Herbaceous Trees

P91005KPalms are like ‘Red Delicious’ apples. It seems that most people dislike them; but they also seem to be very popular. Seriously, if only a few people like ‘Red Delicious’ apples, why are they so common in supermarkets? If most of us dislike palms, why are they so common in the San Jose Skyline?

I suspect that palms really are as unpopular as they seem to be, but that they are also very conspicuous within their situations. Not only are they focal points of the landscapes in which they live, but most types eventually stand as tall as the tallest trees in the neighborhood, and some get significantly taller. They are innately the most prominent trees within their neighborhoods.

Palm are not like other trees though. Arborists may classify them as ‘herbaceous trees’. They are foliar plants while young, producing increasingly large leaves from terrestrial rosettes. They only ‘launch’ and start to develop their trunks after the formerly terrestrial rosettes have grown wide enough to do so.

Not only are their trunks no wider than their associated foliar rosettes, but they get no wider as they grow taller. The base of a trunk of a palm is as wide when the tree is only a few feet tall as it will be when the tree grows to forty feet tall. Mexican fan palms are only wider at their bases because they start out like that.

Palms with slender trunks can launch much sooner than those with wider trunks. It does not take long for their rosettes to get as wide as their trunks. Canary Island date palms have rather plump trunks, so may need to mature for many years before they launch.

Yuccas and dracaenas are not really palms. Their trunks expand and develop branches as they grow and mature.


Pasadena Windstorm


The weather in the parts of California that most of us are familiar with is generally rather mild. Some of the hottest temperatures every recorded were in the Mojave Desert, but not many of us even know how to get there. Some of the heaviest snowfall ever recorded was near Tahoe, but many of us think of that as almost Nevada. San Jose, Los Angeles and the most populous regions enjoy mostly comfortable weather throughout they year.
‘Drought’ is often an inaccurate description of the naturally prolonged dry chaparral and desert weather, as if it is abnormal. There would be no chaparral or desert if it rained here as much as it does in other climates. What is considered to be normal rainfall in some regions would be disastrous to regions that do not normally get so much precipitation. Drought does happen here sometimes, but it is not as common as outsiders believe it to be.
Once in a while, we get something that really is strange. The floods and mudslides of the Winter of 1982 were disastrous. The wicked frosts of late 1990 were the worst in recorded history, even though they would not have been much of a problem in most other climates farther inland. On the morning of December 1 in 2011, Pasadena and the surrounding regions of the San Gabriel Valley experienced historically strong and destructive winds.
When I went to Los Angeles shortly afterward, I was amazed to see that pieces of the glass facades of some of the skyscrapers had been stripped away. Thrashed fronds of queen palms hung limply as if a hurricane had gone through. My colleague got these startling pictures of destroyed Canary Island date palms, which are famously resilient to wind, in Leimert Park, about fifteen miles southwest of Pasadena.


Palm Treevia


This is a quick trivia question.

Which of these three states has the most native genera of palm?

1. California

2. Hawaii

3. Oklahoma

4. None of the above


This is not a trick question. Notice that it asks about genera rather than specie.

1. California is home to many exotic specie and genera of palm; but only ONE is native. The California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, which is also known as the desert fan palm, lives in isolated groves out in the Mojave Desert. https://tonytomeo.wordpress.com/2018/06/30/oasis/ Because it prefers hot and arid desert climates, and does not like to be watered too generously through summer, it is now a very unpopular palm for landscapes.

2. Hawaii, is populated by many more exotic specie and genera of palm than California is, but only specie of the ONE genera of Pritchardia are native. Many of the exotic genera were imported by ancient Polynesians to produce food. Others were imported later for landscaping.

3. Oklahoma is the sort of place where only a few of the toughest of exotic palms can survive outside. Yet, McCurtain County, in the very southeastern corner of Oklahoma, is home to ONE very rare but nonetheless native variety of dwarf palmetto, Sabal minor.

4. ‘None of the above’ is the correct answer to the question because none of the other choices above have any more native genera than any of the others.

So, although Hawaii really does have more native specie of palm, it has no more native genera than California or even Oklahoma. Each of these three states has exactly ONE native genus of palm.

I am sorry that I have no good pictures of any of these palms. All three of these pictures were obtained online. I have experience with neither the dwarf palmetto of Oklahoma, nor any of the specie of Pritchardia of Hawaii. However, the California fan palm happens to be my all time favorite palm, even though it is not very happy here. It is such a stately palm, and those grown from the same seed batches are uniform enough for formal plantings. They are the palms that flank the famous Palm Driveway of the Winchester House in San Jose, as they were popular for flanking driveways and roadways in California and Arizona during the Victorian period. I did happen to see California fan palm in the wild outside of Palm Springs while in school in the late 1980s and can tell you that they are spectacular in their native habitat.



P80630KWhat are they doing out there, in those two pots in the island of such a vast parking lot? It is hard to say from this distance. They are so isolated. They might be happy and healthy summer blooming annuals. They might just be weeds. They could be plotting World domination. Plants can do some weird things in isolation.

Mexican fan palm is the most familiar palm in Los Angeles. Some know them as skydusters because they are so tall and lanky, and do not seem to have anything better to do than lazily brush against the undersides of clouds as they float by. In Los Angeles, there are not many clouds to keep them busy, and there is not even much smog anymore. Mexican fan palms certainly do not make much shade, and because they are so tall, their little shadows land in neighbors’ yards. They are so tall that you might be able to see them from wherever you are merely by looking towards Los Angeles. Instead of getting Frisbees and kites stuck in their canopies, they collect satellites. When they drop one of their big leaves, it burns up in the atmosphere.

In their natural environment, Mexican fan palm lives in a large and mostly contiguous native range (areas) in which individual colonies are not isolated for too long. Pollen gets shared rather thoroughly. Trees are consequently very similar throughout the range. Slight genetic variation is only perceptible in regions such as Los Angeles, where various groups of trees are grown from seed collected from various regions of the native range.P80630K+

Sometime in the ancient history of the specie, a few individuals decided to leave the rest of the herd and go live in isolation out in the adjacent deserts. They could only survive where there was a bit of water, so they inhabited any oasis they could find. This might have happened as some trees migrated up canyons that had perennial creeks flowing through them only to have the lower portion of the canyon go dry as outflow from above decreased. Seismic activity within the region has a way of altering the outflow of springs. Anyway, these more reclusive palms eventually became a separate species, or subspecies, or variety, depending on the botanist providing the information. This separate species (or subspecies or variety) is now known as the California fan palm, or the desert fan palm. It thrives on the hot and arid desert air, but is not very happy in milder and more humid coastal climates. (I am sorry that I do not have a good picture at the moment.)

Unlike Mexican fan palm that lives in a big contiguous range, California fan palms lives in small isolated colonies where they can not share their pollen freely with other colonies. Over thousands of years, each colony adapts to its specific environmental conditions. Genetic variation within colonies is not perceptible, but is quite obvious in landscape situations where trees grown from seed from different colonies can be compared.

California fan palm is much shorter and stouter than Mexican fan palm. It does not need to compete with too many other specie out in the desert. The trunks are straighter, and the canopies are fluffier. Unlike the very informal and relaxed Mexican fan palm, it is an excellent palm for formal landscapes. It is the specie that flanks the famous Palm Driveway at the Winchester House in San Jose. The only stipulation for these formal installations is that all the palms must be grown from the same batch of seeds procured from the same colony.

Location – Location -Location!

P80422Speaking of which, this is not the right location!

This unhappy Mexican fan palm may have grown here from seed, as they often do. They are notorious for growing under utility cables because that is where birds drop so many of their seed. Perhaps the seed for this one was dropped by a bird perched on the sign many years ago.

Ironic, isn’t it. Birds tend to perch on utility cables and signs and in trees and everywhere that palms should not be planted. How often do they drop seeds out in the open, where whey will not encroach into something as they grow up? Why can’t they drop palm seeds in places where palm trees would actually be an asset? It happens sometimes, but not as often as palms appear where they are not wanted.

The picture below shows three larger Mexican fan palms that were intentionally planted in the original landscape, with a smaller palm between two of the larger palms. The palm in the first picture is barely visible in front of the sign in the background, and is about the same size as the smaller tree that is more visible between the taller trees.

It is possible and perhaps likely that the two smaller palms were not planted intentionally. It is also possible that someone actually planted them.

It does not matter now. The palm in front of the sign needs to be removed. The removal of all the foliage will not kill it. It will generate new foliage that will again obscure the sign if the tree is not eliminated soon. There is no way to prune the palm to divert growth around the sign. It has only one terminal bud, and is unable to generate another if topped. Palms under utility cables have the same problem. Once they get too close to the cables, they must be removed.

Getting back to the first picture. The shock and awe of the defoliation of the subject Mexican fan palm was likely sufficient distraction to prevent anyone from noticing the queen palm foliage peeking around the right side of the sign. Unlike Mexican fan palms, queen palms rarely grow from seed here, especially in a spot where there are no other queen palms nearby. Yes, someone planted ‘another’ palm in the same spot!P80422+

Two Heads Are Better Than One

P80221Three or four might be better than two. Perhaps that is what this queen palm was thinking when it decided to get extras.

This is not a good picture, and the tree is a bit too shaggy with old foliage to see what is going on inside clearly. To the left, a secondary limb is curving downward and away from the main trunk, before curving back upward as a secondary canopy. Another limb is developing immediately above this secondary canopy, and another is visible to the right of the main trunk. It is hard to say how many individual canopies are within the collective canopy of this single specimen.

What is weird about this development is that the popularly available palms do not form branches. Think of it. When was the last time you saw a palm tree with a limb or branches? Before you answer that, yuccas (such as Joshua trees) and dracaenas are not palms. Also, clumping palms like Mediterranean fan palm do not form limbs from their main trunks. They merely develop multiple trunks from basal pups.

The very few specie of palm that develop branches regularly are very rare and live very far away. Date palms, either grown for dates or recycled into landscapes from displaced date orchards, have the potential to develop pups higher on their trunks, but rarely do so.

Palms are only trees because they have trunks. Otherwise, they are merely really big perennials, with single terminal buds from which all their foliage, flowers and fruit develop. If deprived of the terminal bud, a palm can not generate a new one, which is why a palm will die if topped.

So why does this queen palm have more than one terminal bud? It is impossible to say.


P71011Palm trees did not impress me much when I was young. Although striking in the right landscapes, they did not ‘do’ much. They made no fruit. They made no firewood. Only the big Canary Island date palms made any significant shade. What they did make was a big mess that was difficult to rake. They were expensive to maintain. They sheltered rats and pigeons. Their seedlings came up in the weirdest places.

Back then, the only two palms that I was really familiar with were the Canary Island date palm and the Mexican fan palm. Windmill palms were common too, but because they are so much less obtrusive, they did not get my attention. Queen palms had not yet become a fad, so were mostly in older neighborhoods outside of my world. I was aware that there was an odd type of Mexican fan palm, but never gave it much thought.

Then I went to college . . . and met Brent, from Southern California, where palms are more appreciated. I also met more palms that I had either ignored earlier, or had never seen before. After a while, Brent showed me around coastal Southern California, including the Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica, where I saw palm trees at their best.

I will never forget turning onto Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, where the Beverly Hillbillies drove when they came to town. I had never seen Canary Island date palms and Mexican fan palms like that before. They were so majestic! They were so tall! They were so uniform! It did not change what I already knew about palms, but it did give me a different respect for them.

That odd Mexican fan palm that I mentioned earlier was actually the California fan palm, or the desert fan palm, which is classified as a distinct specie. It gets about half as tall, but twice as stout, with fluffier foliage. Because it is shorter and stouter, it stands straight, without bending like the taller and lankier Mexican fan palm does. It is also more genetically variable because it naturally grows in isolated oases rather than a contiguous range.

After seeing the California fan palm growing wild outside of Palm Springs, around the springs that Palm Springs is named for, it became my favorite palm. It is very stately in the right situations. It lines North First Street at Saint James Park in San Jose, and flanks the Palm Driveway at the Winchester House. Unfortunately, it really prefers to be out in the aridity and warmth of the desert. It looks rather sickly if it gets too much water.

While cruising around the Los Angeles area, Brent pointed out a few ‘bastards’, which are hybrids of California fan palm and Mexican fan palm. Apparently, they are not distinct specie, but rather subspecie. In other words, they hybridize freely. Each parent has attributes; and the bastards get the best of both.

Mexican fan palms, whether I like them or not, are very tall, elegant and graceful. They are exquisite skyline trees, with leaning or bowing trunks that can move casually in the wind. California fan palms are stout, stately and formal. If not watered too much, their straight and uniform trunks, and canopies of fluffy foliage, work nicely where conformity is desired. Bastards have trunks that are just thin enough to be elegant, but just stout and straight enough to be stately. Their canopies are more ‘lush’ than fluffy like those of the California fan palm.

Until recently, bastards were solitary trees that grew randomly from seed. They were not available in nurseries. If they had been, they would have been very variable because of their random breeding. However, someone took notice enough to cultivate what seems to be a cultivar known as Washingtonia X filibusta. (Washingtonia X filibusta is derived from the names of California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, and Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta. The ‘X’ designates it as a hybrid.) They are becoming the new alternative to the formerly all too common Mexican fan palm.P71011+