearing seeds that opens with a ball of cotton-like kapok that is fascinating to see, also functional as it finally separates and scatters seeds on the wind. Eventually these trees, like the one in front of the Garden Center on Bayshore in Tampa, have a full second season of interest when they are covered with puffs of white kapok.

Palms give an elegance to the landscape. The blue fronds just left of center, are from a young Bismark that will grow slowly to 30 feet and is drought tolerant.

The elegance of the Langley landscape comes from excellent design and combinations featuring the well tended palms that are most unusual even in Florida. I've only seen a very few growers who have achieved this, using the various forms, textures, and subtle color variations.

"I just got that Bismark," Ted says of a palm with very architectural blue fronds. "I should have gotten it years ago."

Every view from the house, from the gazebo where they entertain, from the walkways or the driveway, features another intricate, beautiful, and interesting palm picture.

When I admitted my ever shrinking palm prejudice, Ted agreed that the taller palms do take a good deal of pole pruning. "What is more, the trees are getting taller and I'm getting older," he says. "But there are a great number of the understory palms that do well in some shade and never grow to the point where pruning is difficult.

The agave on the right and the cycad on left do well in the dappled shade of the tall palm. Nancy's bromeliads and the gloriosa lily add color.

Consider these tips from the Langleys:

  • You really shouldn't pull the old palms fronds off. It can scar the trunk. It is much better to cut them. Unfortunately, it is tempting to pull them when you can't reach high enough to cut.
  • Don't cut back too far, or let your tree trimmer do so. This is also tempting when you have someone in a position to reach the fronds that you know are going to grow quickly. But the palm tree, like most plants, needs the green parts to make food for the whole tree.
  • The Langleys have so far burned or mulched all plant debris, but now they have purchased a trailer to haul it to the dump.
  • They do not use much fertilizer. They do mulch.
  • They take care of their very extensive plantings without an automatic watering system.