Roots Revealed: Understanding the Depth of Palm Tree Roots

By: Ken Wilson

Have you ever thought about a palm tree’s roots? Probably not, because of all the other wonderful things going on with these plants! But these roots are amazingly well-adapted to natural environmental conditions. Below, we examine roots revealed: understanding the depth of palm tree roots.

A palm tree’s roots usually grow between 12 and 48 inches deep. Palms compensate for this shallow growth by spreading their roots out horizontally. While some species’ roots spread as far as the canopy, others may spread between 40 and 100 feet, roughly 2 to 3 times the canopy’s diameter.

Although palm roots might seem counter-intuitive, there are solid evolutionary advantages to these roots, but what were the selective pressures that produced these roots? Are there palms with deeper roots? How do they anchor themselves and get enough nutrients? And what are some benefits and drawbacks to shallow roots?

Roots Revealed: What You Need To Know About Palm Tree Roots

While most large trees have extensive tap root systems to anchor them firmly into the ground, palm trees don’t have deep roots. How deep palm tree roots are depends on the species, but most are shallow, only penetrating between 12 and 48 inches of soil.

Before you run outside to “prop up” your palm, you’ll be relieved that they are not about to topple over when a strong wind hits. Thanks to their dense, mat-like, horizontal growth, palm roots are well-adapted to the environments in which they naturally occur.

Palms have an adventitious, fibrous root system that expands and competes with turf (among other plants) closer to the surface.

The roots grow from a central point under the stem, called the “root initiation zone.” Palm roots continue growing/replacing old roots throughout the tree’s life. This zone “moves” up the base of the tree as it ages, increasing in size. Eventually, palm roots sprout from above the ground.

Their ability to regenerate after they’ve dried out makes palm roots even more amazing. When conditions improve (more water), roots “wake up” and start growing again.

Palm Tree Root Depth Explained

Palm trees belong to the Arecaceae family, with roughly 2500 distinct species. Palms occur globally in subtropical and tropical areas. Most palm trees grow in sandy areas close to water (rivers or the coast).

Tap roots (and those that are more vertical) struggle to grow in these conditions because of the high amount of water (particularly salt water) and the loose nature of sandy soil (sand doesn’t provide suitable anchoring for trees), among other reasons.

By having roots that spread horizontally, palms avoid contact with salt water, put their roots within reach of nutrients and rainwater (sand has great drainage), and better stabilize the tree in sandy conditions.

Environmental Pressures which Contributed to Palm Trees’ Unique Roots

Their unique root systems reflect adaptations to selective pressures in their habitats. These pressures include:

  • Climate: palms usually grow in hot climates, but often with lots of moisture. Roots don’t need to go too far down, thanks to the conditions.
  • Soil type: the most significant factor is sandy soil. Due to palms’ dense mats of fibrous roots, they are stable in sandy soil when other trees (with tap roots) might not be able to grow. The soil type influences how well roots, water, and nutrients penetrate the soil.
  • Nutrient availability: if the nutrients are within the top 36 inches, a tree’s roots traveling deeper would be a waste of energy.
  • Rainfall/hydrology: how much water is available for the plant and at what depth. Thanks to the sandy soil’s high drainage, water doesn’t stay close to the roots long. By spreading out, the tree absorbs water from a greater area. Many palms grow in flood areas, and their roots have pneumatophores (snorkel-like roots) to “breathe” underwater.
  • Topography: the slope, hills, large rocks, and other features. Growing close to the ocean means trees cannot push their roots too deep before hitting salt water. By spreading horizontally, they improve their survival.

These pressures (and others) created the environment for palms to spread horizontally instead of vertical roots. Thanks to evolutionary progress, palms are usually better suited to occupying nutrient-poor, sandy soil but receive sufficient water.

Do All Palm Roots Follow this Root Pattern?

Palms feature a lot of diversity in shapes and sizes, and their roots also differ slightly. For example, some trees in the Amazon’s roots grow above ground to accommodate the high water/flooding.

How wide and deep a palm tree’s roots spread varies between species. The Bismarck palm (for example) has roots that spread to roughly 50 feet from the base, while pygmy date palms usually have roots that spread to 5 feet (but may grow longer in favorable conditions).

Not every plant with “palm” in its name is part of the Arecaceae family. There are several misnamed species with different roots, including:

  • Sago palm (more vertical than palms)
  • Traveler’s palm (deep roots)
  • Torbay palm (tap root)
  • Yucca palm (tap root)

How do Palms Remain Anchored in Adverse Weather?

Although palm trees lack strong taproots, they are not completely vulnerable to strong winds and heavy rains. The immense horizontal mat of fibrous roots makes palms well-anchored in their natural habitats. However, their roots are less effective than a deep taproot system in loam/clay soil areas.

How do Palm Roots Find Enough Nutrients when they’re Shallow?

Palm trees struggle with nutrients, so their roots spread so far in pursuit of nutrients and water. Water and dissolved nutrients pass quickly through sandy soil (like beach sand). If palm roots were vertical, they would become dehydrated and nutrient-starved.

By expanding their roots horizontally, palms reach further out around their base and access areas other trees could not reach (if they grew in the same position).

The Benefits of Shallow Roots

  • Make use of humus, nutrients, and water in shallow soil.
  • Cover a significantly wider area for maximum resource absorption (water and nutrients), i.e., a tap root is limited to resources that are in range, while fibrous roots “hunt” for resources.
  • Thanks to their dense, thin roots, palms remain stable in sandy soil, where other trees might topple over.

The Drawbacks of Shallow Roots

  • Shallow roots are not as well anchored as tap roots. While palms survive adverse weather, they are more likely to become uprooted during a storm.
  • Palms cannot “tap into” deeper subterranean water sources like trees with taproots can.
  • During erosion events, the root initiation zone may become exposed, which prevents new roots from reaching the soil and reduces nutrient and water uptake. This erosion may weaken the plant as it ages, resulting in an unstable mature tree.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why is my Palm Tree Turning Yellow?

Yellowing palm leaves are often a sign of infection or ill health in palm trees. A prominent disease that turns leaves yellow is “Diamond scale,” a fungal infection (by Phaeochorospsis neowashingtoniae) that causes reduced leaf production; leaves prematurely turn yellow and die.

This fungus attacks the leaves, opening palms to secondary infections, but doesn’t often kill the tree. Alternatively, yellowing leaves might indicate a magnesium deficiency in the soil.

How do I Treat Yellow Leaves on my Palm?

Before treating your palm tree’s yellowing leaves, you’ll need to determine the cause of the issue. Treating yellowing leaves often includes:

  • Replacing the palm for a disease-resistant species. If you know a certain disease is prevalent in an area, it’s worth considering replacing your palm with a resistant species.
  • Sufficient irrigation is essential. When palms are affected with a disease that reduces their health (like diamond scale), you’ll need to increase/improve the amount of water the plant receives.
  • Removing diseased leaves/plant parts to prevent further infection.
  • Add the correct fertilizer to the soil.

Why is my Palm Tree Turning Brown?

Occasionally, a sick palm tree’s leaves may turn brown and may be infected with the fungus Fusarium Wilt (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. lycopersici). Leaves turn from green to yellow and then from yellow to brown (but don’t drop off).

The tree slows its leaf production, and eventually, all the leaves become brown. This disease is often fatal to palms. Once leaves turn brown, the only solution is to remove them to prevent further infection. Trees contract this disease in several ways, including through the shallow root system (roots exposed to the surface).

However, brown leaves may also indicate older leaves (a natural process), so you must examine your palm for additional symptoms before concluding.

Final Thoughts

Palm trees have incredibly shallow roots, which spread horizontally from the root initiation zone in 12 to 48 inches of soil.

While there are variations among species, most palm roots spread to the width of the canopy, while others are 2 to 3 times the canopy width. These adaptations allow palms to grow in sandy soil and extract nutrients and water when other trees can’t.

About the author 

Ken Wilson

Long time career in the home services industry from remodeling to patio construction. Currently residing to in SWFL and active contributor to multiple home & garden publications.