April 3, 2014

Colonel Sumawong's Fabulous Fan Palm

Licuala peltata var. 'Sumawong'
About 30 years ago, Thai plant collector Colonel Watana Sumawong introduced this palm into American horticulture, especially in the palm world of Florida. It would be safe to say that the palm has made quite a hit, and is more commonly available than ever before. The palm has a lot of good qualities, and most growers who cultivate this species would accord it a better status than its oft-used relative, Licuala grandis. 

On a personal note, the plant in the photo is one growing in Pinecrest Gardens, and which I planted about 5 years ago as a small plant in a 10 inch pot. It grows near a stream, and is surrounded by tall trees, rhizomatous begonias, heliconias and a substantial bamboo. These provide wind protection and serve also to boost humidity, both of which this palm enjoys. The palm is now over 7 feet tall and 8 feet wide, has withstood low temperatures just a few degrees above freezing, and has shown no special needs for fertilizer, nor tendencies toward pest problems. Although we have several species of Licuala, this species gets more attention than most of the others, likely due to its elegant vertical carriage of "ridged" fronds and its standout presence near a water area.

Having grown both this species and L. grandis, I would much prefer growing the Sumawong Fan Palm; it is faster growing, far less prone to cold or wind damage than L. grandis,  and has far larger fronds, up to 7 feet across on a mature plant. It grows beautifully in very bright light, with moist acid soil and frequent watering. It can reach a mature height of 15 feet with an equal width, best planted in the landscape with 3 or more plants of varying heights. The resulting visual effect is stunning, even more deisrable since the palms are fairly carefree once established. I see specimens planted outdoors in rather sunny areas in many Miami neighborhoods,  which conditions would be too intense for other Licuala species.

 Now available at many palm vendors, this species deserves some space in more landscapes than is currently seen, and given more respect as a landscape plant than it currently gets.          

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

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