They’re graceful, they’re amazing, they’re iconic, defining Western skylines from San Francisco to San Diego; in Arizona and Hawaii. Here are five palms we admire
Kathleen N. Brenzel
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Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia robusta)
Bio: Planted to beautify L.A. streets for the 1932 Olympics, Mexican fan palms are the city’s most visible symbols of the sun-and-surf good life. Phoenix has a passel of them too.
Who loves ‘em: Tourists and die-hard Angelenos, native and transplanted.
Who doesn't: People who dismiss them as invaders that do nothing to cleanse or cool the air, or as costly nuisances (L.A. spent about $400,000 in one year cleaning up fallen fronds). Some city foresters prefer native shade trees such as oaks and sycamores.
In their defense: “Studies show that Mexican fans are as effective as other trees at cleansing the air,” says Donald R. Hodel, palm and tree expert and environmental horticulture adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension. “But each tree has a smaller canopy, so you need more of them.” With proper pruning, they aren’t messy or dangerous, he says. “They don’t block street signs or views. No other plants can bring that graceful motif to the Southern California skyline.”
Amazing facts: They grow 100 feet tall and can live for 100 to 150 years.
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Canary Island Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis)
Bio: Native to the Canary Islands, they can grow to 60 feet tall and spread their canopies 30 feet across.
Who loves ‘em: Birds, which live in the canopies. Landscapers who’ve lavished them on Vegas pools, Beverly Hills streets, the east end of the new Bay Bridge, and San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
Biggest threat: A disease called fusarium wilt—spread by pruning tools—that’s killed some street trees in San Francisco and L.A. Victims are replaced with fusarium-resistant types such as Chilean wine palms. Pruning practices have since changed for the better.
Amazing fact: “The fibrous leaf bases hold moisture,” says San Francisco palm broker Jason Dewees, “so little gardens take root in them. I’ve seen tiny coast live oak and ferns up there.”
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California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera)
Bio: The only palms native to the West, they cluster around springs and streams in rocky desert canyons from southeastern California to southwestern Arizona and northern Baja. They’re shorter than Mexican fans—up to 60 feet tall—with fatter trunks.
Who loves ‘em: Hikers, painters, and photographers; the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who once lived among these trees and still own Indian Canyons. Birds, which make their home in the palms’ thatch “skirts.”
Amazing fact: Their trunks are so limber that some specimens have grown sideways as much as 20 feet before shooting skyward.
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Brown Cannon III
Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera)
Bio: Brought to the Southwest from the Middle East in the late 1800s, date palms grow to 100 feet and thrive in desert heat. Ninety-five percent of the dates sold in the United States—55 million pounds last year—come from California’s Coachella Valley.
Who loves ‘em: Growers. Palmeros, workers who climb them often, in spring to transfer pollen from male to flowering female trees, in summer to bag the fruit stalks, and in fall to harvest the dates. Chefs who prize the dates’ honey-caramel flavors.
Biggest threat: Developers; urban sprawl is pushing agriculture down the valley.
Amazing fact: Female trees bear their first fruits at 7 to 10 years old and continue bearing for decades.
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Brown Cannon III
Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)
Bio: With their slender trunks and languidly drooping fronds, coconut palms are “the defining trees of tropic islands,” says David Lorence, botanist at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, Hawaii. They thrive only in warm, humid climes, where they can grow 70 feet tall.
Who loves ‘em: Native Hawaiians, who call them niu, meaning big. Tourists, who love their laid-back vibe. Producers, who find the Islands’ palm groves perfect sets for movies from Blue Hawaii to Pirates of the Caribbean IV.
Amazing fact: “These palms bow in winds that would snap less agile trees,” says Donald Hodel. “In 1999, Hurricane Iniki destroyed the hotel Coco Palms in Kauai. But its coconut palm grove barely flinched.”