The Palm at the End of the Mind


PalmEvolutionary biologists really ought to wake up and start addressing one of the most interesting questions about the human mind:  Why is it that gardeners are so obsessed with dramatic, leafy plants–particularly plants that are just beyond the hardiness cut-off where they live?

For example, I dream about magnolias and the seductive, lax, vaguely palm-like leaves of peach trees.  In Charlotte, North Carolina, though, as I learned yesterday from the New York Times, the gardeners are fixated on actual palms and are gleefully planting them now that the climate is warming up.  In Atlanta, they’ve said good-bye (and possibly good riddance?) to their rhododendrons and are onto oleander and brugmansia.  Even Pennsylvanians are getting into the act, experimenting with camellias.

This piece, titled "Feeling Warmth, Subtropical Plants Move North," is delightfully honest about gardeners and global warming.  We think it’s terrible, but, as the Times says…"Gardeners have always had a penchant for pushing the limits."

It seems to me that if you are going to communicate seriously to gardeners about global warming, you’d better admit that gardeners crave a longer growing season, more sub-tropicals, more beauty of a more outrageous variety, more varieties of everything, more, more, more.  And global warming may be intensely interesting for gardeners in the short-term, before it gets really dreadful.

This is exactly what a well-meaning document just released by the National Wildlife Federation called "The Gardener’s Guide to Global Warming" doesn’t have the wit to admit.  In 40 pages, only one line hints at the true psychology of gardeners:

As numerous studies show, any potential benefits from a longer growing seasons will only be out-matched by a host of problems–from watering restrictions and damaging storms, to the expansion of unruly weeds, garden pests, and plant diseases.

The rhetoric is simply not skillful enough to accommodate the "potential benefits"–in other words, the ineffable thrill of growing palms in North Carolina. 

But that’s okay.  The National Wildlife Federation really doesn’t need to talk to me.  I already compost, use a freaking ridiculous and impossible reel mower, deny my perennials a drop of supplemental water, drive as little as possible etc., etc.  I’m a paragon–or as much of a paragon as somebody with a weekend house can be.

The problem is that this kind of effort does ZERO to address the concerns of the less enlightened guy standing in front of me in Lowe’s the other day.  You know, the well-groomed 40 year-old guy in a polo shirt and deck shoes buying three giant bags of weed and feed.

I felt like shouting at him, "What cave do you in live in, that you don’t know that stuff is horrible?"  But I restrained myself, having once heard a terrible story in New York City about a woman who got into a fight with her cab driver, only to be run over and killed when she hit her head on the curb.  Ever since, I’ve saved my combative impulses for my husband and buttoned my lips around strangers.

So how do you communicate to THAT guy?  Sorry, National Wildlife Federation, but you have no idea. 

He’s not worried about the hummingbirds or the wolves.  In fact, he’s got important things in common with me.  He’s an aesthete, just an aesthete of a different variety.  It is not the reason that makes us happy or unhappy.  It’s our own strange notions of beauty that count.

The guy in Lowe’s wants his place to look neat.  He thinks his six broad-leafed evergreens sitting in an ocean of dyed-red mulch look terrific.  He loves his velvety lawn.  If you want to do something about global warming, you have to address this guy’s sense of aesthetics, because there are millions of guys just like him in suburbs all over the country.  Tell him his lawn will look even better if he uses organic fertilizer.  My mother–a suburbanite through and through–had this actual experience some dozen years ago.  Tell him that his yard would look even classier with less lawn, and he might be able to spend more time in the hammock that way.

This guy is not interested in virtue.  He’s interested in looking impeccable.  And if we really want to do something about global warming, we need to find a way to speak to him. 


  1. Bravo! I agree…that guy, and the millions more like him, are the ones we need to get to. The problem is that his yard is undoubtedly what the vast number of suburbanites consider to be an attractive and acceptable one. He’s keeping up with the Joneses, maintaining the status quo. People like him won’t change until there are more homes with yards full of perennials, shrubs, and groundcovers, and more homeowners who eschew the notion of the velvet green carpet as a sign of affluence. When keeping up with the Joneses means having a rain garden and several compost piles, then we’ll see a difference.

  2. I”m not surprised. I’ve found lots of good information in NWF’s backyard habitat program but some pure rhetoric, as well, and very unhelpful rhetoric at that. And their information speaks almost exclusively to the converted. (E.g. don’t you have to be a pretty diehard nativist to engage in the “bird nest monitoring” they recommend? My friend who works at their headquarters tells me that nativism is their “Holy Grail”)
    Check their “sustainable gardening” advice, though – mostly excellent. It’s at If they’d only take a more realistic tack, I think they could educate more and have a greater impact.

  3. I absolutely agree — and frankly, it’s important to me to understand what this guy’s motivation is, and really value it, rather than condemning him from the jump. Making the Weed’n’Feeders the enemy, or thinking of them as the poor uninformed, or anything else that sets me, the organic gardener, on a “superior” plane smacks of elitism and snobbery and isn’t going to serve my cause. In fact, it will just irritate my intended convert right into the Scott’s aisle

  4. I had a similar reaction when I first saw the report: they need to get it into the hands of people who still believe Chem-Lawn is a good idea. I think the intelligent people at NWF must realize this, though, and the report is probably intended to reach the low-hanging fruit. I’m doing a lot of their recommendations already (and, yes, some of the rhetoric in the report was tiresome), but there were things that were new to me and gave me ideas on what more I can do.

    What else can we do to reach the people who want their perfect chemical- and water- dependent lawns? I think those of us who are early adopters of some of NWF’s recommendations are at least leading by example. And every bit helps.

  5. You ask , ” So how do you communicate to THAT guy? ”

    You must reach out to him at his level.

    Bluntly meaning, do your market research and you will find out where Mr. Polo Shirt likes to get his information and where he does his social networking.

    This means that Mr. pressed and starched Polo is likely to respond to the newsletter and groundskeeper at his country club and or golf course.
    He may be more likely to attend a talk at the Commonwealth Club , his investment club or at his Rod and Gun club than go to a Earth Day Celebration event.

    In other words, follow the money and that is where you will have the best luck in planting those new seeds of knowledge.

  6. Just to nitpick, the plant presented in the picture above is not a palm. There appear to be palm trunks in the background, but the prominent plant being featured, though it has palm in the common name and is palm like in a manner, still is not a palm.

    I can clearly see the fronds of Cycas revoluta in the foreground and the pictured plant may be that in new leaf or one of its closely related kin in the Cycadaceae family, botanically different from the family Palmae of palm placement.

    So my move to North Carolina may not be such a shock after all. Clyde NC will become like Kula Maui, a simple change in elevation. I have always envied the grandma kind flowers they could grow up there and I couldn’t down here because it was too darn hot.

    No sane gardener would try to grow many palms up there, unless they planted them just to watch them die. But we are not talking about sanity here are we?

  7. Good points. One thing I’d start with is including alternatives to chemical fertilizers, etc., at the big box stores. Home Depot carries Terracycle – most of the others don’t. Maybe it’s simplistic but perhaps just having the alternatives present themselves may twig something?

  8. Michelle,

    Are you telling me that there are actually people who would RATHER go to an Earth Day celebration than a “country club, golf course, or Rod and Gun club” ??

    I’m all for saving the Earth, but please don’t make me go to the Earth Day rally. Please. REALLY.

    And uh, starch makes a shirt look nice I think.



  9. Since I’ve started working for a landscaper, I’ve met many customers who fit Mr. Polo’s description. They are not gardeners, and don’t *want* to be. They consider the yard a nuisance. They want it to look neat, and don’t want to spend any time on it at all. Basically, they want to “decorate” it, the same way they decorate the interior of the home. And then they want it to stay exactly the same, with nothing growing or changing size. Or dying. Couches don’t die, why should plants die? *sigh* The suburban esthetic requires that the yard look trim and innocuous, so you can turn the house over fast when you get transferred. They’re soul-free, and the owners like it like that. After all, who would buy a house that came with a garden that needed maintaining?

  10. Christopher C, I defer to your far greater knowledge on the palm front. And your skills may be in great demand, if North Carolina does turn out to be palm country.

    Andrea, I completely agree that substitution is important–the fact that this guy might see a pile of bags of organic fertilizer instead of his usual petroleum product might be the best way to get to him. That’s why what Home Depot is doing is signficant–as hateful as I find that shopping experience.

    Hank, I’m with you. I can’t stand political prigs, either.

    And Renee, you’re right about Mr. Polo. He and I would have a very hard time making ten minutes’ conversation at a cocktail party. But he doesn’t know he’s soulless–he just thinks he’s doing the right thing in the yard.

    If he starts feeling he’s doing the wrong thing–in other words, the low-status thing–he’ll do something else. I grew up in a fancy-ass New Jersey suburb. I understand these people, though I ran as hard as I could to get away from them. And status is what matters.

    So maybe Colleen is right that our setting an example is important. Maybe Mr. Polo will one day look at one of our yards and think, “Wow, that’s impressive. I’d better do something like that.”

    We can at least hope.

  11. P.S. Renee–your observation that suburbanites don’t want anything to grow because they don’t want anything in the yard to change outside their control is profound.

    The ideal is not a garden that eventually knits together mysteriously. The ideal is a kind of landscaping that’s finished as soon as the guys with the shovels get back in their truck. The yard is not a garden, it’s a collection of expensive shrubs. Each one stands apart in order to be admired in sequence.

    But, my God, what does that say about those people, that they are not interested in growth?

  12. I don’t mean to suggest that global warming is not occurring, but you might find it interesting to know that prior to 1990, the USDA Plant Hardiness Map looked almost exactly like the 2006 Arbor Day Map. The 1990 map was greatly influenced by several exceedingly cold winters of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

    Before that, Zone 8 extended as far as southern Maryland, almost to Washington, DC, where decades-old Camellia trees lined Independence Avenue across from the Tidal Basin. The revised map downgraded large areas of the middle south, including Atlanta, Raleigh, Richmond, Memphis and Norfolk from Zone 8 to Zone 7. The devastating winters that brought this about resulted in the isolatioon of especially cold hard cultivars of palms, oleanders and camellias that have extended the range over which these plants can be grown. Pennsylvanians are most likely growing the Ackerman hybrid camellias which are hardy to at least Zone 6.

  13. In other words, treat people like they haven’t grown out of their teenage high school years. Why not? That’s the way they are acting.

    I remember seeing large japonicas (not just the hardier sasanquas) growing at old houses in Philly 15 years ago, so I’m not sure that’s a good example in the NY times.

  14. I think it’s a little fatuous to welcome global warming with open arms like the only effect it’s going to have is to make it possible to grow palm trees.

    One of the other little “perks” is increasingly virulent storms and weather fluctuations. If the nor’easter we had in April is anything to judge by, then a palm tree is going to be ripped out of the ground by the roots just as surely as a pine tree.

    Maybe Mr. Polo Shirt will understand what global warming means when there’s a tree trunk sticking out of the roof of his suburban house, eh?

  15. Palmettos grow in SC and NC anyway. As do cyclads which are look prehistoric. The needle palm is also a native of NC. After Huricane Hugo flooded my friend’s town in the SC low country, Palmettos sprouted all over. They are survivors, so we should be taking a long look at them in the midst of global warming.
    yes, and Hurricane Hugo came inland 200 miles and more and devasted us. If you have coastal property , start selling!

  16. I agree that this is a hard discussion to have. Marketers for these weed/feed companies are certainly doing their job right. Their products are front and center in the big box stores and for many people, it’s a given that’s what they use. I grew up in such a home, but I just didn’t accept the status quo and searched for better and more enviro ways to live my life. Most people live otherwise because it’s all they know. If we make organic gardening trendy, then maybe the masses will commit.

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