California And Mexican Fan Palm Trees

By Thomas Keyes
July 4, 2005

Coconut palm trees abound in Hawaii and Florida, and perhaps along the Gulf of Mexico generally, though I don’t know for sure. I’ve ridden along Interstate 10 from Tallahassee to Houston and I’ve seen many a palm tree, but I wasn’t looking for coconuts in particular. I do feel confident, however, that there are no coconut palms, Cocos nucifera, in southern California. I looked again and again in the seven years I lived in San Diego and Los Angeles, but I never saw one. Perhaps the cool winters, with temperatures dropping to the freezing point sometimes, keeps this species of palm away, or perhaps it is the insufficient humidity of the sub-desert Pacific shore that is the deterrent.

This gap in the arboreal spectrum is filled neatly by the California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, and the Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta. These two species make up the entire genus, Washingtonia, named capriciously after George Washington, a man who probably never saw a palm tree in his life. This genus is one of about 200 genera of palm trees, comprising 2600 species, that are bracketed in the family, Arecaceae. Years ago this family was called Palmae or Palmaceae, but that was too easy, so it is now called Arecaceae, named after the typical genus, Areca, the betel palms. All three names are more-or-less superfluous, since this single family is coextensive with the order Arecales, palm trees, a dicotyledonous order among about 20 belonging to the class Liliopsida. Thus palms are in the same class with grains, grass, lilies, orchids, irises, tulips, onions, sugarcane, bamboo, asparagus and many, many other beautiful and useful plants.

Popularly, palm trees are divided into fan palms, those with palmate leaves, and feather palms, those with pinnate leaves. Here is a picture of a fan palm leaf, this particular one being the leaf of the European fan palm, Chamaerops humilis, also widely distributed in California:


Here is a picture of pinnate leaves, those of the coconut palm itself:


The Mexican fan palm, whose specific name ‘robusta’ probably has to do with the hardiness of the tree in cool weather rather than a ruggedness of physical aspect, is exceedingly tall and slender, reaching heights of 100 feet and often with a gracefully curved, windswept-looking trunks. The California fan palm is very similar, but tends to be shorter, greater in diameter and more erect. Both have crowns tending to be globular or spherical, in contrast with crowns of coconut palms, which have decurvent and flexible leaves with long midribs. Here is a grove of Mexican fan palms:


And here is a venerable California fan palm:


As might be supposed, these two palms are native to California and Baja California, the peninsular territory so visible on the map of Mexico, but they have been planted in other parts of the world too.

When the lowest leaves die they hang down about the trunk in a mass whose color varies from that of straw to that of cured tobacco, as can be seen in both pictures. This mass is called a ‘beard’ or a ‘skirt’, and is regarded by many as a handsome adjunct to these trees. Other people, however, lop off the beards. Once in a while, on a Mexican fan palm, I’ve seen a mass of leaves or other processes forming a collar around the trunk halfway to the crown. I’ve never learned exactly what this is. These trees are bisexual, with flowers that are at once pistillate and staminate, if that has anything to do with it.

Both kinds of Washingtonia palms can be seen around Los Angeles widely. Particularly breathtaking are the towering Mexican fan palms that are sometimes planted in groves scattered over city blocks. Both can be seen at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, in suburban Arcadia, or at Pacific Palisades Park in Santa Monica. There are some fine Mexican fan palms at Union Station also.

I identified these trees in 2003 by ‘memorizing’ their appearance and then searching the 2500 images of palm trees at www.junglemusic.net. This was very time-consuming. Clicking and waiting make it just interminable. If you could just scroll down and see the whole gallery of thumbnails, it would be 100% easier. I had to give up on a number of palms I was looking for.


About the author Thomas Keyes: I have written two books: A SOJOURN IN ASIA (non-fiction) and A TALE OF UNG (fiction), neither published so far.

I have studied languages for years and traveled extensively on five continents.

Email: udikeyes@yahoo.com

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