Landscaping with Palms in the Mediterranean

Faculty of Agriculture
Landscape Architecture Department
Akdeniz University
07070 Antalya, Turkey

Reprinted with permission from Volume 45(4) 2001 Issue of Palms (formerly Principes),
Journal of the International Palm Society.  To view the illustrations accompanying this article, please go to the
pdf version

© 2001 The International Palm Society, all rights reserved

Palms are one of the most frequently used plant materials in landscape design in war m climates because their characteristic habits immediately set them apart from other plants.

According to Meerow (1994), their beauty, durability and variety rank palms among the most highly valued of all landscape plants in subtropical and tropical regions. By their very bold, exotic and dramatic nature, palms easily command the most visible, high-profile and strategic locations (Hodel 1996). As landscape plants, palms are prized for their unique architecture and the intricate texture and form of their leaves and stems (Meerow 1994). Unlike most other plants, palms have a vertical accent. According to Muirhead (1961), spaces effectively landscaped with palms must be shaped by the structural use of palms in combination with other plant forms, paving, lawns, water and buildings.

The three determining factors for growing palm trees in temperate climates are temperature, rain and frosts (Esener 1999). It is not possible to define hard and fast conditions required for their growth, because these change according to species. Generally palms are slow-growing plants. They appear as the vertical elements of landscape, and changes in height are seen only after long periods of time. Under regular maintenance conditions, the size and number of leaves, thickness of the trunk and root volume do not change or change only very slowly.

The use of palm trees in landscape design is closely related to architectural concept and hard landscape design. Therefore, architectural and landscape architectural design should work together so as to create the desired effect. In this way, with a soft landscape of palms, the interface between the buildings and surrounding landscape will no longer be a problematic discontinuous transition area; palms can provide a gradual transition between the big building masses and green spaces. Random use of palm trees can neither express a particular idea nor integrate with the architectural design.

Types of Palm Use in Landscaping

Symmetrical Uses

Palms can be used as symmetrical elements in the formal design. Symmetrical designs are usually implemented at the entrances of symmetrical buildings or in the landscape design of classical and neo-classical gardens. Palms are especially suitable for reinforcing the design of completely symmetrical buildings (Fig. 1). They can be used mostly as single specimens or in groups consisting of odd numbers of individuals. In some cases even when the building is not symmetrical, palms that have symmetrical habits can be used in order to give formality to the entrance area (Fig. 2).

The important point of symmetrical uses is to achieve the equivalent growth among trees or tree groups. Horticulture practices should be equally applied to all palms in the symmetrical design. Otherwise some palms may grow faster than others and the planting may over time lose its symmetry.

Palms suitable for most symmetrical uses are Brahea armata, Caryota urens, Jubaea chilensis, Phoenix canariensis, Phoenix dactylifera, Trachycarpus fortunei and Washingtonia robusta.

Groves, Groups or Clumps

Many species of palms grow in groves or forests in their natural habitats. In landscape design, the use of palms in groups is intended to have a tropical effect. At the same time, a group of palms highlights a particular place in the whole landscape that can be seen from long distances (Fig. 3). As the number of palms increases, the characteristic habit of each individual palm becomes less apparent. It is important to be careful about the number of trees that form the group and distances from buildings, as the group should integrate, not overpower the buildings. Also, when palm trees of the same height are planted in a group, an unpleasant view of dense trunks may appear in time because of the competition for light. Such a landscape of dense trunks looks like a building standing only on columns. The solution for this case is to plant trees of different heights in the beginning or to supply the group with new and shorter trees among previously-planted ones.

Some species suitable for group uses are Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, Phoenix reclinata, Phoenix theophrasti, Phoenix canariensis, Sabal palmetto and Syagrus romanzoffiana.

Solitary and Focal Point Uses

Solitary uses of palms are usually applied in two cases. The first is to show the extraordinary habit of palms, and the second is to exhibit a rare palm species, which might have interesting stem texture or leaf form. With solitary uses, palms may appear as dramatic and interesting plants that stand out from the surrounding landscape design, but care must be taken as large solitary specimens can visually dominate the gardens in which they are planted.

Palms can be focal points in either outdoor or indoor landscaping. Focal uses generally emphasize classical and formal designs, but they also have a place in the informal design concept. A focal point that is positioned in the appropriate place can attract attention with a magnificent palm species planted in it (Fig. 4). Form, scale, color and texture of the palm species are closely related to architectural and landscape architectural concepts. For example, for a focal point surrounded by one- or two-story buildings, people should look up to see a twenty-meter high palm (Fig. 5). A rough textured palm tree would make a lively contrast in a focal point between buildings constructed with smooth surfaces of a minimalist design. A giant clustered Phoenix as the focal point of a small garden or dwarf palm species planted in a large space will both spoil the proportion and reduce the desired focal effect.

Palms suitable for usually solitary use are Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, Archontophoenix alexandrae, Butia capitata, Caryota urens, Chamaerops humilis, Jubaea chilensis, Dypsis decary i, Phoenix canariensis, P. reclinata and P. roebelenii.

Lines, Rows and Avenues

Palms are unequaled as impressive borders for avenues, streets or paths and can be used in formal or informal rows (Fig. 6). In this type of use, harmony with the surrounding landscape is important whether it is natural or man-made. However, avenues of tall palms can form a pleasing, even striking, contrast with low, horizontal architecture.

Palms can also be used as space dividers giving form to large volumes of air (Muirhead 1961). A large area can be divided into small spaces with palms planted in rows (Fig. 7). Also they can be planted on the borders of large areas in order to provide a visual boundary. This type of use can create a landmark accent and defines a particular place. Palms in lines or rows not only point out a street, avenue, pathway or border from very long distances, but also surround the place as a third dimension in the sky.

Most suitable palms for avenues or uses in lines are Phoenix canariensis, Phoenix dactylifera, Syagrus romanzoffiana (equivalent to Roystonea species in tropical regions), Washingtonia filifera and W. robusta.


Palms are important elements of soft landscape design because of their characteristic habit. Strong accents can be created in landscape design with their interesting forms. Palms are trees of drama and interest; as a consequence of their extraordinary habit, they should be considered as a different category in landscape design. They are slow-growing plants, and most of them are impressive in the vertical line formed by a crown on a long trunk. In this way they demarcate a space or avenue, border or focal point in the landscape. This is the "accent impact" of palm trees.

On the other hand, palms are the universal symbol of the tropics in the popular imagination. They are the emblem of hot weather, sea and vacation time in peoples’ minds. Outdoor and indoor spaces are immediately given an exotic ambience by the use of palms.

Palm species given here as examples for each group should not restrict designers. They were chosen for their accepted typical characteristics in particular uses and their relationship with surrounding landscape. The aim of this systematic evaluation of palm uses in soft landscape design is to point out a beginning in the process of designing with palms.


The author is especially grateful to Dr. Ragip Esener (owner of the Palm Center in Köycegiz) and to his brother for their valuable comments on the manuscript.


ESENER, R. 1999. Palms (in Turkish). Palm Center Publication. Umit Publishers, Ankara, Turkey.
HODEL, D.R. 1996. Palms over L. A.: Conspicuous by their nature, not their numbers. Principes 40: 103–111.
MEEROW, A.W. 1994. Betrock’s Guide to Landscape Palms. Betrock Information Systems, Florida, U.S.A.
MUIRHEAD, D. 1961. Palms. Dale Stuart King, Arizona, U.S.A.


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