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Palm Trees Are Stupid
updated: Aug 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

Palm Trees Are Stupid
by Billy Goodnick

"Palm trees are stupid. They have no business growing in Santa Barbara." That's how I was going to start this week's column. Come to think of it, that IS how I started this week's column. But I don't really mean it. Not in the literal sense-I've had some engaging conversations with palm trees on important issues, and they always hold their own. But that says more about me than about them.

What I mean is that palm trees just don't DO anything. If you planted one of the big guys in your yard a few decades ago, chances are the only people who can enjoy the show live ten blocks away.

You? You're stuck with a gray telephone pole that, in some cases, showers down uncompostable fronds and fruit, provides scant shade and has no wildlife habitat value,
unless you count those nasty rats in the big brown hula skirt up top.

So I figured, "This week I'll unleash the power of my pen on the useless, erect members of the Palmae family."

"Not so fast," chimed my fair and balanced Libran conscience. "Does every plant have to bear the burden of possessing a higher purpose? Can't they just be lovely? What's wrong with contributing drama and character to the visual landscape?"

Seems reasonable. So with only a little further ado, I'd like to quickly touch on the usual suspects and introduce you to a few lesser-known palms that I think you might like.

A Little Further Ado

Palms are hard to escape in Santa Barbara. Of the approximately 30,000 public trees planted in parks, medians and along streets, 23% (6900) are some type of palm tree. And with the exception of a handful of California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera), our palms come from subtropical and Mediterranean climate regions around the world.

Was Rob
Perhaps the most ubiquitous palm in Santa Barbara is the Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta), the star of eponymous Chase Palm Park (the "palm" part; not the "Chase"). These trees hail from the Sonoran desert and Baja California, reach a height of 100 feet and sway like, like, uh, like-what the hell, they sway like palm trees in the breeze. These palms also play a significant part in Edhat lore. In January 27, 2004, Ed and his dedicated staff set out to count all the palm trees along Cabrillo Blvd. Wanna guess how many?


Queen Ann
Another frequently planted palm is the aforementioned queen palm, or Syagrus romanzoffianum (formerly genus Arecastrum). I like these. They're relaxed and informal, have a nicely proportioned trunk and don't get as tall as the Washingtonia. Notice the structure of the frond. There's a single midrib with leaflets radiating out from the sides, like the structure of a feather. This trait is called "pinnate" from the Latin pinnae, for feather. The Washingtonia, however, is described as "palmate" because the leaflets radiate out like fingers from the palm of a hand. Makes sense to me.


Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) eventually become giants. They look great lining grand open spaces like Ambassador Park, but in my book, they have no business on a typical quarter acre residential lot. Their scale is over the top, they're ridiculously proportioned in their youth, with giant fronds radiating out of portly cadet trunks, and they cost a fortune to groom when they get bigger. Ever seen those sheet metal bands halfway up the trunk? That's to keep rats from climbing the trunk and nesting. Cross this off your list until you move into a place the size of Oprah's digs.


Billy's Faves

First up is the pindo palm, sometimes called jelly palm (the fruit can be made into an apricot-like spread). The botanical name is fun to say: Butia capitata. Its distinguishing characteristic is the graceful bell-shaped arc of the silvery pinnate leaves. There are a few nice specimens on the south side of Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden and in the median on State Street, between Mission and Constance. Slow growing, they stay at a usable size for most home landscapes.


When I lived in Van Nuys, my parents planted a little five-gallon size Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) on the hot, white, south-facing wall of our kitchen. Thirty years later, someone from a landscape company knocked on my folks' door and offered them thousands of dollars to take it to an estate in Beverly Hills. I hope it's happy in its new home. I love this palm, with its multiple trunks that radiate out from the base. The sculptural, symmetrical form fits well with Spanish and contemporary architecture.


Still with me? A couple more and we're outta here.

Fishtail palm (Caryota species) get its name from the shape of the triangular leaflets that fan out from the midrib of these stunning palms. The one pictured here is growing at the motel at E. Cabrillo and Bath St., right near the pool. If I had to pick one palm for my projects, I think this is the one.


Batting clean-up is the all-purpose, patio-sized, user-friendly, delicately lacey pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii). They thrive in pots for years or can be used in the landscape at a human scale.
Even the biggest ones I've seen barely make it to the eaves of a one-story house. They'll take sun or bright shade and bring a tropical feel to your landscape.


So, as you can see, I don't hate palms. They're a part of the fabric of Santa Barbara, even if they are about as non-indigenous as our red-tile roof, stucco and wrought iron architecture. If you see any other palms you really like, you can post them at Edhat's gallery and we can have a little chat. I've also posted a few additional palm pics at my Flickr photo gallery. Perhaps you'll be inspired to plant a palm or two, even if they don't do much of anything.

# # # #

Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.


# # # #

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 GREG agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 07:56 AM

interesting, informative article with a title that doesn't fit. thank you - keeping sharing the insights.


 COMMENT 35743 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 08:03 AM

lucky for we citizenry our palms do not bear coconuts


 SARAH agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 08:34 AM

I once lived in a second floor apartment with two very tall palm trees near the main window.
All that could be seen from inside was two
trunks and some brown fronds above. It was
known by all who visited as the giant chicken.


 COMMENT 35752 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 09:09 AM

I had a volunteer Canary palm in my tiny front yard for about ten years, then realized it was gonna be WAY too big! We had someone come take it out for free, probably made some money with it in Montecito. My favorite is the fishtail, there are two beautiful specimens on East Valley in the Village.


 BONNER agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 01:36 PM

Very cute, good Sunday laughs. Next to Nicole's delicious article, this is second place. I'll forward to my neighbors at Deigaard Palm Nursery and see if they get a laugh out of it too. Thanks!


 BONNER agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 01:38 PM

P.S. I think the title DOES fit. I started laughing before I even read the article!


 COMMENT 35787 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 01:43 PM

Goodnick here: There's nothing like a grabbing headline to get people reading, hence, Palm Trees Are Stupid. I actually DO make the case, having had a few conversations with a palm or two in my career. But, of course, I did try to balance the issue and make peace with my inner palm lover.

Bonner: Glad I hit the funny bone. I try to balance the smarminess with a bit of usable info. I'd be interested in hearing what the Deigaard folks think.

Mesa Girl: Yep, those cute little palm sprouts are genetically destined to turn into monsters. Much easier to extract them in their youth. Not every green thing is sacred.


 COMMENT 35789 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 01:52 PM

Hey Billy, you left off my two favorites, the kentia and the king.

The kentia, more than two hundred mature trees are on the grounds of the Biltmore. And the king palm. I'm sorry to see those planted in the medium of the 101. It's a slow death for them. Why doesn't CalTrans water them?


 COMMENT 35793 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 03:47 PM

I had a Canary Island palm in my backyard in the house I used to rent. I loved that tree, but in a strong breeze it sounded like rain on my roof from all the dates that would shower down.


 COMMENT 35796 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 04:22 PM

I HATE palms !! We have queen palms on our street (I think) and they drop millions of tiny coconuts that are totally treacherous to walk on, and hit by a lawnmower they are bullets. All this to look at a grey trunk full of staples with 2 pitiful fronds sticking out of it 40 feet in the air. Of course, it could be worse, it could be a Jacaranda..


 COMMENT 35800 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 05:56 PM

New EdHat contest idea: what is the stupidest tree?


 COMMENT 35806 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-30 07:58 PM

My own Libran sense of fairness raised its defensive head when I also read the title of your Palm piece! But as you so reasonably stated both sides of this argument in such an informative and amusing manner (typical Libra) I read on and thoroughly enjoyed your well-articulated treatise on some of the local palms I encounter in my own back yard, as well as travels about Santa Barbara. Thanks ....


 COMMENT 35855 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-08-31 01:18 PM

I love palms and also love the look of a vine decorating the trunk vs the bare trunk or interesting petiole stubs. A Pyrostegia venusta vine looks great and can climb a great height. There are over 100 palms that can be grown near the coast of Southern California, if you can find them in the trade. Lets expand the pallet and bring a bit more of the tropical look to SoCal!!!


 COMMENT 35939 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-09-01 08:03 AM

Yep, palms are the worst. No shade, no beauty, no nothing. They only belong at the beach and in the desert. I say yank them out of downtown and the residential areas and plant some real trees!


 COMMENT 36646 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-09-07 02:09 PM

You forgot to mention how sneaky and lethal the pygmy date palm is. Beware when pruning! Very long sharp spikes near the trunk on the fronds. Or is mine an evil cousin of the pygmy date palm?


 COMMENT 37250 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-09-13 09:14 AM

Palms look even sillier the farther north they're planted. Shell Beach? Cambria? now there's a misplaced tree if ever...

Wasn't there a huge flap in SF when the city proposed planting rorws of them at the waterfront when they redeveloped the Ferry Building area? Did they ever get planted?


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