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Growing palm trees and cycads set your landscape apart

Most of us rely on the same wonderful, tried-and-true plants to serve as a sturdy skeleton for our gardens: plumbagos and pentas, palmettos and live oaks, impatiens and peace plants.

But — correct me if I'm wrong — you like having at least a few that make visitors say, "What is that? It's so cool looking!" Totally understandable. Cooks have signature dishes. Crafters have stylistic flourishes. Gardeners are no different. The artist in us wants our creation to be something all our own.

That's the idea behind Jim Hawk's presentation, "25 Palms Your Neighbors Don't Have." He's a Hillsborough County master gardener and, as such, gives free informative talks all over the county. Local gardeners know Jim well. To keep the master gardener title, volunteers like Jim must complete several weeks of training through a University of Florida Extension office, then deliver 35 hours of gardening education and outreach a year. As of May, Jim had logged 101 hours this year.

"I like palms because they're fun," he says. "They're kind of a 'welcome to the tropics' type of plant.''

You can hear it in his voice as he points out the many varieties growing in his gardens on a lakeshore acre in Odessa.

Jim on seashore palms: "Make sure you highlight this one. It has no negatives. . . . Are you writing? Look at the stripe in this leaf! It really stands out. Isn't it pretty?"

On ribbon palms: "Don't you just love it? The leaves hang like ribbons! When the wind blows, they're like streamers blowing in the breeze. And look how clean it is" — he strokes the unblemished trunk. "It's a self-cleaner; you don't have to cut a thing. When a frond dies, you find it on the ground the next morning."

There are at least 50 palm varieties that thrive in Tampa Bay, but most are hard to find, Jim says. If you want something different, you have to hunt it down.

"I looked for this seashore palm for a long time," he says. "I finally found it at a small, backyard nursery in Bartow."

For starters, check the webpage of the Central Florida Palm & Cycad Society, or on Facebook.

Contact members and let them know what you're looking for, Jim says.

"You might find members who are hobbyists who are growing it, or you might get the name of a backyard hobbyist who might be growing it.

"They may tell you, 'Try Joe the Palm Guy.' So you try Joe, and he doesn't have it, but he says, "Oh, you should try Phil the Palm Guy.' Soon, you'll have yourself a little black book full of people who know other people or who can get you your palm."

When you finally get your hands on what you want, it'll mean that much more to you, Jim says.

A few other Jim favorites:

High plateau palm: "Its claim to fame is that it looks like a coconut palm," he says. True coconut palms won't tolerate our cold temperatures and, in South Florida where they thrive, they're getting wiped out by lethal yellowing disease.

Wallich's dwarf fishtail palm: Distinctive, variegated fishtail-shaped leaves add unusual color and texture in shady areas.

Arikury palm: If you love the look of a queen palm but don't have room for it, try this lookalike smaller relative. It's slower growing and gets only about 12 feet tall.

You might also check out cycads. They're in a different genus — a totally different plant — but they're often confused with palms because of their similar look.

"Cycads are the only plant that's been here since the dinosaurs," Jim says. "These are what the dinosaurs were eating! I've got cycads because I feel it's important to grow them — there aren't a lot around."

The shrub-sized coontie is a native Florida cycad often seen in highway plantings because it thrives in our sun, sand and summer rains. Cardboard plant is another popular landscape cycad, but native-plant enthusiasts would prefer you choose coontie — it's the larval food for the endangered atala butterfly.

Whether you opt for palms, cycads or both, your garden will stand out from the rest on the street if you take the time to find the lesser planted varieties.

"When I've got something that nobody else has," Jim says, with a smug little smile, "that really floats my boat."

If you're interested in becoming a Hillsborough County master gardener, call (813) 744-5519. Penny Carnathan can be reached at See other photos and garden tales on her blog, www.digginfladirt, or on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt.