Mediterranean fan palm

The strikingly silver Atlas Mountain palm.

Not all palms are trees. Some lack trunks, so develop more as shrubbery. Some develop many slender stems, like bamboo. The thin canes of most rattan palms sprawl onto other vegetation for support, as vines. Mediterranean fan palm, Chamaerops humilis, develops multiple stout trunks, but grows so slowly that it can function as big sculptural shrubbery.

Old trunks can eventually get as high as twenty feet, and generally lean randomly. If they get too tall, smaller and more vigorous trunks can replace them. (An arborist can remove the bulky and thorny old trunks.) New trunks develop from basal pups, which can can get too densely foliated without occasional thinning. Removal of such pups might be difficult.

Mature trunks might be as wide as ten inches, with dense coats of basal petiole fiber and thorny petiole stubs. Thorough grooming can eliminate the stubs. However, petioles that suspend the evergreen palmate leaves are outfitted with the same wickedly sharp teeth. Leaves are about two feet wide. Atlas Mountain palm, Chamaerops humilis var.(iety) argentea has strikingly silvery foliage, and grows even slower.

Bad Wine

I believe that this is a young Chilean wine palm, although I am not certain.

Italian Americans, particularly Californians, are expected to be experts in regard to wine. I am not. I can not explain it. I dislike wine, especially the best of it. It smells and tastes like rotten grapes. When I learned that Chilean wine palms were, and might still be, decapitated for the collection of their sap, from which wine is made, I learned yet another reason to dislike wine.

This little Chilean wine palm, Jubaea chilensis, pictured above, lives just a block or so away from the bad date palm that I wrote about last Sunday. No one here will try to make wine from its sap. The utility cables that seem to be too close in the background actually pass with plenty of clearance to the right, so will not be a problem in the future. This young palm should be safe.

Although I have encountered too few of the species in my career to be completely certain that this little palm is a well bred Chilean wine palm, it is very convincing. I see no indication that it is a hybrid of another species. About half of the Chilean wine palms that I encounter are hybrids. Most of these are hybrids of queen palm. Others are hybrids of pindo palm. Both look weird.

Of course, well bred Chilean wine palms are not much better. The specimen pictured below demonstrates that, regardless of how bold and striking they are, they are still rather weird palms. That is probably why they are so rare now. They were rare even during the Victorian Period, when weird species were trendy. Yet to many, their distinctive weirdness is part of their allure.

I can not help but wonder where this Chilean wine palm came from. Someone must really appreciate it to put it here.

Chilean wine palm is not a good houseplant.

Bad Date

No one likes a bad date.

Date orchards that were displaced by the expansion of urban sprawl around Las Vegas in the 1990s were the source of the many recycled mature date palms that briefly became popular for large scale landscapes at the time. Most of the trees within the orchards were female, with only a few male pollinators. (Pollinators can live remotely, where they provide pollen for dusting.)

Male trees were undesirable anyway, at least in conjunction with female trees. They are taller and lankier, with less pendulous foliage, so are less visually appealing. More importantly, they pollinate female flowers so that they make fruit. Of course, in orchards, fruit is very important. In landscapes, it is just a mess. Without male pollinators, female trees produce no messy fruit.

Consequently, most male trees were not recycled. Some were installed singly, or in exclusively male colonies, in landscapes that were reasonably isolated from female trees. After decades of dutiful service, this is how they were retired, . . . or not.

During the brief date palm fad, a colony of exclusively female date palms at a mall near here produced a minor crop of dates during its second year after installation. It was not a major mess, but it was perplexing. Eventually, someone realized that a single relatively small male date palm lived just outside of the landscaped areas. It likely grew there from seed as a curb mongrel.

Even though the male tree was too remote to pollinate the female trees sufficiently for a major mess, it was removed. It was not much bigger than the short and clumping date palm pictured above. This tree seems to be a curb mongrel as well, since it was not likely planted there purposely. Furthermore, it will also likely need to be removed. It is too close to the building behind.


It is not as bad as it looks.

No, this is not wheat. It is the larger of the two Mexican fan palms that I dug and canned more than a week ago. ‘Wheat’ refers to the unpleasant phase that it is now going through. It is a long and awkward story about how it became known as the ‘wheat’ phase. All that anyone should know is that it refers to the color of the fading foliage. It fades from green to golden brown, just like ‘wheat’.

I say that the explanation is awkward because it involves an old skit by an offensive comedian on HBO in 1986, when the renowned landscape designer, Brent Green, was my college roommate.

Yes, we will just leave it at that.

Anyway, this is not at all unexpected. It is a normal process. I just wish it could be avoided. Every time I dig and can a palm, I hope that it will not happen; and I actually engage the associated palm as if it will somehow be different from the rest, and maintain all of its healthy green foliage. Some get through it more efficiently. Some start to produce new foliage before their old foliage dies off.

I actually relocated a mature windmill palm that somehow maintained the upper half of its canopy until it started to produce new foliage. That was all the fronds that were above a right angle to the trunk! I was impressed by that one. It was very different though. Most of the roots had already been damaged prior to relocation. Also, it was relocated in autumn, so had all winter to start recovery.

This unfortunate palm was dug not very long ago, just as the cool and rainy weather of winter was ending. Now that the weather is suddenly warming to around 80 degrees, the foliage is resuming vascular activity that the severed roots can not sustain. To compensate, it will shed this foliage that is now browning, while diverting resources into new foliage and roots. It knows what it is doing.

The new fronds that are still folded up in the middle are just fine. They will unfold into healthy new fronds as the palm recovers through summer. The first few fronds might be a bit stunted, but that is just part of the process. Newly relocated palms tend to accelerate foliar growth during such recovery, so, in just a few months, this cute little palm may look as good as it did when I canned it here.

Six on Saturday: Talk To The Palm


That is how horticulturists say, “Talk to the hand.” During the past three and a half decades that I have been working with landscape designer, Brent Green, I have deduced that there is not a specimen of Washingtonia filifera in the Santa Clara Valley, or anywhere else for that mater, who is any more interested by what I have to say than he is. Nonetheless, I appreciate palms.

1. Rats! I thought that was who chewed on a petiole of my favorite young windmill palm from Western San Jose. However, this picture shows several small slices made with a straight blade!P00222-1

2. Pleats of an aging fronds of the same windmill palm demonstrate that surfaces exposed to the south deteriorate before those exposed to the north. The frond was tilted up for this picture.P00222-2

3. Windmill palm seedling is one of a few that I pulled from a landscape nearby, but could not bear to discard without at least trying to find a home for them; as if we need another palm here.P00222-3

4. Hesper palm is more interesting. I brought two here while they were nearly dead. The other did not survive. This one tried to recover, died back again, and is now trying to recover again.P00222-4

5. McCurtain scrub palm seed that I was so pleased to procure earlier is what is obscured just below the surface in this flat. I am concerned that the compost might not have been ready.P00222-5

6. Seed of other odd species of palm were found in a package that had been in storage for a few years. As if we need another palm here, all will get sown. Sadly, few are likely to still be viable.P00222-6

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

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.


P71108A plant that clings to another plant for support without parasitizing it is an epiphyte. Some do it to get a bit more sunlight closer to the ceiling of a dense forest. Others do it to get up off of the forest floor to avoid competition with conventionally terrestrial plants. Maybe some just want to avoid grazing animals. It is often difficult to determine why plants do what they do.

Spider plants, ephiphyllums and many types of orchids, bromeliads and ferns are some of the more familiar epiphytes. Most do not actually cling to trees. They instead live in the crotches of limbs where debris from the foliar canopy above accumulates. Either way, they do not need much organic matter in which to disperse their roots, and some need none at all. Many collect what they need from the air and precipitation.

This is not about an epiphyte.

It is about a Mexican fan palm that thought it was epiphyte.

You might have though that the picture above depicts a common Mexican fan palm next to a surly London planetree. With closer inspection, you will notice that the palm lacks a trunk at ground level. The utility pole visible below the palm is not attached to it, and does not support it. Yet, the palm does not just hover there. It grew from a cavity in the London planetree.

Most of us know how many plants self sow in weird places. Sometimes they appear where they are welcome. Usually, they end up in pots with other plants, too close to pavement, or in rain gutters that have not been cleaned out enough. Of course, big trees commonly appear under utility cables. Once in a while something self sows in a decaying cavity of a tree.

Most of us have enough sense to remove self sown trees and plants that appears where they can not live for long without causing problems. Those of us who hire gardeners tend to trust and hope that the gardeners would exhibit the same sort of common sense. After all, that is part of what they are payed significant money for.

Unfortunately, Mexican fan palms are not epiphytic. They are just too heavy, even when young.