Family: Arecaceae Origin: Madagascar
Said to be named after the first chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck, the entire Latin name honors him with “nobilis” meaning ‘noble’ at the end. Otto maintained peace between the German states during his lifetime, creating the first welfare state in history and maintaining loyal support for 30 years during the height of his service. Tough and stately, Otto in himself characterizes many of the things we love about the Bismarck palm today. If you want a palm that gets the job done right in the landscape and you have plenty of room, look no further than the Bismarck Palm.
Very different from many other palms, the look and shape of this palm is pretty amazing. Stout and wide, in cultivation this palm grows no more than about 12 metres in height, and overall just as wide – maybe wider. A central, leafless and branchless trunk forms with a mound of gigantic round leaf fronds held up and out in a crown that’s round in shape. While the silvery-blue varieties are the most popular and cold tolerant, there are green varieties although not as common.
Trunks are stout and wide and shed stems and leaves from the base up to the youngest part of the palm. Trunks will often be fluted at the bottom. They do not self-clean when young but do shed their expired fronds when mature.
This palm is dioecious so each plant is either a male or female. Both palms flower of course, with brown, pendent inflorescences. The flowers are pretty unremarkable in both male and female palms, as they are very small and not showy.
The most striking feature about this palm is its foliage. In mature palms, each leaf can be over 3 metres across, and is rounded in overall shape. Each leaf sports 20 or more hard and stiff blades that are split on the ends. The sides of each frond are so sharp they can cut skin though they don’t have spikes.
Only the females of this palm set fruit. From each flower they develop a single stone fruit that is green when new and turns to brown as it dries. It’s not really an edible fruit, for either people or animals. Thankfully it’s not a messy landscape fruit either.
Bismarckia is easily started from fresh seed, like many other palms. Removing the fruit flesh from the outside of each seed and planting deep in well prepared soil and kept warm and moist is a typical method of propagation.
The Bismarck Palm is a tough customer and can be grown just about anywhere that gives it plenty of room and space to spread out. It requires full sun exposure but can be grown in soil that is moister and less well draining than other palms, although it does well in most all soil types, even dry ones.
They thrive in tropical and subtropical climates, and can withstand some amount of freezing in protected temperate areas. The plants that have the white/blue cast can withstand colder temperatures than the green plants typically, which makes these the more popular choice in landscapes.
David’s Field Notes
The primary problem I see with Bismarckias is being planted too close to houses, driveways, fences or anything else. They have a huge spread which is easy to underestimate. They can’t be neatly pruned so the palm becomes redundant, requiring removal. This is just one occasion when a plan of a property that includes trees is helpful.
They can be used as specimen plants, anchoring trees, windbreaks, and screens. They are a wonderful staple in the landscape. On the other hand they are very often planted too close to houses and other structures. Generous allowance needs to be made for their huge spread.