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Is the Guadalupe Palm a More Truly “Californian” Palm?

Many people are familiar with the California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, native to watercourses in the lowland deserts of Southern California. The largest grove is at Palm Springs, and it’s a sight as awe-inspiring as any other botanical wonder of California. “Filiferas,” as we call them here at the Palm Broker, are planted all over California, even up into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Lines of them frame Capitol Park in Sacramento. The species has naturalized outside its historical range in California, as at the mouth of the Kern River Canyon near Bakersfield and in Death Valley. A well-grown California fan palm is stately, and an avenue of them, majestic.

Washingtonia filifera California fan palm at Ruth Bancroft Garden

Typical California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) specimens at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California, retaining their dead fronds

Baja California is also home to the California fan palm, and to four other palm species, as well. One of them is particularly well suited to the range of microclimates in the Bay Area — the Guadalupe palm, Brahea edulis. We have one specimen planted here at the nursery that we moved from our Guerrero Street location. Dolores Park is home to an old grove of Guadalupes, too. Other notable Brahea edulis can be found on our Bay Area palm map.

Unlike the desert-dwelling California fan palm, which thrives only in the hotter, drier inland parts of the Bay Area, the Guadalupe palm, native to a foggy island in the Pacific, grows well throughout lowland California — wherever winter lows stay above 22F — even along our foggy coastline. It also grows well and looks beautiful in shade.

Guadalupe palm Brahea edulis under valley oak Quercus lobata

Drought-tolerant Guadalupe palms thrive in the shade of a 300-year-old valley oak in Walnut Creek, California

The California fan palm, alas, won’t thrive in shade, and runs a high risk of fungal disease in the cool, humid weather that prevails in San Francisco and anywhere near the ocean and bay. They both thrive inland, as seen in this photo from Sacramento (Guadalupe on left, California fan on right).

So why call the Guadalupe palm “native?”

The state of California is home to portions of four different floristic provinces: Californian, Sonoran, Vancouverian, and Great Basin. To quote the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden:

In nature, the distribution of plants rarely coincides with political boundaries, but rather is determined by the interaction of climate, geology and geography. A regional association of plants that share these growing conditions is called a floristic province.

The Guadalupe palm’s home falls within the California Floristic Province. The island shares many species with the Channel Islands (e.g., Santa Catalina) and mainland California. Guadalupe palms grow amidst indigenous Monterey pine, Pinus radiata var. binata; toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia; sword fern, Polystichum munitum; California juniper, Juniperus californica; and members (some endemic) of such typically Californian genera as Cupressus (cypresses), Eschsholzia (California poppies), Ceanothus (California lilac), Arctostaphylos (manzanita), and Eriogonum (buckwheats).

To be accurate, Guadalupe palms used to grow with these plants, but many became endangered or were extirpated by more than a century of feral goat browsing. The destruction has now ended with the removal of the goats as part of a restoration project, and plants are responding with rapid growth.

So, in the sense of being a species from the botanical province most characteristic of California, Brahea edulis is native — just not to the state of California.

OK, it’s a technicality, but a fun one to contemplate (palms with pines and cypresses and oaks — oh my!). What matters, though, is that the Guadalupe palm is a lovely species that thrives in all parts of the Bay Area, as long as you can give it some decent drainage, and irrigation for the first several years of its life until it’s established. Besides climate compatibility, it offers a nice scale (stays below 30 feet tall, mostly below 15), good performance in a container, and a clean, green look, thanks to its tendency to shed old leaves. No nasty thorns, either. We often recommend it over Washingtonia and some other, more common, palms.

Brahea edulis Guadalupe palm in Bernal Heights, San Francisco

A well-kept Brahea edulis in San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood

Brahea edulis Guadalupe palm Huntington Botanical Gardens

This avenue of Guadalupe palms at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena is perhaps the most extensive formal planting of the species in California.

One Response to “Is the Guadalupe Palm a More Truly “Californian” Palm?”

  1. Jacob Knecht Says:

    Great article!

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