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Umbrella palm thrives anywhere it's planted
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
The past couple of weeks have seen my woodland trails look like small, flowing tributaries of the Mississippi River. My dry creek has been flowing, and rain is still in the forecast.
What kind of plant can tolerate such wet conditions? I am so glad you asked because one of the most elegant and striking plants for boggy conditions or upland soil is the umbrella palm.
The umbrella palm, known botanically as Cyperus alternifolius, is native to Madagascar. It is related to the well-known papyrus once used to make paper.
Many suggest it is only hardy to zone 9 or along the Coast, but this is simply not the case. It will return from the ground easily in zone 8, and North Carolina State and Norman Winter will confirm it also comes back in zone 7.
The further south it is planted, the larger and more aggressive the plant becomes. Once you are growing the umbrella palm, which develops 5- to 6-foot-tall, reed-like stems, you will get hooked. It gives a palm-like, tropical feel to the landscape.
The umbrella palm will thrive just about anywhere you put it. In full sun or shade, sloppy wet or simply fertile soil, it performs beyond expectations no matter where it is planted. I suppose really tight, heavy soil keeps it from reaching its true potential, but otherwise it is foolproof.
Plant a one-gallon container now and by the end of summer the umbrella palm will look as though you used a 10-gallon specimen. Once the plant has frozen, remove the dead foliage, add a little mulch and wait for a spring return.
Those in the lower one-third of the state may want to do a little thinning from time to time to keep the plant confined to the desired area. The ideal time to divide is in the early spring as new stems emerge from the ground.
The umbrella palm is most suited for water or bog gardens. I am using mine planted at the end of my dry creek bed and combined with a yellow flag-type iris. My favorite planting so far used them flanking a homemade bridge over a dry creek.
In more upland locations, use them as understory plantings to tall bananas or in combination with elephant ears.
Those with small water gardens seem to prefer the dwarf form known as Gracilis. I am growing this one as well. Though it is more mannered from the standpoint of vigor, I like the typical large selection better.
Those variegated plant nuts out there will be happy to discover Variegatus.
The umbrella palm is one of those plants I really can't imagine ever being without. I am perplexed that it is not a staple at all garden centers. I suppose it does have a "pass-along" reputation, meaning it will probably be free once you find a source.
Regardless of how you get yours, I know you will agree that the umbrella palm can transform a garden into a tropical paradise without much effort.