Palm trees are able to bring a 'little bit of paradise' to Pittsburgh winter

| Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Steve Schaffer dreams of the day he buys a second home in Key West, Fla.

Until then, the native Pittsburgher makes his own tropical paradise for as long as it lasts — planting palm trees in the spring and then, at this time of year, watching them wither and die.

“It creates the illusion that we're somewhere we're not,” said Schaffer, the owner of City Collision II auto body shop in the Strip District. “I call it a cheap vacation, every time I look out.”

A few hardy Pittsburghers are willing to do what it takes to bring a little bit of the tropics north of the Mason-Dixon line — even if that means keeping up the Sisyphean task of buying tropical plants each spring.

Paradise Island Beach and Bowl on Neville Island plants 32 palm trees around the exterior before Memorial Day each year to make for a tropical feel, said David Ross, general manager.

“We hear all the time that it's like walking down to the beach in the Caribbean or the beach in Florida,” he said.

But with winter officially here, it's a grim beach scene. Ross hates to see them die but it's hard and expensive to find a place to store trees that reach up to 30 feet tall.

Some nurseries in warmer places specialize in helping Northerners find palms that have a fighting chance of making it.

The Department of Agriculture publishes plant hardiness zone maps to help growers determine plants that are most likely to thrive in Pittsburgh, which has an average annual extreme minimum temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Windmill pines have dense hair-like fiber and corky bark that insulate them against the cold, said Phil Sanderson, a salesman at The Nursery at Ty Ty in southwest Georgia. The company will ship other palms north, but it makes no guarantees.

“If you want one out of zone, that's fine, but you won't get a replacement if they die,” he said.

Lee Faltenovich, owner of Rain-Control Irrigation in Harmony, Butler County, has been bringing truckloads of palm trees north for 18 years. He has never heard of any that can survive a Pittsburgh winter. Still, he has more than a dozen customers who buy them each year.

“A lot of people just love them because it's relaxing,” he said. “It's a little bit of paradise, for a little bit, here in Pittsburgh.”

Buying palm trees that expire each winter seems to be an extreme version of planting other annuals such as zinnias or rosemary that are perennials in warmer climates, said Philip Bauerle, interim master gardener at the Penn State Extension office for Allegheny County.

“It's a waste of a plant to me,” Bauerle said. “You have somebody dedicated to this tree to grow it up. On the other hand, it does have curb appeal, and some companies are willing to pay that money to attract that attention.”

Schaffer said his trees, which cost about $375 apiece, pay for themselves with the goodwill they bring to his business. Every once in a while, an unexpected admirer sends him a thank-you note.

Martha Ann Terry was riding a Port Authority bus to a Pirates game a few years ago when she looked out the window and caught a glimpse of Schaffer's landscaping. She sent him a letter the next day:

“Thanks for brightening up both my day and your spot in the Strip. Nice job!”

Andrew Conte is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or

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