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