Having just returned from Southern California- Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, I have palms on my mind. To me, as a temperate Mid-California based arborist, it seems they don’t have many regular trees down there. But there are miles and miles of palms: king, queen, windmill, date, Canary Island date, Pygmy date, Mediterranean fan, and others I do not even recognize.
Naturally, landscape architects must gravitate in that direction, considering the climate is Sunset Zone 24, where winter lows rarely dip below 45 degrees F, and water stress is relatively low because of the cooling coastal influence.
Here in Napa County, we are largely in Zones 14 and 15 with some areas in Zones 17 and 7. Many of those palms could not survive our Napa Valley and Pope Valley winters (at least the way winters used to be), with occasional hard-freezing nights. A few do well here: Canary Island, date, windmill, Mexican fan, queen, Guadalupe and Mediterranean fan.
One species I barely mentioned in my column about locally reliable palms (Nov. 5, 2019) came to my attention as we strolled the grounds at our hotel at Newport Beach. This palm has large, blue-gray fronds and spectacular, arching flowering stems (inflorescences). It is known by various common names, including blue hesper palm, gray goddess palm, blue fan palm, and Mexican blue palm. I refer to it by the latter.
The scientific name is Brahea armata, aka Erythea armata). The species epithet “armata” refers to the fact that the petioles — the leaf stems — are “armed”, edged with stout teeth. The closely related Guadalupe palm, which does well here, has very short teeth.
Indications that Mexican blue palm is cold-hardy enough for our climate include at least one book reference plus, anecdotally, the fact that one mature specimen located in my neighborhood in the south-east portion of the city, must have been mature already, and survived the big freeze of Dec. 23-26, of 1990. In that event, the temperatures stayed down in the low 20’s, and colder in some areas, for several days.
I have seen that palm in bloom. The effect is dramatic if not consistent from year to year.
My first reference, "Sunset Western Garden Book" (2012 edition) notes Mexican blue palm as requiring “little or no water to moderate water, hardy to 18F, conspicuous creamy flowers, takes heat and wind.”
Second, my old "Hortus Third" (Cornell University 1976) says it grows very slowly to 40 feet or more, and is “popular because of its blue-gray leaves”.
Third, summarizing the description in "The Biology and Management of Landscape Palms" (Donald Hodel, 2012) Mexican blue palm is medium sized with trunk diameter to 18 inches, senesced leaves tending to persist, inflorescences to 14 feet long and originating from native habitat around seeps and springs or along seasonal water courses in the deserts of Baja California and Sonora Mexico. Established plants need little or no irrigation in coastal plains and valleys of California. The long inflorescences are spectacular and showy.
Our climate is changing, and the changes are noticeable. A probable mega drought is in progress here in the Western U.S. and we are getting ridiculous heat waves. One of my brothers, who lives near Portland, Oregon, told me that in the recent heat wave, the high temperature up there set a record higher than the highest temperatures ever recorded in Las Vegas.
And driving back from the L.A area, the thermometer in my car registered outside temperatures up to 113 degrees F, for a large portion of our journey along I-5 from the Tehachapis and up to Tracy.
With that in mind, we need to be planning and planting for the oncoming climate. Though they may not be our cup of tea, some of the hardier palms hold good promise for our urban forests and landscapes.
There. I got through that whole column without using the term “palm tree.” It is not easy to resist that misnomer. Technically speaking, palms are not trees, but they do provide some similar services.
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