California fan palm tree

As We See It

It’s a beautiful pink-and-purple evening when we walk out of the Downtown Summerlin movie theater and look toward the city skyline. Strip lights are twinkling, the air is cool, and a row of palm trees is in silhouette.

Palm trees were the symbol of choice here—not hyper-alert yuccas, not gangly chollas, not the scrubby Creosote bushes that grow unassumingly all over this desert—sky-high, carefree, imported palm trees. They’re a symbol of leisure and luxury, of tropical exoticism, of casting off worries and enjoying the moment. Palm trees say, Relax, everything is fabulous.

But tonight they’re stressing me out. Truth be told, they always get my head churning—and right now, they remind me of Indonesia, where one of the world’s largest environmental disasters is taking place: massive slash-and-burn fires aimed at clearing land primarily for palm-oil plantations. The burning rainforests and peatlands are spewing so much toxic pollution that half a million people are sick or displaced, some have died from respiratory illness and six provinces have declared states of emergency. Reductively, the fires are driven by the multinational palm-oil industry, so that land can be reused to grow palms to make oil to sell cookies, cosmetics, soap, soda—commodities galore.

I stop to stare at the tall, simple palms. I know it’s a whole different chapter of the tree’s story here, so I try to shake the buzzkill and absorb the intended lux-life vibe. But something about palm trees belies simple symbolism. Just as something about simple symbolism belies Las Vegas.

* * * * *

Psalm 92:12—The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree. Though not native, palm trees inundate the city. They’re lined up in the median behind the Welcome to Downtown Las Vegas sign, they’re on top of Red Rock Resort, they’re on the Strip. They’re in parking lots and parks and yards. With more than 2,500 species to pick from, they’re in every landscape architect’s repertoire. Some sell for upwards of $15,000, making them a black-market commodity: Thieves in LA dressed in orange work-crew uniforms were caught stealing city palm trees in broad daylight a few years ago.

Palm trees have a long history in human culture: Date palms were present in early Mesopotamian civilizations, providing high-calorie fruit, frond shade and stem fiber for ropes. Palms were a symbol for early Greek and Roman victory; they were laid at Jesus’ feet; they are mentioned in the Quran more than 20 times. They grace the flags of nations and states; they provide medicine and fuel; they’re a landscaper’s easy staple and a marketer’s iconic building block. Tall and lean, short and squatty, fruitful or not, they’ve generally been viewed as life-giving and positive.

And yet they also have a peculiar ability to take life away. In January, a 46-year-old North Las Vegas man died while trimming a 30-foot palm tree. He had climbed up the tree, inside the old fronds at the top, and began trimming. The fronds—which together can weigh hundreds of pounds—collapsed, crushed his chest and suffocated him. He was the second trimmer trapped and killed in a palm tree in North Las Vegas within a month. This happens often enough that some communities have created outreach campaigns to warn workers of the danger, instructing them to cut old fronds from the outside first—but that’s difficult without a crane, and cranes are pricey.

So the tree that symbolizes carefree escapism—a symbol we use prolifically in Las Vegas—can literally trap and kill its caretaker. When I see old palms with heavy, brown fronds—ignored too long in a forgotten neighborhood awaiting stop-gap maintenance, I don’t feel carefree or exotic. I don’t think everything is fabulous.

* * * * *

Triple irony: July, poolside at the Cosmopolitan. As tourists and locals bathed in layers of luxury, a play within a play emerged. A fire broke out and started burning palm trees—fake palm trees, in the desert, by the pool on the 14th floor. A huge plume of dark smoke showed up on social media. Guests fled. Was anyone drinking palm oil in their soda mixer? Wearing palm oil in their cosmetics? Eating palm oil in their chips when the fake palm tree/imitation of a symbol of luxury/overlooked reminder of heinous deforestation in Indonesia caught fire?

Thankfully, few were hurt and no one was killed. It wasn’t an environmental disaster that displaced villagers and suffocated children and demolished a rainforest for shampoo. Instead, the resort swiftly reopened the area and escapism resumed. Fabulously.

Truth is, the palm tree is a beautiful and multifaceted plant. But the reason I like them is in spite of, not because of, their overused connotation of leisure. I see them as fellow witnesses to our folly, dropped into all kinds of chaos, mutually uncomfortable and yet madly resilient.

Washingtonia Palms: Wonders or Weeds?

Being a palm nut in California, I am very familiar with these palms. And there quite a few varied opinions on this palm both within the palm growing community and the entire California populace as well. This palm is quickly recognizable as a romantic floral symbol of the state. But it is also associated with many negatives, too, as it is a lowly weed on many gardener’s and landscaper’ hit lists. The following article is a brief overview of this genus along with cultivational suggestions.

Mexican Fan Palms (Washingtonia robusta) are one of the most commonly grown palms in the world, and are definitely the most commonly grown palm that has little or no economic food value. The reason for this is adaptability, extremely rapid growth and universal availability. I cannot think of another palm with this growth rate potential that is as hardy and easy to grow as a Washingtonia robusta. There are some palms that do grow faster in the tropics, but they pale in comparison to this one’s hardiness and ease of growth.

There are two species of Washingtonia currently, though there has been some debate whether they should be considered one species and two subspecies, as floral differences are minor to non-existent. The California Fan Palm, Washingtonia filifera, is phenotypically a different palm, having not only a different appearance, but a different growth rate and very different adaptability to various climatic situations (see table below). But most people think of the Mexican Fan Palm, Washingtonia robusta, when they think of a typical fan palm. This species is native to inland northwestern Mexico and Baja California and possibly its native range extends into southern California. It is hard to know for sure now as this palm has grown a long time as an ornamental and it is now found all over the southern California landscape. Seed distribution via bird droppings have allowed this palm to become naturalized in areas where it is very unlikely anyone purposely planted them, but it is not known for sure how long they have existed in some of these remoter areas.

Washingtonia robustas (left) Washingtonia filieras (right)

The Mexican Fan Palm, as mentioned earlier, is a very fast-growing palm, growing faster than most any other palm that can be grown in southern California. One exception might be Caryota urens (the Giant Fishtail Palm), which has been known to grow from a seedling to over 60 feet in just five years, a feat which would very unlikely be surpassed by the happiest Washingtonia. Syagrus romanzoffiana (the Common Queen Palm) is similarly a very fast growing palm, but not as fast as some Caryota urens can grow. Even Phoenix canariensis has been known to grow at a relatively fast pace. Both Syagrus and Caryotas top out at a certain point and are soon eclipsed by Washingtonia robustas (and Phoenix canariensis and P. dactylifera or Date Palms, to some degree) and can grow upwards of 100 feet tall or maybe even a bit more. Washingtonia filifera usually do not get much taller than 60 to 70 feet and take much longer to get there than any of the above mentioned palms. It is still a moderately fast grower, particularly in comparison to the growth rates of most of Mediterranean-grown palms.

Caryota urens, a Fishtail palm, is a very fast growing palm (left); Phoenix canariensis (and hybrid on right) are also fast… but you can see the surrounding Mexican Fan palms towering over even these very tall palms (right)

Date Palms (Phoenix dactyliferas- left photo) and the common Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana- right photo) are also two relatively fast growing palms in a non-tropical climate

Washingtonia robustas are also among the easiest of the palms to grow. Often it is keeping them from growing that is the gardener’s major issue. Dispersal by bird droppings is rampant and seedlings end up in almost every yard in the southland eventually, particularly below where birds tend to roost, such as signposts, power lines, telephone poles and other trees. More time and money is probably spent by the city of Los Angeles removing Washingtonias than planting or possibly even trimming them. It is remarkable how well adapted this palm is to growing anywhere its germinated seed ends up, often growing in lawn-like numbers in cracks and crevices along streets, sidewalks and parking lots. They require very little water to get started, and once established require very little water to grow. This is one of the most drought tolerant palms one can grow in cultivation. However, even this palm needs some water. One can see dessicated and very sad looking palms in the desert that eventually died due to lack of water. Yet few other palms even come close to getting along that far- far in terms of growth with little water, and far in terms of distance from the mother palm. Washingtonia filifera, it has been argued, is even more drought tolerant, evidenced by large populations of this palm growing in the deserts of southern California where which it is a native (though it grows there almost exclusively over areas of shallow ground water).

Palms with hopeless futures growing in itty bitty cracks in a side walk and parking lot. Eventually the city will have to remove these palms, or they will simply outgrow their few roots

Mexican Fan Palms typically grow fairly straight up, but as they get over fifty feet or more in height, they tend to sway a bit and often develop permanent curves in their trunks. I suspect these curves are due primarily to wind exposure, but it seems uncanny how long avenues of planted palms will have almost the exact same curves and lean almost precisely towards the coast (unless grown right along the coast where they tend to be a bit more stunted in their growth patterns). I cannot help but wonder if the direction of the light is also a contributing factor to their lean westward. This curving of the trunk is a Washington robusta feature only, with the stouter-trunked Washingtonia filiferas growing as straight up as Greek columns. One of the ways one can tell the two apart is by their trunk shape and thickness (though this is somewhat relative, particularly due to the common occurrence of hybrid palms in cultivation).

These old Washingtonia robustas (left) show a typical lean toward the ocean; right are a row of old Washingtonia filiferas growing straight up and down

obviously not all Washingtonia robustas develop curved trunks (left) but some can develop exceptionally curved trunks (right)

Unless pruned such, Washingtonia palms tend to retain a large, dense skirt of leaves (California Fan Palms less so in more coastal locations). As they age, these leaves often are blown free leaving behind a bare, ringed, grey trunk. Very tall trees rarely retain much of a skirt at all, but shorter palms, particularly the California Fan palms in inland situations, will retain an incredibly thick petticoat of dead leaves. One of the alternate common names for the California Fan Palm is Petticoat Palm. These skirts are a potential hazard, both in terms of public health and safety, as well as a hazard for other surrounding plants. Palm petticoats are an excellent hiding and roosting place for all sorts of birds and rodents. A palm across the street from me where I used to live was a home to a family of barn owls. But not all residents are as beneficial. Rat populations can be enormous in some un-groomed palms. Pigeons live or roost in them commonly and their droppings can often contain fungal spores that are serious health hazards to people and pets alike. Falling leaves can injure pedestrians and damage property below. It may not sound all that serious to get hit by a falling Washingtonia leaf since, after all, they weigh barely a pound if that and, if well dried, rather float to the ground than plummet. But the leaf petioles are extremely well armed with large, hooked, very sharp teeth and can do very serious damage if one is hit by a falling or blowing one. Falling leaves also damage plants below and can make a huge mess requiring hours of clean up. They also fall in streets creating a driving hazard. It is this reason that most homeowners and landscapers pay thousands and thousands a year (or daily, if you’re the city of Los Angeles) to keep these palms pruned, just so this falling leaf situation won’t occur. Additionally petticoats of dried leaves are extremely flammable and can be a real fire hazard during the dry months of the year.

Washingtonia filifera in habitat showing thick petticoats (left); Washingtonia robusta palms that have retained their petticoats, too, (right)

Palm on left is showing some natural loss of petticoat; right is photo fo two Washingtonia robustas, one with a petticoat, and one that had it mostly removed

Messes typical after heavy winds from falling leaves

From an ornamental standpoint, a thick petticoat can be a good look for a palm, but I think most people think of a bare or pruned trunk, and prefer one, when they think of a Mexican Fan Palm. Some professionals will cut the leaf bases off entirely leaving a trunk bare and somewhat scarred by the saw marks left behind. But most privately owned palms are not trimmed that way as that often requires special equipment and experience, so most owners just cut the leaves off at the trunk and leave the leaf bases wrapped around to dry on the trunk. This leaves behind a somewhat ornamental patchwork of split leaf bases that give the palm a different look than the more commonly displayed bare trunk. However, this patchwork of leaf bases will eventually start to loosen and fall also, particularly on older palms, and the problem of clean up and safety may become a burden.

left is a photo of Washingtonia filifera on left with poorly trimmed petticoat next to a Washingtonia robusta, also with a trimmed trunk… but the retained leaf bases have begun falling off by themselves about the level of the crown of the other palm; photo on right shows closer shot of thatchwork trunk after pruning off the leaves only

palms in front yard of residence with all trunks pruned simply; closer shot of thatch-like leaf bases on trunk

palm on left has been professionally trimmed showing the pale, exposed naked trunk (not sure why job was not finished…); palm on right shows leaf bases fallen off by themselves, thanks to gravity, wind and general exposure, while lower leaf bases remain on trunk (these will eventually fall away)

From a nitpicky, detail point of view, the Fan Palm’s leaves are palmate for the most part, but more accurately, these leaves are mildly ‘costapalmate’. A costapalmate leaf is one in which the leaflets do not radiate out from a single central point as they would on a fan, but there is a ‘midrib’ of origin with the distal leaflets radiating out from the distal end of the midrib and the proximal leaflets radiating out from the proximal midrib. This midrib makes the leaf folded somewhat giving the leaf a more three-dimensional shape, rather than just a simple, flat palm shape. But relative to most of the completely costapalmate palms, such as Sabals or Hyphaene, or even some Livistonas, Washingtonias are relatively flat and fan shape in comparison.

Typical Washingtonia leaf (photo Chamma)

Left is a young Washingtonia robusta showing nearly a perfect fan leaf; right shows a Livistona chinensis (Chinese Fan Palm) with a much greater degree of Costapalmate leaf

this Hyphaene leaf shows the curve of a true costapalmate leaf

The leaves of Washingtonias are typically bright green though the Washingtonia fififera leaves are a bit more sea green in many individuals. This is not a reliable distinguishing point, but can help somewhat in telling the two species apart. The leaves have fibrous filaments that peel away from the edges of the leaflets giving the leaves a sort of hairy look, especially in seedlings. Washingtonia filiferas tend to be a bit more fibrous or hairy than Washingtonia robustas. Another common name for California Fan Palms are Cotton Palms because of the cottony fibers on the leaves. The filifera name refers to the fibers (or ‘filiferae’). As seedlings, Washingtonias have stiff leaflets but as they age, the leaflet tips start to droop. This change leads some unfamiliar with these palms to assume there are two different species involved. Both have large, dangerously sharp, strong hooks or teeth along the petioles but the Mexican Fan Palms have a reddish brown coloration at the base of the petioles that extends down most of the length of the petiole, while California Fan Palms have completely green petioles. This color distinction is fairly consistent between pure species, but the great prevalence of hybrid palms (called Washingtonia ‘filabustas’) muddies this distinction somewhat, with some hybrids being mostly green and some being very red-brown).

left is an exceptionally cottony seedling, showing a lot of fiber on the young leaves; right shows a Washingtonia robusta and the coloration of the leaf bases

Washingtonia robusta colors and showing larger, saw-teeth on petioles

Washingtonia filiferas show no red color along petioles

Younger palms retain a lot more leaves, but with age, only the crown holds leaves

Though both palms are very cold hardy, down to around 20F, there is a slight greater cold tolerance, at least to arid cold, in the California Fan palms, of maybe three to eight degrees F. From a humidity tolerance standpoint, the California Fan palms are much more sensitive to high humidity and here in California often struggle when grown near the coast. They are also much more prone to rot when grown the sloggy, poorly draining soils. Additionally they have a much higher rate of bud rot from exposure of their crowns to moisture. It is not uncommon to see mature dead California Fan Palms that have died for no obvious reasons, far below their ‘terminal height’. This is a rare occurrence in the Mexican Fan Palm. Mexican Fan Palms can be readily grown in Florida and Hawaii, as well in other tropical, humid areas of the world, while the other species struggles and almost invariable fails to survive in such climates. Some have said the hybrid Filabustas have fairly good humidity tolerance and even better cold tolerance to either parent, but I do not know if that is really true.

Washingtonia robusta in Thailand (left) and as street trees in Florida (right)

Shots of Washingtonia filifera that for unknown reasons, just rotted and died… rarely see this in Washingtonia robustas unless overtrimmed

Extreme heat is not much of a problem either with both palms growing well in inland California and Arizona where daytime temperatures over 125F rarely are a problem, though the California Fan Palm seems a bit more resistant in this area.

These Washingtonia filiferas are in an inland native botanical garden where drought and high heat are the norm

Wind tolerance is very high in both species with Washingtonia robustas leaning substantially in the winds, while Washingtonia filiferas do not bend at all. Though the intense Santa Ana winds do strip the old leaves off these trees, very rarely does one of these palms get blown over, despite their height and exposure to very strong, nearly hurricane force winds. People often fear for their safety or damage to their home from these palms blowing over, but far more damage and injury occurs every year from just about any other public trees growing in southern California, from pines to sycamores. These palms often get blamed unfairly for falling over when they actually rarely do.

shot of my neighbor’s tree blowing in a 60mph wind. This tree really leans when the wind blows, but despite its height of over sixty feet, it handles the wind well. The pine behind, however, loses a branch almost every year from the intense winds.

Fertilization is rarely necessary with these palms in southern California where most of the soils are relatively nutrient rich, at least if they have any clay in them. Where I live in California, the soils are mostly clay so these palms have no need for additional fertilizer ever. However, if grown in sandy soils, such as near the beach, or in Florida, they can certainly benefit from fertilization a few times a year. However, this may make them grow even faster and that may not always be the desired effect.

palms in Nevada tend to be a bit stressed from low soil nutrients and drought

Soil pH is rarely an issue with these palms and they grow fairly well in mildly acid soils to extremely alkaline soils (reported even soils with pH over 9).

Watering mature palms is rarely necessary, at least here in California, particularly if not grown in the arid deserts. If in the desert, if there is no ground water, regular watering is recommended. It is difficult to overwater Washingtonia robustas, though they do not tend to grow well in shallow water as many other palms do. But even poorly draining soils of pure clay and rock seem to support this palm fine with very few nutritional or fungal-related maladies. Washingtonia filiferas are more particular and though will also grow in poorly draining soils, they do not like it when those soils are always wet. Too little water will often result in smaller, weaker-looking crowns with less leaves.

Washingtonia robustas are definitely well adapted to growing where there is plenty of water, despite being very drought tolerant

Washingtonia filiferas are more adapted to desert climates, but still need sufficient ground water (as above near this oasis) to survive

Salt tolerance is relatively high for a palm (though not nearly as high as a coconut palm) and Washingtonia robustas grow readily along the beaches all around the world. The salt tolerance of the California Fan Palm might be high as well, but these palms do not like growing near the beach for other reasons (see above).

Light is extremely important for health of these palms and they do not do all that well indoors. However, there is sufficient light often in large malls with a lot of overhead sky lites for these to do quite well as indoor mall palms.

Flowers are virtually identical on both species, being a pale yellow to white along a six foot or more arching inflorescence arising from the middle of the crown. Flowers are bisexual so these palms are monoecious. The flowers are definitely not one of these palms or ornamental attributes and stick out of the crowns like drooping spikes.

Washingtonia filifera showing messy flower spikes (left) and open flowers (right)

Washingtonia filifera in full seed

Germination of the ½” seeds is extremely easy and often rapid. Ripe, fertile seed is easy to come by and usually plentiful year round below most adult palms. Seeds are small and slightly ovoid. These will germinate rapidly with bottom heat, but often germinate nearly as well with little heat at all, just a bit of moisture.

Germination of seed in less than 2 weeks (photo mustangman826)

Young palms do not transplant all that easily, which is surprising as mature palms are known for the ease of transplanting (at least of tolerating transplanting). One needs to support the weight of the palm when digging up and moving larger ones, as cracked trunks usually end up in the death of the palm. This is not a great palm for growing large in order to sell, for several reasons. First, it is quite expensive to move one, usually taking several people, a back hoe and a crane. Secondly it is such a fast growing palm that most can get a large palm from seedling size in less than 10 years, and a very tall palm in 20 years. Frankly, few but wealthy landscapers ever buy these palms at nearly any size, as they are so common and readily available in just about any size already.

Pruning these, as mentioned before, usually requires a professional, at least once mature, who either climbs the palm with spikes and a belt, or, if they work for the city, use a tall crane with a basket. Pruning is quite dangerous as the petioles are so sharp and can snag on ones clothing or skin or even hair when falling, and a newly cut, living leaf is quite heavy. Also these palms get very tall and pruning one without a crane on a windy day at one hundred feet about the ground can be a dizzying experience I am sure, and a very risky one as well, as these are known to sway back and forth a lot. For the same reason, taking one out of the yard can be a risky and dangerous proposition, for the home and plants below as well as trimmer and observers alike.

City worker pruning palms in a crane cab

Trimming the leaves is generally recommended to be done more frequently and less severely than what is actually usually done in cultivation. And the reason it is usually done so drastically is the costs involved in trimming the very tall specimens. So instead of trimming them four to six times a year as probably should be done , most get trimmed maybe two times a year and get butchered in the process to the point where only a few leaves are left sticking like small fountains out the top of the palms. Amazingly these palms often tolerate this abuse, but sometimes this can weaken the palm enough that it will succumb to something else, or starve itself from lack of photosynthetic activity. It is recommend ideally that these palms be pruned only as far as cutting the leaves that are parallel to the ground and not any higher. This less severe pruning is unlikely to weaken the palm in any way.

Palms way over-pruned

Removal of palms is a common activity in California as they show up everywhere. Removing small palms is fairly easy as they one can pull them out by the leaves, or they will snap off at the roots. This is OK as they will rarely grow back after this process. Round Up has little effect on palm seedlings I have discovered. However, as the palms start to make a trunk, they are not so easy to remove. Just topping them will sometimes result in complete recovery (I think this is fairly unique in the palm world). The taller and older the palm, the less like topping it will result in surival, though. But then one still has to deal with the dead trunk. Some elect to just leave it there and dead trunks seem to remain fairly solidly in place of many years, often being used as perches for epiphytes or for landscaping purposes. Most of the time they just get cut down to a stump, which will eventually rot out over many years. But until then, the stumps are useful benches or tables.

Here are shots of a palm that was beheaded, yet it’s coming back… what other palm can do that? Not sure why the city did not just cut it off at the base… or did they just want to do a super trim, and if it came back, so be it. Still, the palm is in a bad location so they will have to remove it someday soon (under a traffic light)

This Washingtonia (left) had ALL its leaves cut off… but it came back, too; right photo shows successful removal evidence

There are several palms growing in cultivation in Southern California, Texas, Arizona and Florida that can look like Washingtonia palms. Below are a few of the ‘imposters’ one might encounter.

Brahea brandegeis look a lot like smaller Washingtonia robustas, but the tell-tale retained leaf bases are not split. Photo on right shows a Brahea brandegei with a long skirt making it really hard to tell from the Washingtonias (behind to to the right of them), but again, the unsplit leaf bases give them away.

Brahea edulis are probably the most commonly planted look-alike, at least in southern California. These don’t retain leaf bases so you can use that as clues, but the leaves are more costapalmate and flowers are very different. After a while you notice the overall shape of the palm is somewhat sqatter and the crowns are more full with less droopy leaflets

Livistona nititda can look a lot like a Washingtonia robusta, especially when young… but as it ages (left) it shows the unsplit retained leaf bases; right is a Sabal palmetto which has an overall appearance like a Washingtonia, and even has split retained leaf bases, but its leaves are very costapalmate and there are no teeth on the petioles

Differences between Washingtonia robusta and Washingtonia filifera:

Washingtonia robusta

Washingtonia filifera

Ht. Med. Climate

100 feet plus

60 feet

Trunk diameter

1-2 feet

2-4 feet

Trunk shape

Straight to curving or ‘s’ shaped

Straight

Leaf diameter

3-4 feet

4-6 feet

Leaf Bases

Retained until very tall

Usually shed unless desert conditions

Petiole color

Red-brown fading to green at leaf

Medium green

Petiole length

3-5 feet

3-6 feet

Crown

Densely leaved (often over 30 leaves)

Sparsely leaved 8-20 leaves (more in oasis desert conditions)

Leaf color

Deep shiny green

Medium to light green

Leaf fibers

Few to moderately fibrous

Moderately to very fibrous

Growth rate

Very fast

Moderate (for a So California palm)

Salt tolerance

Good

Moderate to good

Drought tolerant

Good

Excellent

Humidity tolerant

Good

Poor

Heat tolerant

Good

Excellent

Shade tolerant

Fair

Poor as it ages

Cold tolerant

Zone 8b

Zone 8a

Conservation

Common

Rare

Common Names

Mexican Fan Palm, Skyduster

California Fan Palm, Desert Fan Palm, Petticoat Palm, Cotton Palm

Washingtonia robusta on left and all the rest are Washingtonia filiferas

Comments: personally I think this palm gets an unfair bad rap, mostly due to its weed-like nature, pest-harboring capabilities and messy leaf dropping. In addition, palm enthusiasts detest its commonality, thinking of these as ‘poor man’s palms’. But whether you like them or not, mature, towering Sky Dusters are impressive and ornamental sights. They add so much beauty to the otherwise stark concrete landscape of southern California.

To me, the photo on the left says elegance and California, while the ugly trees on the right, planted all over southen California just show some archaic brain trying to relive its former life on the east coast by planting ugly reminders of the trees there, here in California. I realize some sycamores are native to California, but most landscaped sycamores are sickly and pathetic year round.

Even though they are common and may be weeds, their beauty is hard to deny

California Fan Palm Trees – Cold Hardy Palms

California Fan Palm Trees (Washingtonia filifera)

The Cold hardy California Fan Palm Tree:

  • Can grow up to 60′ with a crown spread of 15′
  • Can have up to thirty gray-green palmate (fan-shaped) leaves, each 3-6′ across
  • Have leaves that spread out to form a loose and open crown
  • Young Washington Palms need plenty of sun
  • Palm will tolerate soils and drought
  • Have a moderate growth rate

California Fan Palm Overview

Stately and distinctive, the California Fan Palm tree is one of the most widely grown palms in subtropical climates. The California Fan palms massive gray trunks are barrel shaped and ringed with old leaf scars, and may reach over 3′ in diameter at the Palms widest point. The petioles (leaf stems) of mature palms are armed along the margins with curved thorns; those of young palms are largely unarmed. The individual leaflets are pendulous and swing freely in the wind. Abundant cotton-like threads on and between the leaflets persist even when the California Palm tree is mature. If old leaves are not removed, they form a continuous “petticoat” from the crown all the way to the ground. The California Fan Palm tree produces numerous branching flower clusters that project out and often downward from the leaf crown. The bisexual blossoms are white and yellow and give rise to oblong or round red-black fruit, each about a half inch in diameter. The fruits of California Fan Palm trees contain a single seed, approximately 1/4″ in diameter.

California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) Information

Scientific name: Washingtonia filifera
Pronunciation: wosh-ing-TOE-nee-uh fill-LIFF-er-uh
Common name(s): Desert Palm, California Washingtonia Palm
Family: Arecaceae
USDA hardiness zones: 8+
Origin: not native to North America
Invasive potential: little invasive potential
Uses: street without sidewalk; tree lawn 3-4 feet wide; tree lawn 4-6 feet wide; tree lawn > 6 ft wide
Availability: not native to North America

California Fan Palm Description

Height: 40 to 60 feet
Spread: 10 to 15 feet
Crown uniformity: symmetrical
Crown shape: palm, upright/erect
Crown density: open
Growth rate: moderate
Texture: coarse

California Fan Foliage

Leaf arrangement: alternate
Leaf type: costapalmate
Leaf margin: entire
Leaf shape: star-shaped
Leaf venation: palmate
Leaf type and persistence: evergreen, broadleaf evergreen
Leaf blade length: more than 36 inches
Leaf color: green
Fall color: no color change
Fall characteristic: not showy

California Fan Palm Tree Flower

Flower color: yellow, white/cream/gray
Flower characteristics: not showy

The Palm Fruit

Fruit shape: oval, round
Fruit length: less than .5 inch
Fruit covering: fleshy
Fruit color: black
Fruit characteristics: does not attract wildlife; not showy; fruit/leaves not a litter problem

California Fan Palm Trees Trunk and Branches

Trunk/bark/branches: branches don’t droop; not showy; typically one trunk; thorns
Pruning requirement: needed for strong structure
Breakage: resistant
Current year twig color: not applicable
Current year twig thickness:
Wood specific gravity: unknown

California Fan Palms Culture

Light requirement: full sun
Soil tolerances: clay; sand; loam; acidic; alkaline; well-drained
Drought tolerance: high
Aerosol salt tolerance: moderate

Other

Roots: not a problem
Winter interest: no
Outstanding tree: no
Ozone sensitivity: unknown
Verticillium wilt susceptibility: resistant
Pest resistance: resistant to pests/diseases

California Fan Palm Tree Use and Management

The lower leaves persist on the tree after they die, forming a dense, brown, shaggy covering below the living, grey/green, broad, fan-shaped leaves, giving it the common name of Petticoat Palm. These dead fronds are known to be a fire hazard and a popular bedding roost for rodents and, because of this, must be removed by law in some areas.

Plant this palm only on soil which is extremely well-drained to prevent trunk or root rot. Moderate salt tolerance allows it to be used close to the coast in several of the southern states. This palm could be tried more in well-drained sites as a replacement for Washingtonia robusta which grows very tall with a skinny trunk. But over-irrigation and rainy weather could initiate root rot. Washingtonia filifera is shorter, has a thicker trunk, and is better suited for planting in dry urban landscapes, such as in Texas, Arizona and California. They reportedly suffer and often die from root rot when irrigated. Select Washingtonia robusta in an irrigated landscape and for the eastern U.S.

Propagation is by seed.

California Palms Pests

Scales while young, palm weevil in old age, palm leaf skeletonizer and a variety of scales at any time can infest this palm.

California Palm Tree Disease

Trunk or root rot in wet soils may infect this tree.

Gardening
in Tucson, Phoenix, Arizona and California

Description
Form: Palm tree.
Lifespan: Up to 200 years.
Leaf retention: Evergreen.
Growth rate: Slow.
Mature Size: 60′ high and 12′ wide.
Flowers: Branching, white and yellow flower clusters project out and often downward from the leaf crown.
Bloom: Mid to late spring.
Fruit: Oblong or round, red-black, edible dates, each about 1/2″ in diameter. They contain a single seed, approximately 1/4″ in diameter. The fruit can be eaten raw, or cooked, or dried and ground up with the seed and cooked.
Leaves: Gray-green, fan-shaped, each 3-6 ft across, with threads hanging from the margins of each finger. The fans spread out to form an open crown. Dead leaves remain on the trunk, hanging upside down.
Stems: The leaf stems of mature palms have curved thorns along the margins. The leaf stems of young palms are largely without thorns.
Roots: An extensive, fleshy and strong root system penetrates deeply in search of water.
Wildlife: The palm provides a habitat for birds, mammals and even a bat species. Coyotes, rodents and a few bird species eat the fruit.
Toxic / Danger: Thorns on older palm leaf stems become a danger when pruned.
Origin: Arizona, Nevada, California, and Baja California.

Southern California Palm Trees: History + Species Guide

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Palm trees have become a symbol of Southern California. They’re seen lining beaches, swaying in the wind on city streets and even in shopping mall planters. Their image is meant to conjure up feelings of leisure, relaxation and living the good life.

But did you know that most palms trees aren’t actually native to California? One is, but most hail from Mexico and as far away as the Canary Islands. Palms have adapted well to our growing conditions and thrive in our homes as gorgeous ornamental trees.

How Palm Trees Arrived in Southern California

Believe it or not, before settlers arrived in our part of the world, California was a semi-arid landscape of native plants. Palms need moisture in the soil to survive so were huddled near sources like the Los Angeles River. Indians used them for sustenance and practical purposes such as using the fronds for basket weaving, shelter and even clothing.

Spanish Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries planted California’s first date palm trees in 1769 for ornamental reasons and likely because of Biblical associations, but it was around the turn of the 20th century that other palm tree seeds made their way over from Eqypt, Mexico and elsewhere as immigrants arrived in the United States.

An explosion of palm tree planting occurred in the 1930s as Americans associated Southern California with a leisure-like, Mediterranean environment. As a part of the Los Angeles beautification program prior to the 1932 Olympics, 25,000 palm trees were planted all over the city putting many of the city’s unemployed back to work.

The Only California Native Palm

The Washingtonia filifera or California fan palm (also referred to as the Arizona fan palm) is the only native palm to the United States, specifically the Southwest, and has been seen growing naturally in the wild as far east as Colorado and north to Wyoming. Fossils of the palm have been found dating back to almost 50-70 million years BP.

The California fan palm cam live up to 80-90 years, grow up to 75 feet tall and has leaves shaped like a fan that fold like accordion. The leaves can reach about 6 feet long and wide.

Palms for Southern California

Many palms will thrive in Southern California with some TLC, but the list below includes types that are fairly low maintenance if placed in the right sun and soil conditions.

King Palm: For the jungle look, go for a King Palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae) which is a fast grower up to about 40′ with leaves that have a silver color underneath. It can take partial or full sun.

Queen Palm: The Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) reaches heights of 25′ with long, up to 15′ arching fronds. It’s hearty, drought-tolerant and a relatively fast grower.

Pygmy Date Palm: A very popular and often inexpensive choice for Southern California homes, the Pygmy Date Palm (Phoenix roebelenii) grows slowly up to about 10′. They do have sharp thorns at the base of the leaves, need full sun and can be found at Home Depot in small sizes.

Pindo Palm: The Pindo Palm (Butia capitata) has pretty silver leaves and grows to about 20′ in full sun. It won’t do well in any shade but is hearty otherwise.

Kentia Palms: A thin palm, the Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana) is a very slow grower up to 30′ and popular in Southern California because it cab be grown in either partial sun or full sun. It’s elegant looking and often grouped. They are very easy to find at local nurseries.

Mediterranean Fan Palms: With suckering (multiple) trunks, Mediterranean Fan Palms (Chamaerops humilis) are also local favorites that don’t grow very tall. They tap out at about 15′ but can tolerate cold Southern California weather. The downside is that they are slow-growers but they also come in a pretty blue variety.

(Also, we have a post dedicated to growing indoor palm trees, for your reference.)

When to Plant a Palm Tree

Experts suggest that planting palms in the right season based on your location helps guarantee success. While fall is usually an excellent time to plant trees, even in temperate San Diego, palms will fare better when planted in the spring or summer (though with care, they can survive planting year-round).

Have you ever bought a healthy palm tree and planted it in your yard only to have it wilt away and die? Palms need to acclimate to their environment, especially if they were greenhouse-grown. After fall comes winter, the most stressful season for a palm tree where root growth can be stunted in temperatures below 65°F, which does happen even in San Diego. If you do plant a palm in the fall or winter, be mindful of the watering schedule as too much water can also weaken roots and cause pathogens to grow. If you live in a hot desert like Palm Springs, planting in summer heat probably isn’t ideal especially if the palm hasn’t been acclimated.

How to Plant a Palm Tree

Most of the work regarding planting a palm tree happens before the tree touches the ground. You’ll need to have taken care to select the right palm for your light considerations, space, climate and soil.

Provided that you’re buying a 15 gallon or so plant from a nursery and not a full-sized tree, dig a hole about six inches wider on all sides and six inches deeper than the root ball of the plant. Whether or not you add amended soil around the palm tree depends on what kind of soil you have, but what you will want to add is large sand or similar to provide adequate drainage.

Gently remove the root ball from the pot and don’t loosen the root ball–keep it in tact. Plant so that the tree’s soil level as it was in the container is about an inch or so lower than the planting hole. This will allow water to puddle slightly around the tree.

If you’re attempting to plant a large palm or one that requires a bit more maintenance than the ones listed above, it’s best to seek professional help. Palms have shallow root balls, so if shoved in the ground, especially in clay soil, the root ball can rise above ground resulting in a weak plant. Proper planting also ensures that the palm grows upward as it should versus out to the side, in the event it’s looking for sun or unstable. Pygmy date palms in multiple trunks are subject to sideways growth in certain conditions.

Use it or Move it

Interestingly enough, many Southern California residents who have palm trees that grow taller than height restrictions or need removal due to renovations have had luck selling palm trees for relocation into other yards. Call a tree removal company to see if yours are saleable for a nice profit.

Your Turn…

What palms have you had success growing in Southern California?

Photo credits: Hotel del Coronado palms, Flickr/Rennett Stowe; California fan palm, Flickr/mikebaird; Coronado beach palms, Flickr/Evo Flash

They are the sultry, swaying backdrop to countless films, posters and music videos, an effective way to announce: this is Los Angeles.

Palm trees greet you outside the LAX airport, they line Hollywood Boulevard, stand guard over the Pacific and crisscross neighbourhoods poor and rich, a botanical army of stems and fronds which symbolise the world’s entertainment capital.

Apparently not for much longer. LA’s palm trees are dying. And most won’t be replaced.

A beetle known as the South American palm weevil and a fungus called Fusarium are killing palm trees across southern California. Others are dying of old age. “It’ll change the overall aesthetic because palm trees are so distinctive. It’s the look and feel of Los Angeles,” said Carol Bornstein, director of the nature gardens at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

A city tally in 1990 estimated the number of palms on city streets at 75,000, a number which has not been updated but is destined to plunge in coming decades, the Los Angeles Times reported this week, citing officials.

No one knows how many will die, or how fast. For palm lovers, the even worse news is that they won’t be replaced, perhaps not even mourned.

Authorities will instead plant other species that give more shade and consume less water – important factors for an overheating city. By the middle of the century, LA is expected to be three to five degrees fahrenheit warmer and to have triple the number of extreme heat days.

“Palms are decorative and iconic, but Los Angeles is facing more and more heatwaves, so it’s important that we plant trees that provide adequate shade to protect people and cool the city down,” said Elizabeth Skrzat, programme director for City Plants, the city’s tree planting arm.

History may record this as the moment La La Land put utility ahead of adornment.

The city will continue to plant trees in certain designated areas, including Hollywood, and developers and homeowners will probably continue to plant palms. “I seriously doubt that palms will disappear entirely,” said Skrzat.

Becky Saava, a Ugandan tourist, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Guardian

Even so, the looming die-off dismayed Becky Saava, 40, a tourist from Uganda who stood beneath giant palms on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “They should sustain them – find out what fungus is killing them and fix it, leave the city the way it is now. Palm trees are part of it. They make the place so beautiful.”

Across the street, Marcel Hidouche, a tour bus operator standing beneath another palm, said LA would rue their dwindling. “They’re relaxing. I feel like I’m on vacation, like I’m on an island and not in a big city. We come for the sunlight, not the shade.”

The town of Fillmore, 50 miles north of Hollywood, has special reason to lament. In 2012 it cut down 26 queen palms to make its downtown resemble a more generic, anytown USA to lure film and TV productions.

Only one species of palm – Washingtonia filifera, the California fan palm – is native to the state. All other species, from the exuberant, feather-topped Canary Island date palm to the more austere, svelte Mexican fan palm, are imports.

Franciscan missionaries in the 18th century were believed to be the first to plant palms ornamentally in LA, a trend that took off in the early 20th century, when palms started adorning boulevards, parks and gardens.

“It wasn’t the best choice of plants for a Mediterranean city. Especially one that has expanded so dramatically,” said Bornstein.

David Fink, policy director of Climate Resolve, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes climate solutions for southern California, said the city’s love affair with palms was not necessarily a mistake but that it was time to move on.

“The iconic association of palm trees with Los Angeles is a positive, but we’re now in a period where we have a better understanding of what’s needed. It makes sense that we replace the palms with trees that have wide expanses of shade and help cool things down.” Heat, he added, killed more people than other weather events combined.

Marcel Hidouche, a tour bus operator, on Hollywood Boulevard. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Guardian

Climate change has made California hotter and drier, a boon to bugs that destroy vegetation, said Andy Lipkis, the president of TreePeople, an LA-based advocacy group. Palms afforded LA little protection from heat, drought and flooding, plus they served as a habitat for the Norway rat, but their die-off signalled a wider crisis, he said.

“It’s a wake-up call. Millions of trees are dying in southern California. One price tag for removing the dead trees over the next 30 years is $37bn. Trees have a much harder time growing and thriving in cities today because the climate is much harsher.”

For all the advantages of other species, however, Lipkis said part of him would miss the palms. “Something that drives me crazy is people think of trees as decoration rather than life support. But I must admit there is something that they convey that goes along with the image,” he said in a phone interview.

“I’m parked in a canyon right now watching four palms sway in the breeze. They don’t belong here, but there’s something a little bit good for the soul in the look.”

Like so many things in Southern California, the palm tree was an import from somewhere else that over time became inextricably symbolic of its adopted home.

But the trees, so identified with the sun-splashed excitement of Los Angeles, are facing a decidedly darker fate. They are dying of fatal fungus and under threat of invasive insects in parks and along streets. And for the most part, the city has chosen to replace them not with new palms but with native trees that are more drought-tolerant and shadier, said Leon Borodinsky, a tree surgeon for the department of Recreation and Parks.

City officials say they don’t know how many palm trees have been lost. In 1990, a city tally put the number of palms on L.A.’s streets at 75,000. That number has declined, officials said, but they are not sure by how much.

“Over the next 50 years, you will see a great loss in palms. It’s already begun,” added Jared Farmer, the author of Trees in Paradise.

The decline in palm trees is part of a larger trend in L.A.’s treescape. In the next five years, the city will lose enough trees to disease and pests that it will take 30 to 50 years to replenish them, Borodinsky said.

The loss of the palms is particularly noticeable because of their prominence in the city’s streetscape.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Los Angeles decorated itself with a diversity of palms to enchant newcomers, Farmer said. The city imported its palm trees from all over the world, since only one species, the California fan palm, is native to the state.

Palm trees dominate frontyards on Figueroa Street in this photo from 1890. (California Historical Society)

Palm trees flourished in Los Angeles alongside the automobile and expansive freeways. “They came to represent the modern auto-based, decentralized metropolis that is L.A.,” Farmer said.

Hollywood sealed the deal as movies turned the palm tree into an internationally recognized symbol of Los Angeles.

“Hollywood creates this connection between palm trees, celebrities, glamour, sex and extravagant riches,” Farmer said.

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