A Paradise of Palms

Canary Island palm (Phoenix canariensis)

Canary Island palm (Phoenix canariensis)

Palms are the most elegant landscape trees, and now is the time to think about planting them.
Unlike other trees, whose root growth occurs in the fall, palm tree roots do their growing in hot weather, when nights are warm. This is why summer is the season for planting palms.
Success with palms depends, in large measure, on immediate resumption of root growth after planting or transplanting. In the opinion of Desmond Muirhead, author of the classic “Palms,” “dig as big a hole as time and your back will stand.” Fill the hole with a mix that contains one-half compost and one-half topsoil or construction-grade sand.
Although palms are tough, and may survive if they are just “stuck in the ground,” their rate of growth and overall health – for years to come – will be improved vastly by proper planting.
Angelenos may wonder, “Why fuss about growing palms? Don’t they grow up everywhere?”
The ubiquitous palm of which they are thinking is the Washingtonia or W. filifera, a California native, or W. robusta, whose habitat is Mexico. Seeds of these trees are produced in abundance and germinate as volunteers in everyone’s garden.
Washingtonias may grow to more than 80 feet. W. filifera, which you see growing in arroyos just outside Palm Springs, is the petticoat or bearded fan palm, notorious for wearing its dead fronds as a gray beard. W. robusta is taller and thinner than W. filifera; it is self-cleaning and beardless. If you live here for long, Washingtonias can get tiresome, with their sky-high growth and mop-headedness.
Unfortunately, when some people think of palms, they see nothing but Washingtonias. Often, familiarity with Washingtonias in particular can breed contempt for palms in general. This is not fair for the palm family.
There are several palm species, smaller and easier to manage than Wahingtonias, which deserve consideration for exterior or interior landscape use.
Chamaerops humilis, the Mediterranean fan palm, is the only palm native to Europe. This species usually is multitrunked, its branches twisting and spiraling at all angles to a height of 15 feet. Its leaves also show enormous variation. There is an excellent specimen growing at the entrance to the Panorama City Mall.
Trachycarpus fortunei, the windmill palm, is a single-trunked palm that grows no more than 30 feet tall. It is the most cold-tolerant palm – surviving at 5 degrees – but is sensitive to excessive heat and wind. It does best when planted in groups of five or seven in the shade of taller trees.
It has an unmistakable dark brown, hairy trunk, which is narrowed at the base. There is a beautiful cluster of windmill palms on the jail facility grounds in Lancaster, should you ever have the opportunity to visit there.
There are two other hardy palms of note. One is Butia capitata, or pindo palm, with distinctively arching fronds and edible fruit; the other is Brahea (Erythea) armata, the Mexican blue palm, with a silvery-blue sheen all its own. These palms may be viewed when entering Pierce College from Winnetka Avenue, just inside the campus grounds.
Four date palms are encountered locally. The most common is Phoenix canariensis, the Canary Island Palm, which is used as a colonnade tree along entries to resort hotels; when fronds are pruned, the upper trunk has a “pineapple look.” Phoenix reclinata is the multi-trunked date that is associated with desert islands, castaways and certain television series. A magnificent example welcomes you at the entrance to the arboretum in Arcadia. Phoenix roebelenii, the pygmy date, takes 10 years to grow 10 feet, and has the look of a tall fern. Phoenix dactylifera is the commercially grown date palm, encountered but rarely in Los Angeles; although it is capable of growing in our city, we do not have the blistering heat needed to ripen its fruit. Date palms are dioecious, meaning that plants are either male or female; you need at least one of each to produce fruit.
Although all palms make excellent container plants, the Chamaedoreas or bamboo plants are especially good for shaded patios. The best two genera for indoor use are Rhapis, the lady palms, and Howea, the Kentia palms.
All palm lovers should experience the large grove of king palms (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) in the Virginia Robinson Garden, which is open to the public, in Beverly Hills. Walking beneath these trees, you get a taste of what a tropical rain forest is like.

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