July 1st, 2015
Lots of palms we grow here in California are fiercely armed. Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) defend themselves with ferocious needles at the base of their leaves that can leave easily infected wounds, while the Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta) carries pretty-but-mean teeth on its leaf stalks – less piercing than Canary Island date palms’ needles but still no fun to get bitten by. In many cases we don’t confront the armature on palms because it’s around the delicate heart of the crown, separated from us by the softer fans or feathers on the outside – as in the species cited above. But still, for designers and gardeners using palms in areas where people are frequently passing through or kids are running around, it’s important to find the palms that don’t bite and won’t injure us.
Fortunately, lots of palms pose little or no menace to gardeners and garden-lovers. Plenty of palms lack spines and offer smooth, fuzzy, or nubbly textures. Some palms, like the thick-trunked Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis) even seem to invite hugging. Many palms’ stiff leaves can be a bit poky, but no more so than any twiggy shrub or tree, and many palms’ leaves, designed to sway in the wind, can easily occupy spaces that woody plants cannot because it’s such a pleasure for us to brush them as we pass; we become tiny figures in nature’s grandeur.
Here’s a list of painless – or at least unarmed – palm species for Bay Area gardens:
- Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, king palm (Northern California Sunset zones 16 – 17)
- Brahea calcarea (nitida), shiny rock palm (14 – 17)
- Brahea edulis, Guadalupe palm (8 – 9, 14 – 17)
- Brahea ‘Super Silver’, super silver rock palm (14 – 17)
- Caryota spp., fishtail palms (but don’t handle the rarely seen fruits) (16 – 17)
- Ceroxylon spp., Andean wax palms (15 – 17)
- Chamaedorea spp., bamboo palms (8 – 9, 14 – 17)
- Dypsis spp. (14 – 17)
- Hedyscepe canterburyana, umbrella palm, big mountain palm (17)
- Howea forsteriana, kentia palm, and H. belmoreana, curly palm (17)
- Jubaea chilensis, Chilean wine palm, palma chilena, coquito (7 – 9, 14 – 17)
- Lytocaryum spp., miniature coconut palms (15 – 17)
- Nannorhops ritchiana, Mazari palm (8 – 9, 14 – 16)
- Parajubaea spp., Andean coconut palms, Pasopaya palm, coquito (14 – 17)
- Pritchardia spp., loulu palms, Hawaiian fan palms (17)
- Rhapis spp., lady palms (9, 14 – 17)
- Rhopalostylis sapida, nikau palm (15 – 17); R. baueri, Norfolk Island palm (17)
- Sabal spp., palmettos (7 – 9, 14 – 17)
- Syagrus romanzoffiana, queen palm (14 – 17)
- Trachycarpus spp., windmill palms (7 – 9, 14 – 17)
- Wallichia densiflora, dwarf fishtail palm
We’re always happy to talk more about palm options for your gardens. Give us a call! 415-648-2670.
January 3rd, 2015
Welcome to the Palm Broker at Flora Grubb Gardens. We grow and sell Bay Area-loving palms of all kinds: tall skyline trees, dainty shade-loving types, elegant garden-size varieties, and versatile shrubby palms.
Jason Dewees, the main man behind the Palm Broker, will work with you to choose the right varieties for your landscape with an eye for design impact and climate suitability. He is also available for consultations on choosing the right plants for your garden and understanding how to care for or change your existing garden plantings.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and 415-694-6445 , or swing by Flora Grubb Gardens to talk to us.
December 8th, 2014
Our customer emailed upon the installation of her new Guadalupe palm (Brahea edulis), “It’s so cute, I am going to wrap the trunk with lights for xmas. I feel like I have a new pet.” It was a great feeling to know how pleased our customer is with her new palm. We make a big effort to provide the best choices for each customer’s situation.
It's always a thrill to see a big palm going into its new home, especially when it's the perfect species for the climate and soils there.
Because it’s a near-native of California and is adapted to a winter rainy season, autumn and winter are a great time to plant Guadalupe palms. Here’s the new beauty all settled-in for the next nurturing rainstorm.
Guadalupe palms are fog-loving, drought-tolerant, cold-hardy, and modest in height. They drop old leaves cleanly, thrive in shade or sunshine, and lack spines on their leaves. There's hardly a better palm choice for Bay Area gardens.
As soon as we have photos of the tree decorated with Christmas lights, we’ll post an update.
September 27th, 2013
Images of the languid coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) fringing tropical beaches often make palms seem like the right plant for a coastal garden, San Francisco’s bracing fog and wind notwithstanding. And, indeed, certain palms hold up pretty well to the onslaught of weather out by Ocean Beach: They can be among the toughest plants for coastal gardens. But it’s important to choose the right species and give these plants regular fertilizer and watering, especially in sandy soils.
Exposures: Harsh & Mild
West- and northwest-facing coastlines (such as Ocean Beach, Pacifica, Bodega Bay, and Half Moon Bay) take the brunt of prevailing cold winds; higher terrain behind the coast can moderate the onslaught of weather (as at Muir Beach and Monterey). South- and southwest-facing shores with mountains to their north get the best protection and warmth – spots like Santa Cruz and Stinson Beach.
Near the Bay, shore areas range from ocean-chilly, like Crissy Field, Treasure Island, and the marinas of Emeryville and Berkeley, to arguably subtropical, like the warm, calm lee sides of Belvedere and Tiburon.
A List of Palms for Our Coast
Below is a list of palms that tolerate coastal conditions in the Bay Area. Most of these can be grown north and south along the California coast, as well.
- Chamaerops humilis, the Mediterranean fan palm
- Butia odorata (capitata), the pindo palm
- Brahea edulis, the Guadalupe palm
- Phoenix canariensis, the Canary Island date palm
- Phoenix dactylifera, the true date palm, and Phoenix reclinata, the Senegal date palm
- Washingtonia robusta, the Mexican fan palm
- Brahea armata var. clara, the clara palm
- Livistona australis, L. nitida, the Australian fan palms
- Howea forsteriana, the kentia palm
- Parajubaea torallyi, P. cocoides, P. sunkha, the Andean coconuts
- Trachycarpus wagnerianus, the waggie palm, and T. fortunei, the Chinese windmill palm
- Jubaea chilensis, the Chilean wine palm
- Rhopalostylis sapida, the nikau palm
The Mediterranean fan palm, Chamaerops humilis is native to seaside locations as well as scrub-covered hills around the western Mediterranean sea. This shrubby palm is perhaps the most tolerant of our own coastal conditions here in Northern California and harmonizes well with the native coastal scrub landscape. Over time and with proper pruning it can attain a small palm-tree shape, even evoking a paradisiacal island with its cluster of leaning trunks. Its ability to endure drought thanks to its Mediterranean origin adds to its usefulness and appeal. Look for specimens of this palm in the median of Sloat Boulevard near the San Francisco Zoo and in containers in front of the Cliff House (which we supplied). It’s also tolerant of moderate shade even in the fog belt. The silver variety, Chamaerops humilis var. argentea, from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, should be equally tolerant of seaside conditions but will lose some of its silvery sheen in the coastal climate. Both varieties have sharp little thorns inside their crowns but are perfectly comfortable to brush past.
The pindo palm, Butia odorata (formerly known as B. capitata) comes from southern Brazil and Uruguay, where it is used on the seaside and a close cousin, Butia catarinensis, finds its native habitat right on the dunes. The pindo palm is remarkably tolerant of seaside conditions in California, as well, and, like the Mediterranean fan palm, looks beautiful in a container and tolerates moderate shade. It’s quite drought-tolerant once established but summer irrigation and fertilizing will improve its growth speed and coastal performance.
Brahea edulis, the Guadalupe palm: A beautiful palm for the central California coast comes from an island off the Baja California coast, Guadalupe Island, home to many of our familiar natives like feltleaf ceanothus (Ceanothus arboreus), pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), and a form of Monterey pine (Pinus radiata var. binata). The Guadalupe palm grows like a native plant, thriving in fog-bearing winds and summer drought. It’s much more at home here on the coast than is our state’s native palm (Washingtonia filifera), which suffers from fungal diseases in the fog belt, and its performance is superior here to that of the Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta. Again, like Mediterranean fan palm and the pindo palm, it tolerates shade and does well in a container. It can be seen in Sea Cliff on the west side of 25th Avenue just north of Sea Cliff Avenue, and near the San Francisco Zoo on the north side of Wawona St. between 44th and 45th avenues.
Phoenix canariensis, the Canary Island date palm, originates in the Canary Islands, a misty, semi-desert, Mediterranean-climate environment similar to the Guadalupe palm’s home. This most familiar palm (it’s the big one on Dolores Street, Market Street, and The Embarcadero) reaches huge proportions, with a trunk up to two-feet-thick and a crown spanning 20 feet. See them on China Beach in Sea Cliff, just uphill on El Camino Del Mar between 30th Avenue and Sea Cliff Avenue in the street median planting, and in Sutro Heights park. Besides size, its major fault is that it’s susceptible to a fatal fungal disease called fusarium wilt. Otherwise it’s a majestic, vibrant green, drought- and wind-tolerant palm for coastal landscapes.
Thinner and grayer than the Canary Island date palm, the true date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, is tolerant of coastal conditions but much slower-growing than its cousin and takes years to establish here. On the upside, it’s not susceptible to dying of fusarium wilt. Because it is a cultivated fruit tree, it’s available in several varieties, but it will not produce edible fruit in our landscapes. Grow one yourself from the pit of dates you eat; just know that it will test your patience. The types to seek for specimen (instant) landscape planting are ‘Zahidi’ and ‘Medjool’ because they tolerate our moist-air conditions better than others. See a grand trio of ‘Zahidi’ at the northernmost extension of 25th Avenue in Sea Cliff, half a block from Baker Beach.
The Senegal date palm, Phoenix reclinata, is a moderate-size palm that naturally grows in a clump evocative of that sandy islet that everyone wants to honeymoon on. It’s just as slow-growing in our heat-starved fog belt as the true date palm discussed above, but it does tolerate salty, sandy, and windy conditions, and with proper care it can add bright, shiny green foliage and (purely ornamental) carrot-orange fruits to a coastal garden. Probably better planted around the Bay, where warmer days increase its growth rate, it can be useful started as a larger specimen in chillier ocean-side landscapes.
The clara palm, Brahea armata var. clara, contributes a silvery-blue color to the landscape. Native to Sonora, Mexico, it is a desert palm that tolerates humid air, and it grows steadily even in the absence of desert heat. New to the horticultural palette, it’s proving to be so vigorous in Bay-side gardens (particularly at Emeryville’s yacht harbor) that we feel it’s a worthy choice for coastal gardens at least from the Bay Area southward, and possibly farther north.
We call the Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta, the cockroach of palms because it endures a tremendous range of growing conditions – including coastal. However, the closer to the beach it’s growing, the less attractive it is, especially where it’s windblown and deprived of fertilizer and water. Nonetheless, it’s cheap, relatively fast-growing, and probably reaches the greatest height of any palm you could choose on this list. In the deep fog belt, plant it in as sunny and wind-protected a location as possible. See it at Crissy Field, and at McLaren and El Camino Del Mar in Sea Cliff.
Livistona australis, the Australian fan palm, inhabits forests on the east coast of New South Wales, where it can be seen growing nearly up to the beach. Plant this lush, steadily growing species in the lee of a building or of hedges to give it protection while it gets established. One specimen can be seen on the north side of El Camino Del Mar near 30th Avenue in Sea Cliff, amongst a pair of Chinese windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei), which also appreciate this lee-side planting advantage. Its cousin from inland Queensland, the shiny Australian fan palm, Livistona nitida, has also proven tolerant of coastal conditions in southwest Ireland, in a climate at least as heat-deprived as our coast.
Photo by Axel Kratel
A choice palm adapted to windy seasides is the kentia palm, Howea forsteriana, from Australia’s Lord Howe Island, where its natural habitat extends nearly to the beach. It’s a moderate-size palm with weeping, rustling green fronds, a green ringed trunk, and a tendency to lean gently like a coconut palm. The only plants we know of near the beach in San Francisco are on 45th Avenue near Judah Street; they’re a bit rough but still make an impact. Two groves fringe the entrance to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. This species does not tolerate much frost: We can recommend it for the mildest urban and bayside locations but not for anywhere frost forms regularly on car windshields. It tends to look better if grown in shade in its early years.
A genus of palms from high altitudes in the Andes that appears to tolerate bayside winds and – surprisingly – some minor salt exposure is Parajubaea, in particular the Bolivian P. torallyi var. torallyi, which we have been observing for the past few years at Emery Cove Yacht Harbor on San Francisco Bay facing the Golden Gate in Emeryville. We call these Andean coconuts because they superficially resemble their distant cousin the coconut palm, and produce small, edible, coconut-like seeds. A palm enthusiast who gardens with seaside exposure in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, reports success with the other two species in the genus, P. cocoides, and P. sunkha, in addition to Parajubaea torallyi var. torallyi and P. torallyi var. microcarpa. These plants are all rather speedy growers in cool-summer climates, and perform much better than the common queen palm, to which they’re also related.
ABOVE: Specimens of the waggie palm, Trachycarpus fortunei ‘Wagnerianus’, have tight, wind-tolerant foliage.
ABOVE: The Chinese windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, features a furry trunk, just like its cultivar, T. fortunei ‘Wagnerianus’.
ABOVE: At left, Trachycarpus fortunei ‘Wagnerianus’ makes a cute corner cluster; the repetition of form in foliage and growth habit is pleasing. The robust Trachycarpus takil bears much larger leaves on at stouter trunk, pictured at right.
The extremely cold-hardy Chinese windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, and the waggie palm, T. fortunei ‘Wagnerianus’, are quite wind-tolerant and tolerate the chill, if not the salt, at the coast. These are best planted in the lee of a building or hedges and given adequate irrigation and fertilizer. Beautiful plants can be seen along Vancouver’s beaches. In our drier, harsher summers, they appreciate regular irrigation when grown near salt water. Also, this species demands companions – never plant just one: They look silly on their own. The rare Trachycarpus takil is a larger-scale species (pictured at bottom and just above that on the right) newly available that will likely endure conditions similar to those tolerated by T. fortunei.
Photo by Amarguy
The majestic Chilean wine palm, Jubaea chilensis, inhabits coast-side locations in its central Chile native habitat, where growing conditions are very similar to coastal central California. Its tough leaves resist wind and established plants tolerate drought. While Jubaea should tolerate the coast pretty well, we have not seen established plants growing right by the sea in Northern California. There is no question that it surpasses the similar-scale Canary Island date palm in tolerance of our fog, and chill and equals the Canary in its wind-tolerance. Admire the pair of specimens in front of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, and the grand champion over on JFK Drive at Fuchsia Dell Drive in the Park.
New Zealand’s native palm is the nikau, Rhopalostylis sapida. If you know anything about common garden plants in San Francisco, you know that New Zealand is the origin of many of our best, because our two climates are quite similar. The nikau likes cool, humid weather, and in its native habitat occupies forests near the sea, even sometimes growing where exposed directly to ocean winds. To succeed in these conditions it must have sufficient moisture and be given the shady protection of shrubs or trees (or buildings) as a young plant. But it’s such a stunning plant that it’s worth coddling. See this species planted in a grove at the Wildfowl Pond inside the San Francisco Botanical Garden, or on 17th Avenue near Wawona, in the Parkside District of San Francisco.
Visit a Young Bayside Palm Planting
A visit to the landscape at Emery Cove Yacht Harbor will give you an idea of the performance of a number of unusual palm species given excellent care in a bayside microclimate exposed to ocean winds through the Golden Gate. Look for the Guadalupe palm, the pindo palm, the Andean “Bolivian coconut,” Parajubaea torallyi var. torallyi, the clara palm, the kentia palm, the Chinese windmill palm, and the queen palm (which last species we don’t recommend for coastal landscapes). Nearby Trad’r Vic’s Emeryville is host to tall, nicely grown Mexican fan palms.
May 16th, 2013
Recently we read SFGate’s coverage of a problem we’ve been aware of for a long time: the demise of many Canary Island date palms on San Francisco’s Embarcadero due to fusarium wilt. Then we got a call from KTVU Channel 2 News, who interviewed us for a news segment about the problem.
A dead Phoenix canariensis viewed against the Ferry Building. Photo by Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle.
At the time of their planting, Canary Island date palms were a great choice for the redesign of The Embarcadero.
Here’s the comment we appended to the SFGate article:
“The City’s choice of replacement palm is the “Medjool” variety of the true date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, which does not succumb to the fungus – Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Canariensis – that attacks Canary Island date palms.
“Wherever possible, we recommend using the Chilean wine palm, Jubaea chilensis, in place of the Canary Island date palm, because it is even more majestic, immune to Fusarium wilt, and equally well adapted and a bit hardier to cold and drought. Unfortunately it is not available in quantity at the size required for replacement along the Embarcadero.
“Neither true date palms nor Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) are tropical plants. The latter prefers a mild Mediterranean climate and, for better or worse, reproduces profusely here in San Francisco; even if we stopped planting it, seedlings would continue to crop up all over town – it’s *that* happy here. It has been cultivated in San Francisco since the 19th century. It is also a staple of the landscape in cities that San Franciscans tend to admire more than LA: Barcelona, Rome, Athens, Melbourne, Sydney, Cape Town, Lisbon. Anxiety about Los Angeles should not blind us to the beauty available to us as inhabitants of a mild Mediterranean climate.
“The notion that they “look out of place here” is rarely applied to the myriad other trees and plants that originate in their home region, e.g., Canary Island pines, Madeira-native Echium candicans, the immensely popular aeonium succulents from the Canary Islands, etc. When it comes to trees, the only ones native to San Francisco are coast live oak, buckeye, some (shrubby) willows, and possibly bay trees. None of these work in place of those palms on the Embarcadero.
“Before Fusarium wilt, the tolerance of Canary Island date palms to the constraints of avenue planting with overhead wires for transit recommended them. It was not a fantasy of San Francisco as tropical island idyll…Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…True date palms, a desert species, are a sufficient if not perfect replacement…
It’s helpful to compare another mass planting of a single tree species on an important San Francisco street: London plane trees (Platanus x acerifolia) on Market Street. When chosen during BART’s construction in the early 1970s, they were not known to suffer from the disfiguring diseases that now attack them each year starting in April, causing continual leaf drop and premature defoliation. Unlike lethal fusarium wilt on Canary Island date palms, the mash-up of fungal infections (nurtured by our chilly, humid summers) on London planes does not kill them – it only leaves them covered in powdery mildew and yellow spots. On the upside, just as Canary Island date palms are the favorite home of many species of birds, Market Street’s London plane trees have come to support large numbers of the gorgeous Western tiger swallowtail butterfly and the birds that prey on them.
August 11th, 2012
Our friend Matt Ritter wrote a column in the recent Pacific Horticulture on choice palms for West Coast gardens. He quoted us on our favorites — palms with wide cultural tolerances that are unusual but still available to the motivated gardener and designer. The fastest-growing of the three we discussed is Brahea armata var. clara, the Sonoran fan palm.
A pair of Sonoran blue palms rises above a Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ssp. aztecorum)
Our neighbors around the corner at the wastewater treatment plant have planted a trio of Brahea armata var. clara in a low-water garden. We think they look smashing, of course.
The landscape crew is applying a warm gold decomposed granite gravel that offsets the blue-green of the palm fronds.
For the first few years they’ll need regular dry-season irrigation to get established, but after a while they’ll need only occasional deep watering to look good.
The treatment plant's tan cladding gains in the contrast with the vibrancy of the palms, planted as 36-inch boxed specimens..
A variant of the more commonly cultivated Baja California native Brahea armata (Mexican blue palm), the “clara” grows faster in California’s cool-summer climates and tolerates our higher humidities. It seems to suffer little damage at temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and possibly lower. Its fronds are softer than the Baja strain’s and rustle nicely in the wind.
They look -- and sound -- beautiful in the wind, here paired in the nursery with Agonis flexuosa 'Jervis Bay Afterdark'.
Eventually they will develop 18- or even 24-inch-thick trunks with crowns spanning 10 feet. Upon maturity they will produce garlands of cream-colored flowers that resemble marabou stoles. Spent leaves may remain attached to the trunk in the manner of the familiar Washingtonia robusta (Mexican fan palm), or they can be pruned off as they fade from blue-green to yellow and finally to straw color. Leafstalks (petioles) connecting the big fans to the trunk are armed with curved teeth: menacing to the eye but less painful than most roses’ thorns.
A view up into the crown of a Sonoran blue palm reveals the petioles that connect the fan-shaped leaf blades to the trunk.
We’re bullish on claras. We hope they’ll become popular additions to the landscape in the years to come. They’re easy to care for and add a sensuous silvery tone to the garden.
May 19th, 2012
We gave a talk today about palms — with botanical facts, ideas for using them in the landscape, and information on growing them successfully. We handed out notes to the people who attended, presented below:
Selecting palm species
- Screen by these criteria: aesthetic appeal, design function, frost-tolerance, heat requirements, wind tolerance, sun tolerance, and water needs. Most soils can be amended.
Exceptional choices for the cool-summer Bay Area:
Rhopalostylis spp. (nikau & Norfolk palms)
Parajubaea spp. (Andean “coquito” palms)
Trachycarpus spp. (windmill palms)
Brahea edulis (Guadalupe palm)
Chamaedorea spp. (bamboo palms)
Livistona spp. (Australian & Chinese fan palms)
Jubaea chilensis (Chilean wine palm)
Howea forsteriana (kentia or paradise palm)
Hedyscepe canterburyana (umbrella palm)
Ceroxylon spp. (wax palms)
Arenga micrantha (Tibetan sugar palm)
Excellent choices for inland extremes:
Butia odorata (pindo palm)
Brahea spp. (Mexican blue palm and many others)
Jubaea chilensis (Chilean wine palm)
Chamaerops humilis (Mediterranean fan palm)
C. humilis var. argentea AKA “cerifera” (blue Atlas fan palm)
Dypsis decipiens (Manambe palm)
Livistona decora (ribbon palm)
L. nitida (shiny Australian fan palm)
L. australis (Australian fan palm)
Trithrinax spp. (Argentine fan palm)
Sabal spp. (palmettos)
Trachycarpus spp. (windmill palms)
Phoenix dactylifera (true date palms)
Washingtonia filifera (California fan palm)
Rhapidophyllum hystrix (needle palm)
Nannorhops ritchiana (Mazari palm)
For ocean-side or windy bayside locations:
*Worth a try: Parajubaea, Howea, Livistona nitida, L. australis, Rhopalostylis, Phoenix reclinata, P. sylvestris, P. dactylifera ‘Zahidi’ & ‘Medjool’, Sabal, Trithrinax
Banana-belt treats for the Mission, Telegraph Hill, Oakland, Tiburon, Los Altos Hills, Santa Cruz hills:
Pritchardia minor (Hawaiian fan palm)
Archontophoenix cunninghamiana (king palm)
Dypsis baronii (hardy areca palm)
Caryota maxima & C. obtusa/gigas (fishtail palms)
Ravenea glauca (mini-majesty palm)
Rhapis spp. (lady palms)
Livistona chinensis (Chinese fan palm)
Notes on common species:
o Washingtonia: W. robusta, the Mexican fan palm and the “cockroach” of palms, will tolerate but not look good in the chilly fog belt, while it will thrive but get occasional winter foliar damage in the coldest inland climates. It’s also often the wrong selection because it gets too tall. The California fan palm, W. filifera suffers fatal fungal infections anywhere with significant summer marine influence (zones 15-17). In very wet-winter regions its crown suffers through winter & spring, but in inland extremes it thrives.
o Phoenix canariensis: Because of the risk of fatal fusarium wilt on Canary Island date palms, it’s best to use Jubaea chilensis wherever possible instead; specimens of the latter are expensive and rare, however.
o Phoenix dactylifera: Selections ‘Zahidi’ and ‘Medjool’ tolerate our cool, humid summers better than the cheaper and more common ‘Deglet Noor’. True date palms can also replace Canary Island date palms where specimens are needed.
o Syagrus romanzoffiana: the queen palm is a good choice for a fast-growing, narrow, medium-size palm tree where summers are slightly warmer than the foggiest districts and moisture and fertilizer can be provided. In windy, chilly-summer neighborhoods west of Arguello or Masonic it looks terrible. Inland it will thrive and quickly reach maturity but can be killed by the rarest 30-to-50-year freezes. It’s at its best where winter temperatures stay above 25F and summer highs consistently surpass 70F.
o Trachycarpus fortunei: The Chinese windmill palm can tolerate drought, wind, and some neglect, but at the expense of looking trashy and parched. The best-looking Chinese windmills get even moisture, some shade when young, and fertilizer that includes magnesium. They also benefit aesthetically from group planting and you can give them an updated look by pruning off the furry leafbases. Prettier cousins are T. wagnerianus, T. martianus, and T. latisectus.
Growing Palms in the Bay Area
- Good drainage & consistent water: few palms tolerate drying out, and few tolerate cold, wet roots.
- Fertilizer: Apply NPK 3-1-3 + 1 magnesium in March, June & September.
- Plant small for best adaptation and speediest growth.
- Palms start growing slowly and accelerate.
- Good to plant slow-growing species large.
- Palms are slow to adapt to increased light levels.
Planting & Transplanting
- Spring-summer best season.
- Never manipulate rootballs.
- Tight fit with foundations & walls works fine.
- Keep original rootball moist and irrigate surrounding soil to encourage establishment.
- Repetition & naturalism: in groves, at differing heights
- Not just trees: shrubs, screens, containers, understory foliage, and the role nothing else can match, palm.
- One palm does not equal one tree.
Portraits of Random Rare Palms for SF Bay Area:
Parajubaea torallyi var. torallyi
A fast-growing, very rare, majestic tree from high in the Bolivian Andes. Looks like a husky coconut palm. Give it full sun, good drainage, ample water, regular fertilizer, and stand back and watch it develop into a graceful and substantial palm with a hefty, fiber-clad trunk and finely divided pinnate leaves. Once established, it will tolerate drought. Can reach 20 feet tall in 15 years. Produces edible miniature coconuts. Enjoys the Bay Area’s cool and warm microclimates and will tolerate moderate frosts. Plant as young as possible and with no root disturbance. Minor seashore tolerance, but otherwise adaptable from the foggy Outer Sunset to Walnut Creek (Sunset zones 14-17).
- Feather palm; no crownshaft
- Max height: 80 feet in 100 years
- Max crown breadth: 20 feet
- Extremely rare
- Fast growth
This exquisite and rare coconut look-alike graces the colonial streets of Quito, Ecuador, and other Andean cities. No other palm looks more like a coconut overall. It produces a lush crown of shiny, dark-green leaves atop a rather slender trunk. Extinct in the wild, it’s one of the fastest growing palms for San Francisco and other bayside climates, requiring our cool summers to thrive. Tolerates light frosts. Plant as young as possible in its permanent, full-sun location – it will not tolerate root disturbance – provide ample water and fertilizer, and within 15 years it will be a 15-foot tree producing one-tenth-scale edible coconuts. Not likely to tolerate seashore conditions, but otherwise it is happy in the foggiest locales as well as in mild areas ringing the Bay (Sunset zones 16-17). Once established, it will survive occasional drought but prefers regular water.
- Feather palm; no crownshaft
- Max height: 50 feet in 75 years
- Max spread: 17 feet
- Edible seed
- Uniquely adapted to SF Bay Area climate
- Fast growth
Big Mountain Palm
One of the most colorful, clean-looking and graceful palms we can grow in San Francisco, this native of Australia’s tiny Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific develops a powdery blue-green trunk and crownshaft, apple-green foliage, and lipstick-red fruits the size of robin’s eggs. It prefers a bright, semi-shaded position in well-drained soil, and regular water and fertilizer. Its slow growth and modest proportions make it perfect for small gardens, reaching 10 feet in 30 years, with a crown spanning five feet. It tolerates light frosts but should be planted only in San Francisco and the most protected climates of other bayside and coastal cities like Sausalito, Belvedere, Oakland and Berkeley (Sunset zone 17). Minimize root disturbance upon planting. Thrives in the foggiest neighborhoods, but not especially tolerant of direct coastal exposure.
- Feather palm; crowshaft
- Max height: 30 feet in 75 years
- Max spread: 3-5 feet
- Exceptionally beautiful
Little Mountain Palm
The perfect fog-belt palm, this extraordinarily rare species grows in one half-square kilometer area atop a windy, mist-draped mountain on Australia’s tiny Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific. It’s a fast-growing, small tree that prefers “full fog” exposure west of Twin Peaks and Divisadero, and a bright but not roastingly sunny spot in banana belts of San Francisco and milder bayside and coastal climates (Sunset zone 17). In full shade it will grow happily but more slowly. Adapted to wind, but not direct coastal exposure. Its diminutive size (to six feet tall), clean, exotic appearance and adaptation to our unique climate make it an exceptional plant for San Francisco urban gardens, especially in those foggy zones.
- Feather palm; incomplete crownshaft; self-cleaning
- Max height: 6 feet
- Max spread: 3 feet
- Extremely rare
- Uniquely adapted to SF Bay Area climate
Coffee-Belt Andean Wax Palm
One of the endangered wax palms of the Andes, this tall Columbian cloud-forest tree will function as a luxuriant foliage element for decades before developing its slender trunk and becoming a spectacular skyline feature. Plant in bright shade or half-sun in rich, well-drained soil, water regularly, and it will steadily produce long, dark-green, glossy, silver-satin-backed leaves. Tolerant of light to moderate frosts, it is best in foggy coastal and humid bayside climates (Sunset zones 16-17 and mild, redwood-dominated parts of 15). Not tolerant of direct coastal exposure.
- Feather palm; loose crownshaft; self-cleaning
- Max height: 100 feet in 100 years
- Max spread: 15 feet
- Exceptionally beautiful
- Uniquely adapted to SF Bay Area climate
A cold-hardy and beautiful rare fan palm from Queensland, Australia, this fast-growing species is adaptable to inland as well as bayside and even fogbound climates. The well-proportioned, elegant crown grows atop a tall, ramrod-straight, slender trunk. Plant in full or half sun in well-drained soil, water moderately, and fertilize regularly for speedy growth to 10 to 15 feet in 15 years. Probably at its best in warm-summer areas, it will also provide great satisfaction in foggy zones (Sunset zones 8-9, 14-17).
- Fan palm
- Max height: 100 feet in 100 years
- Max spread: 18 feet
Baby Queen Palm
The fastest-growing, most adaptable, and best-scaled palm for small gardens, this delightful native of Chiapas, Mexico, tolerates light to moderate frosts, deep shade or nearly full sun, and wind, among other bugaboos of San Francisco gardening. Its fluffy leaves quickly rise on a thin green stem to create a languorous, weeping crown in deep shade, or a crown resembling a small queen palm in full sun. It appreciates ample water and fertilizer, but, once established, it will tolerate dry periods. Shoehorn it into narrow light wells, or plant it out to give vertical definition in broad, exposed spaces. In the windiest and coldest districts, plant in a protected lee spot, but otherwise it’s adaptable to most urban and coastal Bay Area climates (Sunset zones 15-17).
- Feather palm; crownshaft
- Max height: 20 feet in 15 years
- Max spread: 3 feet
- Small palm for small gardens
May 11th, 2012
Transplanting palms is pretty darn easy, but if you follow the procedures that are best for planting woody trees and shrubs you can slow their establishment or even kill certain species.
The University of Florida IFAS Extension has published a useful series of articles on palm cultivation, including one on transplanting palms by Timothy K. Broschat. It’s full of interesting photographs and clear info.
Because palms continually produce new roots from the base of the trunk, there’s no need to cut or unravel the rootball of containerized palms when they go into the landscape. And because new roots only develop from the base of the trunk, planting palms with their roots exposed can thwart the development of new roots and thus the healthy growth of the plant.
We see lots of palms planted too high and languishing, and we’ve made the mistake of ripping apart a rootball and waiting years for healthy new growth to emerge from the crown of leaves.
April 3rd, 2012
Somebody set fire to this Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) on 21st and Folsom streets in the Mission District. It used to have a full complement of green leaves and a thick skirt of straw-colored dead leaves. Now it’s almost schematic.
It's hard to tell that this was once a lush palm tree. But it will be one again.
This species of palm is one of the most hardy of all. It tolerates temperatures as low as 10F, sometimes even lower, and sheds snow like an A-frame. Though it prefers even moisture, it will tolerate drought; though it looks prettier in some shade, it grows well in full sun, too; while it’s best in well-drained soil, it seems to tolerate growing at creeksides and in clay. It does not do well in extremely hot desert and tropical environments.
In the aftermath of its pyromaniacal abuse, it’s already showing signs of regrowth.
See those cream-colored sock-puppety structures? Those are the bloom stalks!
A special appeal of the Chinese windmill palm is its showy spring flowerstalks (“inflorescences”). What a delightful surprise to see that after having its leaves devoured by fire, the tree still has plenty of stored energy for flowers. Maybe it will even make fruits.
If you look carefully into the skeletal crown you’ll see the green of the newest emerging leaf. The solitary leaf bud of this tree, located deep in the heart of the trunk apex, has not suffered and will be able to produce an entirely new crown of leaves. It’s fascinating to see the structure of the leaf arrangement laid bare by the fire, with only the thick petioles (stalks that connect the fans to the trunk) remaining after the ablation of the thin blades. It will be interesting to watch the tree regrow over the next couple of years.
A smart way to use this species as a street tree is to plant two or three of different heights to a single tree well. The repetition and correspondences between these smallish trees is more pleasing than a solitary exclamation point on the sidewalk.
We sell the species in 15-gallon containers and as boxed specimens.
Thanks to James DeVinny of San Francisco’s Bureau of Urban Forestry for the photos.
April 2nd, 2012
There’s a scourge destroying trees in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s a tiny insect, a thrips, called Klambothrips myopori, and it destroys only one kind of tree: Myoporum laetum. The Maori name for this New Zealand native plant is ngaio, and it’s a self-effacing workhorse found in landscapes all around the Bay.
Fast-growing and tolerant of drought and intense coastal exposure, myoporum has been a useful street tree, a good big hedge, and a billowy large shrub in no-water and low-water landscapes. Its bright, almost succulent evergreen leaves and fragrant white flowers flecked with lavender contribute a lushness to the often gray or olive tones of no-water landscapes. In Southern California, myoporum has become an invasive pest in waterways, especially near the coast, but in the Bay Area it’s not especially aggressive, though here’s an example of one growing at Calera Creek in Pacifica.
Wholesale growers in Santa Barbara have introduced a new variety of this species called Myoporum ‘Green N Clean’ that resists the thrips. However, because of the species’s invasive tendencies and the newness and thus limited availability of this thrips-resistant cultivar, now’s a good time to consider trees that can serve similar functions in the landscape.
In the Australian genus Melaleuca, tea trees, the many species can range from sprawling shrubs to upright trees; several can work well as fast-growing hedges and dome-shaped trees that tolerate moderate sea winds in the Bay Area. Many tolerate wet soils while offering good tolerance to drought as well. Many of them produce pleasing and even showy flowers. The snow-in-summer tree, Melaleuca linariifolia, makes a dome-like canopy with its tiny green leaves and its thick trunk covered in spongy, pale, peeling bark. In June pale-cream flowers cover its crown so thickly as to earn its common name. It’s not nearly so fast a grower as myoporum, but it’s also less prone to breakage and not known to be invasive in California. Other melaleucas that can take the place of Myoporum laetum include Melaleuca styphelioides, prickly paperbark, a slightly weeping variety with bristly leaves that can get much taller (70ft) but otherwise similar to M. linariifolia; and Melaleuca armillaris. The latter makes a luscious, sprawling informal hedge or can be trained into a wonderful tree. Unlike the previous two “paperbarks,” its bark resembles that of a linden or an American elm, with lovely sinuous striations developing over time, and its cream-colored flowers resemble bottlebrushes in form.
Another Australian tree that can serve in some of myoporum’s roles is the water gum, Tristaniopsis laurina, especially the broad-leafed variety called ‘Elegant’. Its resemblance comes in the form of deep, shiny green foliage and fairly good tolerance of coastal winds. Its rounded profile in youth also adds to the similarity, though its ultimate size surpasses that of myoporum. Also pleasing, and unlike myoporum, are its fragrant golden flowers and jigsaw-puzzle-like peeling bark.
For tolerance of salty and foggy winds, few plants can match Myoporum laetum. The drought-tolerant New Zealand Christmas tree, Metrosideros excelsa, bears up well in very foggy and windy districts of San Francisco but has not been used so extensively as myoporum on the front lines of coastal exposure in the Bay Area. In its home country it’s frequently photographed hanging out over salt water, and its Maori name, pohutukawa, means “sprinkled by spray.” These adaptations as well as its pleasing gray-green foliage and red bloom in spring and early summer should earn it more frequent planting in the harshest seaside places where myoporum has until now ruled. The downsides to this tree are its eventual size, ranging as tall as 70 feet and at least as wide, and, for some people, the aerial roots that hang down from its branches and sometimes develop into secondary trunks.
Natives such as Garrya elliptica (tassel bush), Rhus integrifolia (lemonade berry), Rhus ovata (sugar bush), and Malosma laurina (laurel sumac) can serve some of the shrub functions of myoporum in coastal areas. In slightly more protected spots, coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), California bay (Umbellularia californica), and toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) can reach tree-like proportions where salty winds have influence. For a showy, exotic alternative, consider planting Banksia praemorsa, the cut-leaf banksia. In its habitat on the south coast of Western Australia it is subjected to powerful winds off the Southern Ocean. Few plants that can stand up to chilly, salty sea winds, impoverished soils, and a long, dry summer produce such a remarkably beautiful flower cluster on such pleasing foliage.