Climate adaptedness in palms

Predicting Cold Hardiness in Palms

Climate adaptedness, I feel is a better term than Cold hardiness

The nature of one’s growing season has a profound effect on “cold hardiness”. Cold hardiness zone maps will provide indicators as to the minimum temperature a species may have been subjected to. However, that data is insufficient. Therefore, we must look at the physical map for that specie’s natural distribution range where this will indicate many other vital statistics; Latitude, Altitude, and environment type. The environment type indicates the amount of vegetative cover, topography, total sunshine in hours, total rainfall in mm, number of rainy days, etc..

Thermally, the summers of climates that have some cold weather limitations in winter fall into three groups:

Group 1: warm – daytime temperatures in summer are consistently warm and remain elevated during the night. Over 2500 GDD per annum* (semi-tropical and low desert climates).

Group 2: mixed – warm daytime temperatures in summer may be mixed with cooler days or cool mornings. There is a considerable drop in temperature during the night. 1000-2500 GDD per annum* (warm Mediterranean and semi-arid inland climates).

Group 3: cool – warm daytime temperatures are the exception rather than the rule. Nights are consistently cool. Fewer than 1000 GDD per annum* (mild maritime and subtropical montane climates).

We should then breakdown this still further, by including specific local environment conditions at that local; I.e., Latitude, Altitude, and environment type.

All of these group examples above are “Hardiness Zone 9b” climates, all very different. Whether or not any given palm will adapt to the given winters depends, in large part, on how thermophilic the palm is, not just on how well it tolerates occasional frost, which is how most people read hardiness zones to be. Rhopalostylis sapida, for example, is not thermophilic at all. It grows slowly in temperate conditions and giving it additional heat does not accelerate its growth. Butia capitata is moderately thermophilic. It grows slowly in temperate conditions but prefers subtropical conditions and giving it additional heat does accelerate its growth. One could classify “cold-hardy” palms as belonging to climate group 1, 2, or 3 depending on what kind of summers they prefer. The problem with the recognised list of “temperate palms” is that it mixes palms from all three groups with little regard for limitations imposed by the nature of the growing season, and environment type associated with the specific specie.

Another limiting factor is seasonal precipitation. In ideal conditions, most palms would prefer equi-distributional rainfall. With cold winters, however, dry winters are best and a strong rainfall peak in spring or summer produces the best growth. Having a marked rainfall peak in winter adds another limitation to what kind of palms will grow in a “temperate” climate.

*Growing Degree Days per year calculated on a base of 12°C. As the temperature most temperate palm species commence growth.

GDD are calculated by taking the average of the daily maximum and minimum temperatures compared to a base temperature, Tbase, (usually 10°C). As an equation:
GDD calculation
GDDs are measured from the winter low. Any temperature below Tbase is set to Tbase before calculating the average. Likewise, the maximum temperature is capped at 30°C because palms generally do not grow any faster above that temperature.
For example, a day with a high of 23°C and a low of 12°C would contribute 5.5 GDDs.
GDD example

Example climate models compared with Cornwall in the United Kingdom.

Here we examine examples of the climate models for species:

Climate at Trebrown Nurseries, Cornwall, UK. (12 Months. Hardiness zone zone 9b).
Sunshine (Hours) 2h 3h 4h 6h 7h 7h 6h 6h 5h 4h 2h 2h
Av. Night Temp. 4°C 4°C 5°C 6°C 8°C 11°C 13°C 13°C 12°C 9°C 7°C 5°C
Av. Day Temp. 8°C 8°C 10°C 13°C 15°C 18°C 19°C 19°C 18°C 15°C 12°C 9°C
Precipitation 99mm 74mm 69mm 53mm 63mm 53mm 70mm 77mm 78mm 91mm 113mm 110mm
Rainy Days 19 15 14 12 12 12 14 14 15 16 17 18
Winter Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Record min. temp. -8°C. But this was a one-off. Otherwise -4°C. 887 GDD per annum

Total sunshine hours = 1620, Total rain = 950mm. Total rainy days = 178.
So from this data we can see that despite the large amount of rain, the UK still gets a reasonable amount of seasonal sunshine. For those who don’t already know this, this makes the UK a great place for gardening. This amount of sunshine is attributed to the long summertime day length, a consequence of being so far north of the equator. The downside is the minimal sunshine during the winter months, combined with the fact that most of the rain falls in the winter. There is little summertime extreme heat, and little temperature swing between summer and winter. The winters are extremely mild. Finding palm species, that thrive in these conditions is challenging.

Chamaerops humilis. Climate in Madrid, Spain. (12 Months).
Example: Mediterranean
Sunshine (Hours) 5h 6h 6h 8h 9h 11h 12h 11h 9h 6h 5h 5h
Av. Night Temp. 2°C 2°C 5°C 7°C 10°C 15°C 17°C 17°C 14°C 10°C 5°C 2°C
Av. Day Temp. 9°C 11°C 10°C 18°C 21°C 27°C 31°C 30°C 25°C 19°C 13°C 9°C
Precipitation 39mm 34mm 43mm 48mm 48mm 27mm 11mm 15mm 32mm 53mm 47mm 48mm
Rainy Days 8 7 10 9 10 5 2 3 6 8 9 10
Winter Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Record min. temp. -10°C. for this provenance. 1551.2 GDD per annum

Total sunshine hours = 2790, Total rain = 445mm. Total rainy days = 87.

Madrid is better compared with London rather than Cornwall, because London shares the same average Min. Temp. (2°C), and the same record Min. Temp. (-10°C), both being a zone 9a. Here in Cornwall, we actually have a better hardiness zone than both those zone 9b. We all know that Spain is a better place to grow palm trees, so why is that? – 58% more sunshine than the UK, this almost entirely due to the 91 fewer rainy days. The consequence of this being far less available water, 505 mm less than the UK. Making this climate hot, dry, and arid.
Chamaerops humilis will grow almost anywhere in the British Isles, and we don’t ever get temperatures low enough to harm it. However, it grows very slowly here.

Butia capitata var. odorata. Climate in Uruguay. (12 Months).
Example: Campos (Grass-land).
Sunshine (Hours) 5h 6h 7h 8h 10h 10h 11h 10h 9h 8h 6h 5h
Av. Night Temp. 6°C 6°C 8°C 9°C 12°C 15°C 17°C 16°C 15°C 15°C 9°C 6°C
Av. Day Temp. 14°C 14°C 17°C 20°C 23°C 26°C 28°C 28°C 26°C 26°C 18°C 15°C
Precipitation 47mm 66mm 99mm 99mm 84mm 81mm 74mm 79mm 76mm 66mm 74mm 79mm
Rainy Days 6 7 6 6 6 7 6 5 5 5 5 5
Winter Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Record min. temp. -4°C. for this provenance. 1961.8 GDD per annum

Total sunshine hours = 2850, Total rain = 951mm. Total rainy days = 71.
So this is basically a Mediterranean climate, but with twice the rainfall over fewer rainy days. The rainy days are also spread quite evenly throughout the year, providing excellent growing conditions, with a long growing season. The exact same amount of rain as the UK, but fewer rainy days, which in turn produces more sunshine hours. It is clear why Butia capitata grows so well in the UK. With more sun it would be completely at home here.

Washingtonia filifera. Climate in Arizona, USA. (12 Months).
Example: Arid Desert.
Sunshine (Hours) 8h 10h 11h 12h 13h 14h 13h 12h 12h 10h 9h 9h
Av. Night Temp. 4°C 6°C 8°C 12°C 16°C 21°C 25°C 24°C 21°C 13°C 7°C 4°C
Av. Day Temp. 18°C 21°C 24°C 28°C 33°C 38°C 40°C 38°C 36°C 30°C 24°C 19°C
Precipitation 20mm 20mm 18mm 10mm 3mm 3mm 25mm 25mm 18mm 10mm 15mm 23mm
Rainy Days 4 4 4 2 1 1 6 6 3 2 3 4
Winter Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Record min. temp. -13°C. for this provenance. 3315.4 GDD per annum

Total sunshine hours = 3990, Total rain = 190mm. Total rainy days = 40.

At first glance at the record min. temp. -13°C., and climate zone 9a most people will assume that Washingtonia filifera will grow easily in the UK. This palm is adapted to a very harsh and arid environment. It likes a lot of sun, high temperatures, dry air, and any cold snaps to be very short. It does like its roots in plenty of water, but it totally dislikes freezing moist air, and for this reason this palm can be killed at a mere -4°C in the UK. It can be grown in the UK, but requires a little attention.

Parajubaea torallyi var. torallyi. Climate in Pasopaya, Bolivia. (12 Months).
Example: Tropical, High Mountain.
Sunshine (Hours) 9h 8h 7h 6h 6h 6h 6h 5h 5h 6h 8h 9h
Av. Night Temp. 1°C 2°C 3°C 4°C 6°C 6°C 6°C 6°C 6°C 4°C 3°C 3°C
Av. Day Temp. 17°C 17°C 18°C 19°C 19°C 18°C 17°C 17°C 18°C 18°C 18°C 18°C
Precipitation 10mm 13mm 28mm 41mm 48mm 94mm 114mm 107mm 66mm 33mm 13mm 8mm
Rainy Days 2 4 9 9 11 18 21 18 16 9 5 2
Winter Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Record min. temp. -4°C. for this provenance. 1064.5 GDD per annum

Total sunshine hours = 2430, Total rain = 575mm. Total rainy days = 124.

This is a climate comparable to the UK except for the fact that the temperature swings between Min., & Max. temperatures occurs between day and night within a single day, not summer and winter seasons, as in the UK. We can assume that Parajubaea torallyi dislikes seasons, or it would have migrated south down the Andes mountain range after the last Iceage. And we can assume that this palm dislikes high temperatures, or it wouldn’t be growing at such a high altitude in the tropics. Parajubaea torallyi grows at the highest altitude of any palm (3,400 m).
Parajubaea torallyi seems to tolerate the UK temperatures, because we have minimal temperature swing between summer and winter. However, it grows very slowly.

Rhopalostylis sapida. Climate in West, South Island, New Zealand. (12 Months).
Example: Wet Temperate.
Sunshine (Hours) 4h 5h 5h 5h 6h 7h 7h 6h 5h 5h 4h 4h
Av. Night Temp. 3°C 3°C 6°C 8°C 9°C 11°C 12°C 12°C 11°C 8°C 6°C 3°C
Av. Day Temp. 12°C 12°C 13°C 15°C 16°C 18°C 19°C 19°C 18°C 18°C 14°C 12°C
Precipitation (mm) 218 239 226 292 267 262 262 191 239 239 244 231
Rainy Days 16 16 17 19 18 16 14 12 14 14 15 15
Winter Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Record min. temp. -5°C. for this provenance. 642.5 GDD per annum

Total sunshine hours = 1890, Total rain = 2910mm. Total rainy days = 186.

Here we have a climate almost exactly the same as the UK, except for the massive 1960 mm of additional rain falling in almost the same umber of wet days as the UK. This is the southernmost range of Rhopalostylis sapida on mainland New Zealand, and is the ideal provenance to grow in the UK. This palm also grows in areas of New Zealand with much less rain than this. Nevertheless, we can assume that the rain in the UK would not deter this palm from thriving here. The palm seems to prefer higher temperatures if it can get them, and temperatures below -5°C. can easily kill it. Rhopalostylis sapida grows very slowly both in the British Isles and New Zealand.

Trachycarpus fortunei. Climate on Zhoushan Island, China. (12 Months).
Example: Temperate.
Sunshine (Hours) 4h 4h 4h 5h 5h 5h 7h 7h 5h 6h 5h 5h
Av. Night Temp. 1°C 1°C 4°C 10°C 15°C 19°C 23°C 23°C 19°C 14°C 7°C 2°C
Av. Day Temp. 8°C 8°C 13°C 19°C 25°C 28°C 32°C 32°C 28°C 23°C 17°C 12°C
Precipitation 48mm 58mm 84mm 94mm 94mm 180mm 147mm 142mm 130mm 71mm 51mm 36mm
Rainy Days 6 9 9 9 9 11 9 9 11 4 6 6
Winter Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Record min. temp. -12°C. for this provenance. 2113.9 GDD per annum

Total sunshine hours = 1860, Total rain = 1135mm. Total rainy days = 98.

Here we have the climate, which is the best match to the UK. This particular provenance of Chusan Island is wetter and sunnier than the UK, but if you compare the average climate over the whole, wide range of Trachycarpus fortunei in China then you will find that it matches the UK very well. Trachycarpus fortunei enjoys the longer day length in the UK summer, and it can be said that the palm actually grows better in the UK than it does in China.


Finding an exact match to the UK climate is impossible, due to the fact that the British Isles lies so far north of the equator, where both winter and winter nights are long. No other place on the planet, which shares similar winter temperatures is situated so far from the equator. Studying hardiness zones alone does not indicate species suitable for growing in the UK. All palms, which can be grown here would prefer more winter sunshine than they can find in the UK. On the plus side; the British Isles’ mild winters permits us to grow more species, albeit uncomfortably than any other place situated this far from the equator, 50°N – 60°N. Studying climate modelling statistics of palm’s provenance’s in this way has so far identified over 130 (and counting) species as likely candidates for trial in the British Isles. But only by actually trialing them in the ground here can we identify the specie’s tolerances.

3 thoughts on “Climate adaptedness in palms

  1. Dear S. O Mahony, thank you for your input. Although I quite understand the point you are trying to make, I’m afraid I have to say that your statement is not quite correct. Firstly, my article states clearly “southernmost range of Rhopalostylis sapida on mainland New Zealand” emphasizing “on the mainland”. We are aware that there is also the Chatham Island form, and yes! We too consider this to be distinct from the mainland form. We grow both forms and yes! the Island form grows faster. However, Chatham Island is 43.83°S and the provenance we are discussing here comes from Okarito 43.30°S on the Western side of the New Zealand mainland. As you can see there is little difference to the southerly limit of either one. We use the mainland form in our example because it is the better provenance to compare with Cornwall. The Chatham or Pitt Island form might be the better provenance to compare with the Isles of Scilly, or some of the islands off the west of Ireland.

    See related pages with distribution maps:
    Rhopalostylis sapida sp. Chatham Is.
    Rhopalostylis sapida

  2. Re your analysis of palms’climatic needs, specifically relating to Rhopalostylis sapida: the most southerly provenance of this palm is not on the New Zealand mainland, but on the Chatham Islands, several hundred kilometres to the east of the South Island. The climate there is cooler, windier and much drier than that on the south Island West coast, for which you provide figures; compared with Cornwall, the summers would be distinctly cooler, the winters with probably fewer frosts. The Chatham Is. variety is sufficiently distinct, according to some botanists, to justify its segregation as a separate species; one commercial source claims that it grows “much faster” than the mainland variety, and it may have other adaptations to a cool oceanic climate which would be of interest to potential growers in NW Europe.

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