img_0010Like Charlie Seabrook, my fellow contributor to “likethedew,” I’m a tree-kisser, too. Some of my fondest memories are of climbing the magnolias at my grandmother’s family place in Mississippi, and of the tree house my brother and I built in the spreading pecan tree in our backyard in Tuscaloosa, a tree planted by my grandfather around the turn of the last century. Even as an adult, I’ve never lost my boyhood love of trees. One of the most fun assignments I ever managed to weasel out of my employers when I was a newspaper reporter was a feature on Peter Jenkins’ recreational tree-climbing school in Atlanta, something you can check out at

But as much as I love trees, I’ve drawn a line in the sand down in sunny Florida where we live. I now hate palms. Our yard is full of them, and they are devilish, evil things, sent here by Lucifer to torture anybody foolish enough to mess with them. The several varieties in our yard have poked me, stabbed me, rained nasty debris into my eyes and routinely mocked me by littering the yard with their messes on a weekly basis.

Palms don’t make a neat mess like oaks or pecans: leaves, attractive nuts and the occasional branch. Instead, they rain down a constant blizzard of tiny winged seeds, goo-filled nuts, splayed, fraying branches and seed stalks, broken “boots”  — weird, stiff, sharp-ended crosses where the fronds attach to the tree — and fronds of great length and weight that can be the devil to cut down. But leave them on the tree dead and your landscaping looks terrible, forlorn and abandoned. Cutting them too late is next to impossible: dried and lifeless they flail when you try to saw them, the blade’s teeth never gaining purchase because the target won’t stand still.

I, for one, won’t dignify palms by calling them trees. Once I removed one after a storm had destroyed its living top, and I was stunned at what the chainsaw revealed. They are not trees, they are giant weeds pretending to be trees. They have no neat, intricate rings or layers: inside they are just millions of long stringy strands of fibers, nothing like the elegance and symmetry inside an oak or a hickory, a real tree. I have to admit this makes them wonderfully adapted to withstanding hurricanes. But palms also don’t have a nicely spreading system of roots beneath the ground mirroring the branches above; beneath the surface they are a rigid single column made up of a million tiny worm-like sprouts, a Medusa’s-head impossible to chop or cut without ruining your tools.

And as a family they are armed with more spikes, daggers and thorns than almost anything else I’ve encountered in nature. Even their seed pods are insidious: They pop open and spew forth a zillion tiny winged seeds that are like so many cluster bombs aimed at taking out your swimming pool pump by clogging up your filter baskets.

img_0009The spikes on one of our palms are as hard and sharp as a steel needle. If you trim a branch you better leap out of the way before it falls. I have been speared, repeatedly, and it is intensely painful, almost as if the needles were dipped in some kind of mild poison. The wounds ache for hours afterwards, prompting my wife to remark that men are just whiners and know nothing about bearing pain since we don’t birth babies. (I didn’t hazard to point out that we have no children).

The outer seed pod husks on a queen palm can grow to five feet in length and weigh up to 25 or 30 pounds, even after they split open and separate from the stalk holding the seeds inside. But the husks are topped by a wicked point, and, when trimmed, they turn over in mid-air as they fall and become medieval javelins hurtling from the sky. A neighbor was speared by one and had to go to the hospital for stitches. Without question, they can take out an eye.

Even the relatively innocuous Chinese fan palms — no spikes or daggers — are aggravating: They have long wispy strands on the ends of their fronds, which, when you try to drag them to the street after trimming, invariably slip beneath your feet — intentionally, I’m convinced — and send you stumbling.

img_0006Yet another variety of palm in our yard – I hate them so much I don’t even want to know the name – has incredibly hard and sharp protrusions on the stalk near the base of the frond. They look like shark’s teeth, but are small enough to be easily overlooked. The first time I trimmed them and casually picked them up to drag them to the street, my hand slid up the stalk and caught on those protrusions, which dug painfully into my skin, making a surprisingly deep, jagged wound. But of course I’m just a wimpy guy.

And there is nothing like trimming a tall palm with a “pole saw,” a gizmo on a long fiberglass pole that appears designed to break your back as well as cut high limbs. Our trees are so tall I have to stand on a six-foot step-ladder and then use a 12-foot pole saw to reach them. I have given up on some of the trees because it would take a 12-foot ladder — and the long saw —  to span the distance. But no matter where I place the ladder on the ones I can reach, the blinding Florida sun is always directly in my eyes and the wind direction is such that a steady stream of sawdust and stringy debris filters out of the treetop directly into my face, my eyes, my hair and down my shirt. I can hear the palm laughing with a smirking, evil tone every time this happens.

We are also lucky enough to have a gorgeous spreading laurel oak in our backyard. It is a wonderful tree, a real tree, one with branches and leaves, not fronds and fibers, and it offers a world of shade all afternoon long beneath its delightfully pleasing profile. Best of all, it demands attention only once a year when its leaves must be raked.

You may love seeing palms silhouetted against a salt marsh or a stunning beach view in the sunset, but I’m telling you: they are evil, nasty things. They are sentient beings out to get ……. me.

Mike Williams

Mike Williams

With roots in Mississippi and Alabama, Mike Williams worked for newspapers across the South for 27 years. After earning a degree in American Studies at Amherst College, he worked for Alabama newspapers in Baldwin County, Montgomery and Birmingham, followed by stints at the Miami Herald and The Atlanta Constitution. His last job was as a foreign correspondent for the Cox Newspaper chain. He now splits his time between Florida and the North Carolina mountains. His interests include race relations, history, Southern folk culture and the environment.

  1. Not to add unduly to what appears to be very legitimate paranoia, but I also remember that when I lived in Phoenix some years ago the big problem people had with palms was that rats liked to nest in them.

  2. Not to mention roaches, or “palmetto bugs.” We have plenty of those here in Savannah, Georgia and you have to be careful when pruning palms or palmettos or you will be covered with those nasty bugs.

  3. Tim Oliver

    I’ll take palms any day over oaks and pines ! Palms have never tried to wreck my house, nor do they deposit cones, straw, limbs, leaves, and billions of acorns all over my deck, destined for the soft area between my Scottie’s paws. Green herons nest in the oaks, sending bucketsful of green and white droppings onto whatever is under it, usually, my car.
    Admittedly, my palms are of the palmetto variety, producing benign fronds, and purple berries. The berries are supposed to be good for the prostate, and, when overly ripe, are known to give common and boat-tailed grackles a good buzz.

  4. Found your article while trying to determine if my hands were going to fall off; somewhat reassured to read of your experiences. I was spiked several times yesterday cutting down dead fronds; several fingers are still numb and swollen. Noticed also a split in the bark at the base of the tree that revealed that weird fiberous structure. Gross. Give me a nice old oak any day.

  5. Palm Trees are wonderful plants and when I here bafoons ranting about how terrible they are I think that these folks should be shipped to the Arctic ASAP where they would never have to worry about such majestic plants. Since most of these morons who rant about palms haven’t a clue about the species. They say palms should only be in California where they belong. Well I hate to burst your bubble, but there are no species of palms native to LosAngeles or any other coastal city. There is only one specie of palm tree native to California and that is Washingtonia filifera, only found in small groves in the south western desert. All palms you see in California have been introduced and as for Florida. There are several native species to that state, but all others have been introduced. Palms are absolutely beautiful plants and they say something about the climate. If you see palms, then generally you know it’s going to be a mild climate year round. I love all trees, but if I had a choice between oaks, pecans, pines or palms in my garden, it would be palms hands down! There are over 2,800 species of them, what’s not to like? I say plant more palms!!!

  6. The Chinese Palms that sent you stumbling are known for their Kung Fu techniques applied on several types of people. They trained in absolute secrecy in the Guangdong mountains.
    A palm can be one of the lowest maintenance plants you can choose. In a narrow place where you cannot have a branching tree, there is a palm which can get quite tall, but still with a natural look; you need to regularily trimm others to keep them confined in such a place- but not a palmtree.
    BTW, Mississippi and Alabama have native palmtrees- maybe the author insisted to climb on them without success or even hurting himself. The rant against palmtrees may have its insidious roots right there, deep in the childhood. Type of “Medusa’s Head” roots!

  7. Well written and so true. The most common palm species we grow here on Canada’s west coast is Trachycarpus fortunei. They are native to China. There are some beautiful tall old specimens where I live. Mississsippi & Alabama have Rhapydophyllum hystrix and Sabal minor as their native palms. There are also native palms found in Arkansas and Oklahoma as well, Sabal minor.

  8. I can’t believe I’ve finally found someone that hates palms as passionately as I do! I live in the Los Angeles area in the San Fernando Valley’s southwest end in Woodland Hills. I have been fortunate up to this time to have no aggravating palms in my own 1/2 acre yard but the Washington Palms reek havoc in many yards around here. People are oblivious as to what goes on in their yards – especially unused or hidden areas and they generally don’t care. I see so many sprouts and can’t help but wonder if we will soon be a forest of ash, fig, walnut, Washington palms and weed hedges that people think are real hedges like wax leaf privets but they are 10 foot sticks with a few leaves and plenty of seeds for spreading. A neighbor behind me has a W. palm growing directly against their over grown walnut tree. I can’t wait for the seeds flying into my yard! They let ash trees grow, so of coarse there are trillllllions of seeds dotting my yard. Many people are re-building home plots around here and spending lots of money on landscaping that will be ruined by ashes and palms that never get pulled by their blow & go gardeners. Why can’t the gardeners take 5 minutes to dig out an ash tree before its root gets like a never-ending carrot – too deep to get all the way so you know the remaining root piece will produce a new tree. When I take my dog for a walk I often pull sprouts that I think will come out and just sigh at clusters of ash trees rooting themselves in lilly bushes or between “a rock and a hard place” of various kinds. I feel like going door to door with a shovel volunteering to quickly destroy these devil weeds.

    By the way your article is awesome. It sounds like Florida has more varieties of these pests than our area.

    I have 15 chickens and 5 ducks. I live in an area of Woodland Hills called Walnut Acres where some homes are zoned for “farm animals”. I also hate raccoons who have be-headed several of my chickens and ducks. I heard a story on Billy The Exterminator that a man’s pet raccoon, sitting in the man’s truck passenger seat, tore open the man’s throat and killed him.

  9. I was poked on the left side of my knee by a palm needle while cutting palm branches off the same tree pictured above, I am in excruciating pain and can’t bend my knee, Whay does it hurt so bad and when will the pain go away??

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