Growing Palms in the Bay Area
We can grow many kinds of palms in our Bay Area gardens - palm trees, shrubby palms, bamboo palms, little foliage palms - lucky us!
The Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) is the most versatile palm. It naturally produces multiple stems from the same rootstock, slowly developing into a shrubby clump. Regular irrigation and fertilizer will increase the growth rate, but established plants can tolerate many months without water. The plant can be pruned into a cluster of small palm trees - the image of a paradise island - left as a moundy hedge, or manicured into a single small palm tree. The "Med fan," as we call it, thrives in a container, in sun or shade, and tolerates seaside and desert conditions alike. Flexible fronds bearing thorns on their inner stalks handle urban conditions, pose no problems to passers-by, but can defend themselves from vandalism. Its tolerance of cold (10 F) makes it useful in landscapes anywhere below 3000 feet in elevation in California.
An elegant blue-silver variety, "Cerifera" or "var. argentea," comes from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, grows slightly smaller, and survives slightly colder temperatures.
The pindo palm (Butia odorata) is an architectural palm that makes a moderate-size (10ft x 10ft) tree in time - maybe in 15 years in warmer areas, more slowly in the fog belt. Its feather-shaped leaves curve up and over; the olive- or blue-green crown can look cute and flouncy or as elegant as a suspension bridge. It's happy grown indefinitely as foliage focus in a container, tolerates sun or shade as well as seaside conditions, and makes tasty, edible fruit in gardens away from the fog belt. Established plants can tolerate dryness, but summer irrigation will speed growth, especially in warm-summer areas. The lowest temperatures it tolerates are the low to mid-teens Fahrenheit.
The Guadalupe palm (Brahea edulis) is a moderate-size palm tree (10ft x 15ft in 15 years) that behaves like a native plant in our area because its native habitat, Guadalupe Island, is a foggy, rather dry place 150 miles off the northern Baja California coast--an environment not unlike the Bay Area. It's one of those wonderful dry-loving plants that makes a lush impression: it's got big green fan-shaped leaves, elaborate branches of chartreuse flowers, and bountiful crops of heavy fruit. Like the pindo palm, it remains at a height relevant to the home garden, tolerates coastal conditions, container confinement, and shade or sun. Keep irrigation spray off the trunk (lawns aren't its preferred companion); in fact, it's happiest with low-water companions like succulents, California natives, and other low-water, Mediterranean-climate natives. Despite its botanical name ("edulis" means edible), the hard, kumquat-size fruit it makes don't taste good. Established plants in California have survived temperatures in the mid-teens Fahrenheit; the heat of inland Central and Northern California is no problem, either, though plants do scorch in the low desert of Southern California.
The pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii) is the perfect small palm tree. Fully grown plants (10 feet in 30 years) look to be plucked at one-to-one scale from a big landscape painting, with shiny, feathery leaves, little clusters of flowers and dates, and relaxed, leaning trunks with a diameter of three-to-four inches. They're slow-growing, and thus useful for many years as little foliage plants to accompany ferns and perennials, staying happy in containers, too, in sun or shade. Plants in the fog belt are not as reliable as those on the warmer east side of San Francisco and elsewhere in the mild Bay Area. Frost below 27 F will damage leaves, but plants rebound from 24 F with the onset of warm weather. Regular water is key to making this type of palm happy, though it's not as thirsty as a tree fern.
The waggie palm (Trachycarpus wagnerianus) makes a modest-size palm tree in good time. Its trim fan leaves look adorable in a container for two decades or more, but grown in the ground with regular irrigation and fertilizer this species can expand upward rather fast (10 feet in 10 - 15 years). Its crown stays pretty narrow, five to seven feet across in full sun, wider in shade. The four-to-five-inch-thick trunk is covered in furry leafbases, giving it greater girth and an animal vibe, sculptural and adorable at the same time. Give it regular, moderate irrigation in well-drained soil for best appearance; however, plants will tolerate drought, simply slowing down and staying diminutive longer. Regular fertilizing reduces the golden-halo effect on aging lower leaves. It's equally happy in fog-belt gardens and hot, inland valleys, even thriving in mountain gardens below around 4000 feet in elevation. Thrives in milder parts of the Pacific Northwest, areas where temperatures rarely drop below 10 F.
Who's that palm? Check out the common types in our area.
Washingtonia robusta, the Mexican fan palm, is an easy, low-cost palm tree for many people. .... at first. It's the tall, skinny fan palm seen all over lowland California. It will tolerate the chilly fog belt (but not look very nice), growing five to eight feet per decade with supplemental water, while it will thrive away from the chilly coast and become a 40-foot skyline tree in 30 - 40 years. The problem is that it needs regular pruning to keep it looking neat. Those who admire the natural shag of dead leaves hanging below the crown will save money on pruning until it begins to spontaneously peel off in middle age. In the coldest valleys it will get occasional winter foliar damage. It can be the wrong selection because it gets too tall for home gardens. If you want steady growth, make sure to plant it in sunshine. Its cousin the California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, suffers fatal fungal infections anywhere with significant summer marine influence (Sunset zones 15-17). In very wet-winter regions its crown suffers through winter & spring, but in inland extremes it thrives.
Phoenix canariensis is the Canary Island date palm, seen on San Francisco's Dolores Street, Market Street, and The Embarcadero. Because of the risk of fatal fusarium wilt on Canary Island date palms we don't sell it anymore. It’s best to use the Chilean palm, Jubaea chilensis, wherever possible instead; tall specimens of the latter are expensive and rare, however. Parajubaea torallyi var. torallyi, available only in 25-gallon tubs or smaller, reaches the same size as Canaries and Chilean palms, but faster. Phoenix dactylifera (see below) is another substitute if you want to plant at full size, with trunked trees available up to 25-feet-tall.
Phoenix dactylifera: Date palm selections ‘Zahidi’ and ‘Medjool’ tolerate our cool, humid summers better than the cheaper and more common ‘Deglet Noor’. Not quite common, they can be seen by the dozens in Emeryville, and are showing up more often in public landscapes especially in the warmer parts of the Bay Area. True date palms can replace Canary Island date palms where big specimens are needed.
Syagrus romanzoffiana: the queen palm is a good choice for a fast-growing, narrow, medium-size palm tree where summers are slightly warmer than the foggiest districts, and moisture and fertilizer can be provided. Well grown, they bear apple-green, plumose (ostrich-feather) leaves and make a columnar, dark-gray, ringed trunk pretty quickly. In windy, chilly-summer neighborhoods west of Arguello or Masonic it looks terrible. Inland it will thrive and quickly reach maturity but can be killed by the rare 30-to-50-year freezes. It’s at its best where winter temperatures stay above 25F and summer highs consistently surpass 70F. Better choices for our cool weather that we carry are Parajubaea torallyi var. torallyi, the Bolivian coconut palm - somewhat bigger, more silvery and furry - and Parajubaea sunkha, the zunca palm - smaller, more elegant. Parajubaea cocoides is a beautiful option especially for the foggy areas. None of the parajubaeas demands as much fertilizer or water as the queen palm.
Trachycarpus fortunei: The Chinese windmill palm, a larger-crowned version of the "waggie," described above, can tolerate drought, wind, and some neglect, but at the expense of looking trashy and parched. The best-looking Chinese windmills receive even moisture, some shade when young, and fertilizer that includes magnesium. They also benefit aesthetically from group planting and you can give them an updated look by pruning off the furry leafbases to reveal the elegantly ringed trunk. Prettier cousins are T. wagnerianus, T. martianus, and T. latisectus.
What's needed for success with palms?
First, good drainage & consistent water: Few palms tolerate drying out, and few tolerate constantly wet roots. Some of our favorites, though, are beautifully drought-tolerant!
Planting: Newly planted palms grow slowly at first (because they're spending energy on expanding their root system). That's why it can be good to plant slow-growing species at a large size. In a few years most newly planted palms will accelerate their growth. But if you want an immediate effect large palms are among the best type of plant to select.
Spring-summer planting is ideal, but any time will work for hardy species like the Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), Chilean palm (Jubaea), pindo palm (Butia odorata).
Never manipulate root balls. Place a palm's rootball into the planting hole without loosening or breaking the roots.
Tight fit with foundations & walls works fine.
Keep original rootball moist and irrigate surrounding soil to encourage establishment.
Avoid staking, but if it's necessary, make sure to use a flexible or padded tie around the lowest possible portion of the trunk, and never in the crown or on any green part of the stem. Do not attach anything to or screw into the trunk itself.
Fertilizer: Apply a formula like Agrowinn Organic Palm Food with an NPK ratio of 3-2-4 in March, June & September. Or just use a balanced fertilizer like Maxsea 16-16-16 monthly, skipping December through February.
Palms vary in their light preferences: Many love sunshine, but some species prefer shade, especially when young. No matter their ultimate sun preferences, they are slow to adapt to increased light levels. Be careful when moving them into bright sunshine, or expect burning on old foliage while new leaves grow in and adapt.
Selecting palm species
Screen by these criteria: aesthetic appeal, design function, frost-tolerance, heat requirements, wind tolerance, sun tolerance, and water needs. Most soils can be amended.
Exceptional choices for the cool-summer Bay Area:
Rhopalostylis sapida and R. baueri. (nikau & Norfolk palms)
Parajubaea torallyi, P. sunkha, and P. cocoides (Andean “coconut”/”coquito” palms)
Trachycarpus species. (windmill palms)
Brahea armata var. clara (Sonoran blue palm)
Brahea calcarea (shiny rock palm)
Brahea edulis (Guadalupe palm)
Butia odorata (pindo palm)
Chamaedorea species (bamboo palms)
Livistona species (Australian fan palms)
Jubaea chilensis (Chilean wine palm)
Jubaea x Butia hybrid
Howea forsteriana (kentia or paradise palm)
Hedyscepe canterburyana (umbrella palm)
Ceroxylon species (wax palms)
Excellent choices for inland extremes:
Butia odorata (pindo palm)
Brahea species (Mexican blue palm and many others)
Jubaea chilensis (Chilean wine palm)
Chamaedorea radicalis, C. microspadix (hardy bamboo palm)
Chamaerops humilis (Mediterranean fan palm)
C. humilis var. argentea AKA “cerifera” (blue Atlas fan palm)
Dypsis decipiens (Manambe palm)
Livistona decora (ribbon palm)
L. nitida (shiny Australian fan palm)
L. australis (Australian fan palm)
Trithrinax species (Argentine fan palm)
Sabal species (palmettos)
Trachycarpus fortunei and T. wagnerianus (windmill palms)
Phoenix dactylifera (true date palms)
Rhapis multifida (slender lady palm)
Washingtonia filifera (California fan palm)
Rhapidophyllum hystrix (needle palm)
Nannorhops ritchiana (Mazari palm)
For ocean-side or windy bayside locations:
*Worth a try: Parajubaea, Howea, Rhopalostylis, Phoenix reclinata, P. sylvestris, P. dactylifera ‘Zahidi’ & ‘Medjool’, Sabal, Trithrinax
Banana-belt treats for the Mission, Telegraph Hill, Oakland, Tiburon, Los Altos Hills, Santa Cruz hills:
Pritchardia minor, P. beccariana, P. hillebrandii (Hawaiian fan palms: loulu)
Archontophoenix cunninghamiana (king palm)
Chamaedorea plumosa (baby queen palms)
Dypsis baronii (hardy areca palm)
Caryota maxima & C. obtusa/gigas (fishtail palms)
Ravenea glauca (mini-majesty palm)
Rhapis species (lady palms)
Livistona chinensis (Chinese fan palm)
Portraits of Rare Palms for SF Bay Area:
Parajubaea torallyi var. torallyi
A fast-growing, very rare, majestic tree from high in the Bolivian Andes. Looks like a husky coconut palm. Give it full sun, good drainage, ample water, regular fertilizer, and stand back and watch it develop into a graceful and substantial palm with a hefty, fiber-clad trunk and finely divided pinnate leaves. Once established, it will tolerate drought. Can reach 20 feet tall in 15 years. Produces edible miniature coconuts. Enjoys the Bay Area’s cool and warm microclimates and will tolerate moderate frosts. Plant as young as possible and with no root disturbance. Minor seashore tolerance, but otherwise adaptable from the foggy Outer Sunset to Walnut Creek (Sunset zones 14-17).
Feather palm; no crownshaft
Max height: 80 feet in 100 years
Max crown breadth: 20 feet
This exquisite and rare coconut look-alike graces the colonial streets of Quito, Ecuador, and other Andean cities. No other palm looks more like a coconut overall. It produces a lush crown of shiny, dark-green leaves atop a rather slender trunk. Extinct in the wild, it’s one of the fastest growing palms for San Francisco and other bayside climates, requiring our cool summers to thrive. Tolerates light frosts. Plant as young as possible in its permanent, full-sun location – it will not tolerate root disturbance – provide ample water and fertilizer, and within 15 years it will be a 15-foot tree producing one-tenth-scale edible coconuts. Not likely to tolerate seashore conditions, but otherwise it is happy in the foggiest locales as well as in mild areas ringing the Bay (Sunset zones 16-17). Once established, it will survive occasional drought but prefers regular water.
Feather palm; no crownshaft
Max height: 50 feet in 75 years
Max spread: 17 feet
Uniquely adapted to SF Bay Area climate
Big Mountain Palm
One of the most colorful, clean-looking and graceful palms we can grow in San Francisco, this native of Australia’s tiny Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific develops a powdery blue-green trunk and crownshaft, apple-green foliage, and lipstick-red fruits the size of robin’s eggs. It prefers a bright, semi-shaded position in well-drained soil, and regular water and fertilizer. Its slow growth and modest proportions make it perfect for small gardens, reaching 10 feet in 30 years, with a crown spanning five feet. It tolerates light frosts but should be planted only in San Francisco and the most protected climates of other bayside and coastal cities like Sausalito, Belvedere, Oakland and Berkeley (Sunset zone 17). Minimize root disturbance upon planting. Thrives in the foggiest neighborhoods, but not especially tolerant of direct coastal exposure.
Feather palm; crowshaft
Max height: 30 feet in 75 years
Max spread: 3-5 feet
Ceroxylon alpinum & C. echinulatum
Coffee-Belt Andean Wax Palm
One of the endangered wax palms of the Andes, this tall Columbian cloud-forest tree will function as a luxuriant foliage element for decades before developing its slender trunk and becoming a spectacular skyline feature. Plant in bright shade or half-sun in rich, well-drained soil, water regularly, and it will steadily produce long, dark-green, glossy, silver-satin-backed leaves. Tolerant of light to moderate frosts, it is best in foggy coastal and humid bayside climates (Sunset zones 16-17 and mild, redwood-dominated parts of 15). Not tolerant of direct coastal exposure.
Feather palm; loose crownshaft; self-cleaning
Max height: 100 feet in 100 years
Max spread: 15 feet
Uniquely adapted to SF Bay Area climate
A cold-hardy and beautiful rare fan palm from Queensland, Australia, this fast-growing species is adaptable to inland as well as bayside and even fogbound climates. The well-proportioned, elegant crown grows atop a tall, ramrod-straight, slender trunk. Plant in full or half sun in well-drained soil, water moderately, and fertilize regularly for speedy growth to 10 to 15 feet in 15 years. Probably at its best in warm-summer areas, it will also provide great satisfaction in foggy zones (Sunset zones 8-9, 14-17).
Max height: 100 feet in 100 years
Max spread: 18 feet
Baby Queen Palm
The fastest-growing, most adaptable, and best-scaled palm for small gardens, this delightful native of Chiapas, Mexico, tolerates light to moderate frosts, deep shade or nearly full sun, and wind, among other bugaboos of San Francisco gardening. Its fluffy leaves quickly rise on a thin green stem to create a languorous, weeping crown in deep shade, or a crown resembling a small queen palm in full sun. It appreciates ample water and fertilizer, but, once established, it will tolerate dry periods. Shoehorn it into narrow light wells, or plant it out to give vertical definition in broad, exposed spaces. In the windiest and coldest districts, plant in a protected lee spot, but otherwise it’s adaptable to most urban and coastal Bay Area climates (Sunset zones 15-17).
Feather palm; crownshaft
Max height: 20 feet in 15 years
Max spread: 3 feet
Small palm for small gardens