And The Award for the Best Palm Trees For California Landscapes Goes To…?

The Plant Oscars: Episode 1

Welcome to the Plant Oscars! This tongue-in-cheek look at some of California’s most important landscape plants will showcase the best of the best and cover what may be on the California Supplemental Exam for landscape architects.

Today, we look at the palm tree contestants.

Common Palm trees for California Landscapes

Palm trees are a quintessential plant for many California landscapes.

The image of palm trees in the California skyline was made famous by Hollywood in the early days of the motion picture industry.

If you ask somebody from the East Coast or Midwest about what the think of when you mention California, palm trees are probably in the top five answers.

Since California landscapes are intricately tied to palm trees, you can expect a question. Or two about palm tree on the California Supplemental Exam for Landscape architects.

Palm trees are useful design elements that landscape architects can use to add sculpture, repetition, or drama to a planting plan.

Since palm trees have historically been tied to the movie industry, let’s roll out the red carpet for the Palm Oscars Awards. We will look at the top performing palm trees for several different categories and discuss their merits and characteristics.

Palm Oscar Awards

Best Native Palm – California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera)

Just like last year (and all the years before) the best native palm award goes to the California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera). This actor in the landscape has played in starring roles as a street tree and specimen since the earliest human settlement in the state. Although his home is in isolated desert canyons in Palm Springs and Anza Borrego, he is at home on the coast as well. California fan palm is hardy and tolerates more cold than most palms. Even though it hails from the desert, it needs some water to look lush and stay healthy. Old fronds cling to the trunk and create a brown petticoat. California fan palm is the only native species of palm and is a good addition to commercial landscapes, institutional campuses, and parks. Unfortunately, the California fan palm is just a bit too big for most residential landscapes. Sunset Climate Zones 8-28.

Washintonia filifera and Washingtonia robusta palm trees for California landscapes for the CSE exam

Washingtonia robusta (left) & Washingtonia filifera (right). Photo by Scott Zona

Tallest Palm Tree Award – Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia robusta)

The Mexican fan palm wins the “tallest palm” award for stretching up to 100 feet towards the sky. This palm is by far the tallest common palm tree in the state and has a tiny crown of green palmate leafs. Older specimens can look oddly out if proportion with a huge trunk and small head. Mexican fan palms are fast-growing and easy to transplant at almost any size. Use Mexican fan palm as a street tree, accent plant, or specimen. Plant a shorter palm like Guadalupe palm (Brahea edulis) at the base to leave the same foliage look near the ground. Sunset Climate Zones 8-28.

Best Palm Actress – Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffianum)

It’s good to be the queen! The queen palm is the most widely planted pinnate palm In the state. Here medium-sized white trunk is a nice contrast to her dark-green plumose foliage. Her smaller stature fits in with residential and commercial landscapes. Sunset Climate Zones 12, 13, 15-17, 19-27.

Queen Palm for California landscape for the CSE Exam

Queen Palm. Photo by Bri Weldon

Best Caterer – Date Palms (Phoenix dactylifera)

Date palms produce tasty fruit in the hot low desert that is sweet to eat. In the wild, date palms are multi-trunked trees. However, in California the trees are trained to a single trunk. Fruit is only produced on female trees in the hot desert areas. Elsewhere, it looks like a spectacular tree. Tall trees transplant easily and are dug out of old date groves when the trees get too tall to harvest efficiently. Sunset Climate Zones 8, 9, 11-24.

Date Palm - Phoenix dactylifera

Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera). Photo by 1245

Best Male Actor – King Palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana)

The king palm features tropical good looks and is a home on the coast in mild-winter areas of California. The sleek pinnately compound fronds are elegant and have a green crown shaft at the top of the trunk. King palms are best used as small specimen trees or planted in groups for a tropical appearance in the landscape. Sunset Climate Zones 21-25.

King Palm - Archontophoenix - Photo by CSKK

King Palm – Archontophoenix – Photo by CSKK

Best Short Palm – Windmill Palms (Trachycarpus fortunei)

If the California Fan Palm is a Wookie, the windmill palm is surely a cute, cuddly Ewok. Unlike its larger brethren, the windmill palm has charmingly petite features that let it star on stage or in small independent films. The crown has stiff leaves and a furry trunk covered in coarse brown fiber. This small palm is ideal for residential landscapes or intimate courtyards where it can shine as a star specimen plant. Sunset Climate Zones 4-24, 26-31.

Windmill Palm - Trachycarpus fortunei. Photo by Wendy Cutler

Windmill Palm – Trachycarpus fortunei. Photo by Wendy Cutler


How to Cast Palms in a Planting Design

Palms can be star performers in many landscapes. But, like many big-name Hollywood celebrities, palms need just the right role to showcase their special talents.

Bold leading men like date palms, Mexican and California fan palms are big and bold and need big places for them to show their full glory.

Medium-sized palms, like king and queen palms, are character actors that add a tropic flavor and feeling of the tropics.

Smaller palms are stars on smaller stages. Plants like the windmill palm get standing ovations for the drama they add to smaller gardens and spaces.

The right palm tree in the right setting can make for a glamorous planting design. When landscape architects conduct a casting call for specimen plants, palms should make the short list.


John is a landscape architect who is currently preparing to take the California Supplemental Exam to become licensed in California. He is currently a licensed professional landscape architect in Georgia and Florida. John graduated from California State University, Pomona with a BSLA degree in landscape architecture in 1997 and has extensive practice experience in residential and commercial landscape design.

Posted in Plants

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