The palm family (Arecaceae) contains an estimated 2,600 species of trees and shrubs. Despite this dizzying number, surprisingly few palms are native to the geographical regions most often associated with them.
In this article, I’ll explain where palm trees grow natively around the world. I’ll also take a closer look at indigenous palm varieties within the United States and provide a brief history of the date palm.
Where Do Palm Trees Grow Native
A native plant is one that grows naturally in a given area without human interference.
The majority of palm tree varieties are native to tropical or subtropical areas. They generally prefer humid conditions and moist soil. However, there are exceptions that tolerate relatively cool and dry climates.
They are also notably prevalent in island ecosystems. Just over half of all known species are found growing exclusively on islands.
By the way, our site is supported by visitors like you. Some links on this page may be affiliate links which means if you choose to make a purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support! You can find out more here.
For many people, it’s impossible to picture southern California without also conjuring up rows upon rows of towering palm trees. The same is true of areas like coastal Florida and the rest of the Gulf Coast.
While there’s no denying that they grow well in many parts of the United States, very few are actually native to North America. In fact, only 14 species of palm trees are truly native to the continental United States. The primary use of these native species — outside of their key roles in local ecosystems — is ornamental.
In addition to these native species, coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) and date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) are considered naturalized in the area. This means that the trees have successfully established themselves in the wild despite being introduced relatively recently.
Central and South America
Both Central and South America are home to incredible biodiversity. Because this region is largely tropical or subtropical, it’s only natural that palm trees would make up a large number of native plant species.
Native throughout the entirety of Central America, their range also extends down across most of South America, including the Amazon Rainforest.
Of course, not all of South America is considered tropical or subtropical. You won’t find native palm trees on the continent’s southernmost tip — i.e., much of Chile and Argentina’s Patagonian Desert. They are also generally absent from Peru’s coast, west of the Andes.
While the majority of palm trees native to Central and South America are species you or I have never heard of, there are a few notable specimens that call this region home.
The açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea) is a species found throughout much of Brazil and surrounding areas. It’s widely cultivated nowadays for its trendy fruit, the açaí berry, but few people know that this palm tree has been a staple food source for Amazonian communities for centuries.
The American oil palm (Elaeis oleifera) is native to both Central and South America. Although this species is sometimes harvested for oil, most palm oil plantations (including those located in South America) rely on the African oil palm instead.
The carnauba wax palm (Copernicia prunifera) is another species with incredible economic importance. It’s native to semi-arid parts of Brazil but many specimens today are grown on plantations. The product of this palm tree, carnauba wax, is used to make things like leather polish, candles, and soap.
Palm trees and Middle-Eastern history are inextricable, especially when you consider the agricultural significance of native species like the domesticated date palm.
Much of the Middle East is warm with damp winters and arid summers, also known as a Mediterranean climate. The palm trees native to the Middle East tend to be more drought tolerant than those found in more traditionally tropical regions.
Because the Middle East has been home to some of the oldest civilizations in the world, it’s difficult to pinpoint which palm tree species are truly native — in other words, introduced without human intervention. However, there are 5 palm genera naturally found throughout the region: Chamaerops, Hyphaene, Medemia, Nannorrhops, and Phoenix.
Notable species include the date palm and the doum palm (Hyphaene thebaica).
The doum palm, sometimes known as a gingerbread tree, is a species that grows in harsh, dry climates where most other trees fail to thrive. It has been used throughout the Middle East and surrounding areas for shade, edible fruit, and fiber for weaving.
The Caribbean Islands include notable nations like Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas — just to name a few. Hundreds of palm species grow in this region. While some are isolated to specific islands, others can be found throughout the Caribbean Sea and along the adjacent coasts of North and Central America.
Cuba contains the most palm trees of any Caribbean Island. There are over 100 species growing in Cuba now. About 90 of these palms are native to the island. After Cuba, Hispaniola claims the most native palm trees.
One of the most recognizable Caribbean species is the royal palm (Roystonea regia). Though royal palms are grown as ornamentals all around the world, the indigenous population within the Caribbean Islands and surrounding area is falling dangerously low.
The Indian Ocean is home to thousands of islands, including Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Australia. Because of palm trees’ propensity to grow on islands, it’s not shocking that countless species are native to the region including the popular Majesty Palm.
Notable species found in Australia include the Alexander palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae) and foxtail palm (Wodyetia bifurcata). Both varieties are grown around the world as standout ornamentals.
The coco de Mer, double coconut, or sea coconut (all common names for Lodoicea maldivica) is a legendary palm tree indigenous to Praslin and Curieuse of the Seychelles Islands. It boasts the largest seed of any living plant species. These giant seeds would float across the ocean and wash up on foreign beaches, inspiring fantastical lore even before the Seychelles Islands themselves were discovered.
Which US States Have Palm Trees
The most significant areas within the United States for native palm trees include Florida, the Southwest (i.e., California, Arizona, and Nevada), and Hawaii.
In the continental US, Florida contains the highest number of indigenous palm species. However, the Hawaiian Islands contain the highest number overall.
Florida may pale in comparison to areas like South America or the Middle East in terms of native palm tree species. Yet it is still home to 12 of the 14 palm trees indigenous to the continental United States.
Florida’s native palms include:
- Buccaneer Palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii)
- Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor)
- Florida Silver Palm (Coccothrinax argentata)
- Miami Palm (Sabal miamiensis)
- Paurotis Palm (Acoelorrhaphe wrightii)
- Royal Palm (Roystonea regia)
- Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto)
- Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)
- Florida Thatch Palm (Thrinax radiata)
- Key Thatch Palm (Leucothrinax morrisii)
- Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix)
- Scrub Palmetto (Sabal etonia)
Unfortunately, many of these species are endangered and the Miami palm is now assumed to be extinct in the wild. Several of Florida’s palms grow in extremely specific environments, making them particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction caused by real estate and related industries.
More widespread species native to Florida are also widely found in parts of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean Islands. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering the similarity in climates and relatively close proximity of these areas.
The California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) is the sole indigenous species within Arizona. It’s also quite rare in the wild. You’ll only find this tree growing naturally in Palm Canyon — part of a nature reserve about 150 miles west of Phoenix.
Though this palm’s native range is quite limited, it has spread to surrounding areas with extreme ease. According to Arizona State University, naturalized California fan palms dominate many sections of urbanized land and canalways throughout the Phoenix metro area.
Along with succulents, many palm species work beautifully in a practice called xeriscaping. Xeriscaping focuses on creating attractive landscapes that require little or no irrigation — a must for sustainable living in a desert climate like Arizona’s.
Popular non-native varieties include the royal palm, Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta), queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana), and date palm.
The state of Georgia is home to 4 native palm species, all of which are also indigenous to Florida. These include the dwarf palmetto, cabbage palm, saw palmetto, and needle palm.
Most palms are found growing in Georgia’s Coastal Plain region. The Coastal Plain covers almost the entire southern half of the state, and the warmer climate is perfect for the average palm tree’s needs.
In addition to the Coastal Plain, dwarf palmettos and needle palms are native to the state’s Piedmont region. However, most specimens are still concentrated in the southern portion of the state.
Palm trees tend to thrive in the Louisiana climate, especially in the southern portion of the state. However, only the saw palmetto and dwarf palmetto are believed to be indigenous.
Of course, plants don’t care about state borders — past or present — and there are several species native to adjacent states that may be found in Louisiana as well. These include the cabbage palm, needle palm, and Texas palmetto (Sabal mexicana).
The California fan palm is the only species that can call Nevada home. All other trees growing in urbanized landscapes and disturbed areas have been introduced in recent years by humans.
Though it is indigenous to the region, its natural range is limited to the southern deserts of the state. Trees growing further north, including within the Las Vegas area, are naturalized and often considered a nuisance. The California fan palm is even listed as an invasive weed in several parts of the state.
Despite Hollywood’s inextricable association with towering palm trees, the state as a whole can only claim one species as native. This species is the California fan palm, the same indigenous palm found in select parts of Arizona and Nevada.
While the California fan palm is generally known as the only native palm in North America’s Southwest, the vast majority of its range is contained within southern California. California fan palms are also found in the northern part of Baja California, Mexico.
At the start of this article, I mentioned that there are 14 palm species native to the continental United States. But that number notably excludes the Hawaiian Islands.
It’s a common belief that coconut palms are native to the islands of Hawaii. However, these trees were brought to the islands by very early Polynesian settlers.
Instead, several palm trees from the genus Pritchardia, also known as loulu palms, are native to Hawaii. Loulu is a variety of fan palm and there are an estimated 16 species indigenous to the Hawaiian islands.
Different species of Pritchardia vary in height, coloring, flower size, and — perhaps most interestingly — island distribution. According to the University of Hawaiʻi, the species Pritchardia martii is native to Oʻahu. Another example, Pritchardia hillebrandii, originates from Molokaʻi. Unfortunately, many species are now rare in areas where they once grew in dense forests.
Where Do Date Palms Grow
Dates are one of the longest-cultivated fruits in human history. In addition to the domestic date palm, or Phoenix dactylifera, there are over a dozen known species of wild dates growing around the world.
According to Kew Gardens, the current research indicates that date palms were first domesticated over 6,000 years ago somewhere in the Persian Gulf. From there, date palm cultivation spread far and wide throughout the surrounding region and, eventually, overseas.
Today, there are numerous cultivars grown for culinary purposes. Most modern date plantations are located in northern Africa, South Asia, or the Middle East. Date palms have also naturalized in many tropical and subtropical climates around the world.
Verdict: Where Are Palm Trees Native
In a sense, palm trees are incredibly widespread — being found on every continent except for Antarctica. Because they are adapted to such specific climates, however, the majority of palm species are concentrated in just a few areas of the globe (e.g., the Amazon Rainforest).
It’s also important to remember that just because a palm tree is growing somewhere does not necessarily mean it is native. Even in areas with indigenous palms, introduced species may outnumber native ones.