Southern California Palm Trees: History + Species Guide

california palm trees

Palm trees have become a symbol of Southern California. They’re seen lining beaches, swaying in the wind on city streets and even in shopping mall planters. Their image is meant to conjure up feelings of leisure, relaxation and living the good life.

But did you know that most palms trees aren’t actually native to California? One is, but most hail from Mexico and as far away as the Canary Islands. Palms have adapted well to our growing conditions and thrive in our homes as gorgeous ornamental trees.

How Palm Trees Arrived in Southern California

Believe it or not, before settlers arrived in our part of the world, California was a semi-arid landscape of native plants. Palms need moisture in the soil to survive so were huddled near sources like the Los Angeles River. Indians used them for sustenance and practical purposes such as using the fronds for basket weaving, shelter and even clothing.

Spanish Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries planted California’s first date palm trees in 1769 for ornamental reasons and likely because of Biblical associations, but it was around the turn of the 20th century that other palm tree seeds made their way over from Eqypt, Mexico and elsewhere as immigrants arrived in the United States.

An explosion of palm tree planting occurred in the 1930s as Americans associated Southern California with a leisure-like, Mediterranean environment. As a part of the Los Angeles beautification program prior to the 1932 Olympics, 25,000 palm trees were planted all over the city putting many of the city’s unemployed back to work.

The Only California Native Palm

palm trees califonia

The Washingtonia filifera or California fan palm (also referred to as the Arizona fan palm) is the only native palm to the United States, specifically the Southwest, and has been seen growing naturally in the wild as far east as Colorado and north to Wyoming. Fossils of the palm have been found dating back to almost 50-70 million years BP.

The California fan palm cam live up to 80-90 years, grow up to 75 feet tall and has leaves shaped like a fan that fold like accordion. The leaves can reach about 6 feet long and wide.

Palms for Southern California

Many palms will thrive in Southern California with some TLC, but the list below includes types that are fairly low maintenance if placed in the right sun and soil conditions.

southern california palm trees

King Palm: For the jungle look, go for a King Palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae) which is a fast grower up to about 40′ with leaves that have a silver color underneath. It can take partial or full sun.

Queen Palm: The Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) reaches heights of 25′ with long, up to 15′ arching fronds. It’s hearty, drought-tolerant and a relatively fast grower.

Pygmy Date Palm: A very popular and often inexpensive choice for Southern California homes, the Pygmy Date Palm (Phoenix roebelenii) grows slowly up to about 10′. They do have sharp thorns at the base of the leaves, need full sun and can be found at Home Depot in small sizes.

Pindo Palm: The Pindo Palm (Butia capitata) has pretty silver leaves and grows to about 20′ in full sun. It won’t do well in any shade but is hearty otherwise.

Kentia Palms:  A thin palm, the Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana) is a very slow grower up to 30′ and popular in Southern California because it cab be grown in either partial sun or full sun. It’s elegant looking and often grouped. They are very easy to find at local nurseries.

Mediterranean Fan Palms: With suckering (multiple) trunks, Mediterranean Fan Palms (Chamaerops humilis) are also local favorites that don’t grow very tall. They tap out at about 15′ but can tolerate cold Southern California weather. The downside is that they are slow-growers but they also come in a pretty blue variety.

(Also, we have a post dedicated to growing indoor palm trees, for your reference.)

palm trees southern california

When to Plant a Palm Tree

Experts suggest that planting palms in the right season based on your location helps guarantee success. While fall is usually an excellent time to plant trees, even in temperate San Diego, palms will fare better when planted in the spring or summer (though with care, they can survive planting year-round).

Have you ever bought a healthy palm tree and planted it in your yard only to have it wilt away and die? Palms need to acclimate to their environment, especially if they were greenhouse-grown. After fall comes winter, the most stressful season for a palm tree where root growth can be stunted in temperatures below 65°F, which does happen even in San Diego. If you do plant a palm in the fall or winter, be mindful of the watering schedule as too much water can also weaken roots and cause pathogens to grow. If you live in a hot desert like Palm Springs, planting in summer heat probably isn’t ideal especially if the palm hasn’t been acclimated.

How to Plant a Palm Tree

Most of the work regarding planting a palm tree happens before the tree touches the ground. You’ll need to have taken care to select the right palm for your light considerations, space, climate and soil.

Provided that you’re buying a 15 gallon or so plant from a nursery and not a full-sized tree, dig a hole about six inches wider on all sides and six inches deeper than the root ball of the plant. Whether or not you add amended soil around the palm tree depends on what kind of soil you have, but what you will want to add is large sand or similar to provide adequate drainage.

Gently remove the root ball from the pot and don’t loosen the root ball–keep it in tact. Plant so that the tree’s soil level as it was in the container is about an inch or so lower than the planting hole. This will allow water to puddle slightly around the tree.

If you’re attempting to plant a large palm or one that requires a bit more maintenance than the ones listed above, it’s best to seek professional help. Palms have shallow root balls, so if shoved in the ground, especially in clay soil, the root ball can rise above ground resulting in a weak plant. Proper planting also ensures that the palm grows upward as it should versus out to the side, in the event it’s looking for sun or unstable. Pygmy date palms in multiple trunks are subject to sideways growth in certain conditions.

Use it or Move it

Interestingly enough, many Southern California residents who have palm trees that grow taller than height restrictions or need removal due to renovations have had luck selling palm trees for relocation into other yards. Many homeowners today opt for small palm trees for their yards to avoid the need to remove their trees. Call a tree removal company to see if yours are saleable for a nice profit.

Your Turn…

What palms have you had success growing in Southern California?

Photo credits: Hotel del Coronado palms, Flickr/Rennett Stowe; California fan palm, Flickr/mikebaird; Coronado beach palms, Flickr/Evo Flash