Island Palms

Adding instant flair to any landscape

When it comes to evoking the tropics, there’s nothing better than the sound of coconut palms rustling in the breeze. At least that’s premier landscape architect Steve Mechler’s belief.

“It echoes the sound of the waves,” he says.

Mechler is one of the architects largely responsible for the drama introduced in landscaping in Hawaii and other tropical locations in Southeast Asia since the 1980s, when he produced fantasy landscapes for developers like Christopher Hem-meter. Pools suddenly became more than just rectangular- or kidney-shaped features on a grassy lawn.

Mechler added fabricated rocks, cascading waterfalls and a wonderland of exotic foliage. Today this type of pool is the standard in most resorts. Mechler’s landscapes can be seen at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, the Hyatt Regency Maui, Hilton Waikoloa Village, the Westin Kauai and Kukio, a luxury development on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast.

Palms played an integral part in these landscapes, and they still do today, when landscaping must be done on increasingly smaller lots. When asked why they have such appeal, Mechler reminds you of how you feel when greeted by palm trees.

“They make a major statement,” he says. “Palms are easier to move than many trees, and they have an instant impact.” Adding palms to most real estate is fairly economical and aesthetically improves the space almost immediately.

Even coconut palms (cocos nucifera), which thrive better in drier locations, are not as difficult to maintain as one might think. Whereas most palms are self-heading (meaning they don’t need to be cleaned of dead leaves often because they simply drop), a coconut palm requires cleaning twice a year, making them relatively low-maintenance for hotels and condominium properties. A canopied shade tree, for instance, would require considerably more care.

There are many different species of palms to choose from when planning your own garden, depending on the amount of wind, rainfall and space you have. For example, the very grand Cuban Royal palm (Roystonea regia) is not planted often at private residences simply because it requires space to grow, and even more importantly, space from which it can be viewed. Royal palms once gave a dramatic sense of arrival by marking the entrances to plantation managers’ homes on many of the islands.

Mechler is a fan of the bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizli) for narrow, 5-foot side yards or along fences. They are not invasive, and the multi-trunked palm also can be potted and placed into decorative containers.

“It’s always a good idea when planting to keep a reasonable distance from water lines and pools,” he says. He also likes to plant low ground cover to hide the bases of the trees.

While palms do need a small amount of water and fertilizer, they are all relatively easy to maintain. Strong wind can be an enemy to some types of palms.

Other palms he recommends are the native loulu palm (Pritchardia schattaneri) because it stays in scale with most of today’s homes and its large fronds are particularly tropical in appearance. Areca palms (Dypsis lutescens) work equally well as privacy hedges and potted plants, and they are usually inexpensive. The elegant Rhapis, or Lady palm (Rhapis excelsa), can take both bright sun and shade. Even though it has a tendency to “travel,” it is a good choice for narrow strips where plants are needed. All palms will search for the light.

So if your landscaping is in dire need of a face lift, head for your closest nursery and consider adding a whole variety of palms. The magic happens almost overnight.

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