Are You Murdering Your Palms?

Are you a palm murderer? Maybe you’re just an accomplice or possibly guilty of palm-slaughter? Could you be slowly, excruciatingly, yet unknowingly killing your valuable Sanibel palm trees?

These iconic trees are the first plants most folks envision when thinking of our islands. Fort Myers is even nicknamed the City of Palms. Coconut Palms are so important to our landscape that the City of Sanibel grants them a rare exception to our strict native plant ordinance.

Sanibel Palm Trees

Healthy, mature palms add value to our real estate. Almost everyone moving to Sanibel or Captiva wants to have tropical palms in their yard! But most of us are from “Up North” and have no idea how to care for these stately plants. Improper care is causing a number of sick and dying trees on our island.

The Situation Explained

By continually over-pruning palms, you cause irreparable damage.

Surprisingly, most palms do not require any pruning. In fact, you should only prune green fronds when they endanger people or buildings. But lawn care crews routinely turn your beautiful palms into feather-dusters, making yards look silly and causing serious harm to valuable trees. Because palms are slow growing, this damage can take years to show.

Sanibel Palm Trees

Drastic over-pruning is damaging these hardy cabbage palms – see the shortened fronds and pinching trunks.

Who’s To Blame?

 Lawn care companies think over-pruning is what YOU want. It also means less work for them, as drastic pruning means less frequent trimming.

Most lawn crews have no idea how to care for Sanibel palm trees. They come in with power trimmers and hack plants into shape. While most of your landscape tolerates this, palms cannot.

Understanding Your Sanibel Palm Trees

Palm trees, unlike ordinary trees, do not have extensive root systems. They can only reach a small amount of soil for nutrients.

Palms have evolved an efficient recycling system, drawing nutrients out of old fronds before dropping them. However, when fronds are removed early, the tree cannot re-absorb the nutrients and suffers deficiencies. Over time, the tree is weakened, becomes deformed and can eventually die.

Sanibel Palm Trees

“Pencilling” – the narrowing of the trunk is caused by over-pruning. The palm cannot repair this damage. This deformed and weakened tree needs to be replaced.

  • Where do these sick palms exist? – Once you learn to identify the signs, you’ll see damaged trees all over the island, possibly in your own yard!
  • What can you do? – Instruct your lawn care company to only remove dead or dangerous fronds.
  • What about hurricanes?

The “Hurricane Cut” is a Myth

Many folks incorrectly believe that drastic pruning of palms before hurricane season makes them safer. Yard crews sometimes call this a “hurricane cut,” and suggest having it done before hurricane season begins.

But evidence shows that this pruning has the opposite effect and actually weakens palms. Over-pruned palms are more likely to snap in storms. Plus, fronds protect the most delicate part of the tree from wind damage. Remember, most palms evolved in hurricane prone zones and have adapted to surviving storms.


Damage to pruned palms from Hurricane Wilma. Lack of fronds may have made the palms more susceptible to wind damage.


These unpruned palms only a few blocks away survived Hurricane Wilma undamaged.

Minimize Palm Fertilizer

South Florida soil lacks many of the nutrients required by exotic palm species and the application of fertilizer can be necessary for some trees. Palm fertilizer also helps trees recover from recent over-pruning, but it cannot repair long-term damage and weakness caused by “pencilling.” However, fertilizer pollutes our water and we should minimize its use. By not over pruning, you should need less fertilizer to keep your palms healthy.

No Climbing Spikes

Never let your lawn care company use spikes to climb your palms. This common practice wounds the trunk of your tree and will NEVER heal. Palms cannot repair their trunks like normal trees. Trees should be climbed with ladders or accessed with bucket lifts.

Don’t tolerate damage to your Sanibel palm trees. Require proper care of your palms by removing only brown or unsafe fronds and not climbing with spikes.

Jim McCallion About Jim McCallion

Meet the "Marketing Megaphone" and Webmaster behind McCallion & McCallion. After selling his software company, Jim, Susan and kids moved to Sanibel in 2008. With his tech experience, he and Susan bring a fresh approach to island real estate.