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.

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12 thoughts on “Oasis

  1. Thanks for this interesting and funny post. I think everyone who has seen any movie/TV series/news report set in Hollywood must be familiar with the palms, but I didn’t know which ones they were. Nor about the ones with secret desert hideaways. Fascinating. Sadly, if those two pots were left in a car park here, I’m thinking someone would have them away in the blink of an eye, and down to the local car boot sale…

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    1. I sort of would not mind if someone took those pots. There are six, one pair in each of the three islands. I remember removing all the old plant material from the islands so that they could be paved over with the pots on top. I thought it would have been more practical to just remove the islands completely, curbs and all, and just pave the entire lot flat. The islands really do not do much but present a tripping hazard.
      Anyway, the queen palm is probably the most common palm in the Los Angeles area now, but it does not stand out quite as prominently as the old Mexican fan palms. Canary Island date palms are the boldest, but again, not as prominent, and are less common than the others. The California fan palm is incidentally the only palm that is native to California. I should write another article about palm trivia in California.

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      1. Chusan palm is the only palm for most cold winter climates, although there are a few related palms that are rare, but less appealing anyway. They live in Seattle and Tulsa! Many of the palms that I would write about can survive in cooler climates, but not where winters are harsh. Some are marginal even here.

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    1. I saw California fan palms in the wild for the first time while still in school. I know they are ‘only’ palms, but they really are majestic in their natural environment outside of Palm Springs! Even though it does not do well here, The California fan palm is still my favorite palm.

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  2. Very interesting description of the migration and evolution of the palms. I confess palms are high on my (short) list of plants that should almost never be grown in gardens outside the tropics. We have a similar native palm here- the Cabbage Tree Palm- wonderful in its naturally occurring colonies or the rainforest, absurd in suburban gardens (in my not-so-humble opinion). Having said that, their fallen branches are very sculptural, displaying interesting patterns and make excellent decorations when strategically displayed on the deck.

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    1. Palms are one of those things that does not fit into every garden. They really look silly with redwoods. The relatively small windmill palm sort of looks okay, but only because it is small enough to look like a foliage plant more than a palm tree. I had planned on planting palms (with careful discretion) in my own garden only because I really like them and I am a horticulturist. However, I was rather annoyed that one of my neighbors planted a Canary Island date palm right near the road where everyone can see it. Years ago, San Jose went through a phase of planting too many palms, only to be followed by another phase of wanting to limit palms because it made the region look too much like Los Angeles four hundred miles away. I think that San Jose has a good amount of palms now; enough, but not quite too many. If a few get eliminated over they years, that would be fine.

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  3. Interesting stuff. I think I’d like the California fan palm. I know little about palm trees, even though we had two on our property in Florida. All I remember is they dropped huge leaves. We grew the small cold hardy windmill palm in Virginia that we cut for flower arranging.

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    1. California fan palm happens to be my favorite for a variety of reasons, and happens to work nicely in formal landscapes. Unfortunately, it does not do so well here. The happiest ones are in abandoned landscapes where they get no supplemental irrigation.

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