Palm Trees or California Dandelions

In this city, no tree elicits more mixed emotions and extreme reactions than the palm. Its promoters praise it as the essence of class and elegance while its detractors call it the California dandelion.
It is amazing how opportunistic Washingtonia palms – the ones that grow up to 100 feet tall – can be. A Washingtonia seed can find a comfortable home in a small crack in the sidewalk. Before you know it, a tenacious seedling that defies extraction is growing there.
If familiarity breeds contempt, Washingtonias may be out of favor simply on account of their ubiquity. There are two species that you see. The one with the skinny trunk that grows clear up to the sky is the Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta). Its relative, of thicker trunk and shorter stature, is the California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera), the only California native palm, an inhabitant of the arroyos around Palm Springs.
When pruning a Washingtonia, be careful not to be stuck by the barbs of its frond stems. Having experienced such piercing of my own hand on several occasions, I can attest to the paralyzing numbness, which lasts a full week, at the point of contact.
A common complaint lodged against Washingtonias is that their seeds (or the blackish purple pulp surrounding them) stain wood and concrete surfaces. To avoid seeds dropping on your walkways or pool deck, prevent their development by pruning off the white palm flowers when they appear in late summer.
Now is the best time of the year to plant palm trees. They establish well in warm weather. The soil most to their liking is fast-draining sand. In fact, after excavating native soil, washed construction sand may be brought in as the single soil constituent “seen” by the roots of newly planted palms.
One of the most difficult planting situations is an interior atrium – common in many condominium and apartment buildings – with limited light. It is here that palm trees deserve serious consideration as landscaping subjects. There are at least four palms that do well in low to medium light: kentia palm (Howea forsterana), lady palm (Rhapis excelsa), bamboo palm (Chamaedorea species), and king palm (Archontophoenix Cunninghamiana). The first three are generally grown as indoor plants in the Valley, but they will do fine if planted in atriums exposed to the sky or even outdoors if they are placed under large trees, which will protect them from both summer sun and winter cold.
Date palms are called upon when a majestic look for the full sun is needed. Dozens of Canary Island date palms were recently planted along Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport. These palms impart a sense of royalty to the airport entry and, in a front yard, will provide a palatial aspect to the most modest of homes.
Other date palms of note include: the edible date (Phoenix dactylifera), somewhat cold-sensitive but secure enough in the East Valley; the Senegal date (Phoenix reclinata), a spectacular multitrunked tree; and the pygmy date (Phoenix roebelinii), the most popular palm for outdoor containers on account of its feathery foliage and slow to moderate growth rate.
Among locally available palms, the windmill palm, with its distinctively hairy trunk, (Trachycarpus Fortunei) is the most cold tolerant. A palm that deserves wider use both in landscapes and in containers is the sun-loving Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis). The only palm native to Europe, it is reasonably cold- and drought-tolerant and, with its multidirectional trunks, makes a fitting specimen for entryways, patios and pool decks.
Tip of the Week: If your soil is hard and alkaline and you think it would not be hospitable to tropical fruit trees, consider a planting technique devised by David Silber of Papaya Tree Nursery. After removing the plant from its container, dig a hole only deep enough to contain the bottom one-half or one-third of the root ball. After placing the root ball in the shallow hole, mound soil around the exposed part of the root ball.
For the first year, keep the top four inches of the plastic nursery container in place, cutting away the bottom portion of the container. With this collar around the top of the root ball, the water you apply will go straight down the profile of the roots, promoting root development and making it easier for your tree to establish itself.
Gardener: Jeanne T. Linn
Residence: Canoga Park
Plant of interest: Voodoo lily
What makes this plant amazing: After Linn removed a maple too close to her house, a strange plant started appearing there. The plant would grow to about 4 feet tall, sprout lilylike leaves and four to five blooms that smelled like natural gas, then die out after a week.
Linn brought blooms to several nurseries for identification, but nobody knew what it was. Though the plant is pungent – so much so that she had to douse a bloom in water before bringing it to her daughter’s school – Linn says she keeps it for its beauty.
“It’s incredible to look at, once you really look at it,” she says.
Maintenance: Linn says she hardly ever waters the spot where the plant grows. She thinks that one of the house’s previous occupants left it there, after visiting from Hawaii.
What Joshua Siskin says: “Somebody planted it there somehow. Any flower that’s 3 feet long and attracts flies is the voodoo lily, or some version of it. It’s an exotic plant. People are attracted to those sorts of things. People like the unusual. It doesn’t serve any useful function other than to be exotic. It flowers very briefly, so it’s not really grown for its ornamental value, but more for its shock value.
“Really, in the universe, the purpose is to reproduce – to flower, reproduce and die. The flower might die, but the underground parts are there. The underground part is what keeps it going.”
For more information on the voodoo lily, check out Joshua Siskin’s May 27 gardening column in the Daily News.
– Mike Chmielecki

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