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Plant-crushing on palms: The symbols of respite and bounty

by Timber Press on March 6, 2018

in Design, Gardening

Coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) planted at Punta Roquena, a private botanical garden maintained by D’Asign Source in the Florida Keys, mark the scene as a place of warmth, relaxation, and seclusion from workaday cares. As a source of water, nourishment, construction, and craft materials, the species is an economic mainstay for people living on tropical shores around the globe. Photographs by Caitlin Atkinson.

For most people, the palm hides in plain view. Charismatic and instantly recognizable, palms get lost in the glare of their own beauty. Here, Jason Dewees gives us a charming love letter to palms as a preface to Designing with Palms, the authoritative guide for including palms in your landscapes.

Most of us first fall for palms when the shush of waves on the sand mixes with the overhead rustle of their fronds. Relaxed, half-naked, our skin warmed by the sun, our toes cooled by the sea, we are, for that moment of bliss, in paradise.

Next we notice the amazingly tall row of palms not far from our house. Our palm love swells and deepens in an encounter with wild California fan palms in a desert canyon echoing with birdsong. Or maybe we fall in love in that moment on screen when palms wave shadows over Kathleen Turner’s sexy villain character at the end of Body Heat, conferring an ineffable mood to the scene. Even the simple grace of a potted palm in the corner of the room can charm us into affection for this distinct plant family.

Indigenous California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera), their Baja California cousin the Mexican fan palm (W. robusta), and a hybrid between them (Washingtonia ×filibusta) form the dominant planted structure of this natives-rich, desert-embracing garden designed by Steve Martino in Palm Springs, California.

My mother adopted a neanthe bella palm (Chamaedorea elegans) around the time I went to kindergarten. Friends from my nursery school left the houseplant with her when the family moved away from San Francisco to New York. It had the classic palm-tree shape, but in miniature: a rosette of feather-shaped leaves on top of a green ringed stem no more than an inch thick, with stilt roots emerging from the base into the soil in a fertilizer-stained clay pot. I remember nubby root tips dotting the length of the stem. Every week or two, my mother hand-washed the plant with soap to treat a case of scale, the music of Stevie Wonder or Carole King filling the house. That plant must have lasted a long time in her care, for it was later on in childhood I wondered why the periodically appearing flower stalks never made fruits—or were those little kernels that dried and dropped off actually fruits? Sometimes I would peel the husky leafbases from the trunk, exposing a pale internode that would slowly green up in response to the light. Even now, I find grooming a chamaedorea palm one of the most satisfying of garden tasks. My crush for neanthe bella lives on.

Terremoto Landscape designed a Mid-City, Los Angeles, garden with a reordered demotic LA plant palette mixed with new varieties, adding an unusual-for-California triangle palm (Dypsis decaryi). Its keeled leaves fall in three ranks, creating a compelling presence and perfect scale as well as an echo of older palms out on the urban horizon.

I believe it was the archetype of the palm tree that drew me to that miniature at home. Palms were regular but infrequent elements of the landscape where I grew up in California, and holiday visits to my mother’s side of the family in Miami exposed me to a place where palms were abundant. Their image preceded in my mind the arrival of that houseplant. Recognizing a miniature version of the icon gave me the child’s thrill of connecting a cat to a tiger.

This first crush grew into a love of the palm family, plants, and gardens—and has since become my passion and vocation. I work as a palm specialist and horticulturist and have been able to focus on this exceptional plant family’s attributes and contributions. I share my love of palms with many in the design, planning, architectural, and gardening fields and help create landscapes that challenge conventional planting design. It is a joy and a mission. The satisfaction of working with a client to choose the right species for her garden design and her subtle, modern house on a spectacular, blustery site overlooking Point Reyes National Seashore comes from puzzle-solving, sweaty exertion, and elation at both the results and the relationship we’ve developed in working together. Along the way, I have found that the palm’s icon status is both portal and obstacle to working with palms in design.

In Roger Raiche’s garden near California’s Russian River, Yucca rostrata, a non-palm with a crown of simple, spear-shaped leaves, stands next to the stiff and folded fan leaves of Trachycarpus fortuneiWagnerianus’ palms.

Palms are among the earliest trees depicted by the human hand. They are stamped on Roman and Israeli coins from two millennia ago, portrayed at Egypt’s Tomb of Sennedjem from the late 1300s BC, carved in 5800-year-old petroglyphs in Saudi Arabia, and seen in rock art at Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria, from 6000 BC. The date palm of the Fertile Crescent was likely one of the earliest cultivated fruit trees, bound to the origins of Western agrarian civilization. These ancient portraits are potent, distilled images signifying the satisfaction of hunger and thirst. However enrobed in our jet-age perspective such elemental satisfactions may now be, images of palms remain ubiquitous today, still signifying respite and bounty. If any plant is an icon, it is the palm.


Jason Dewees is the staff horticulturist at Flora Grubb Gardens and East West Trees in San Francisco. Responsible for the Tree Canopy Succession Plan for the San Francisco Botanical Garden, he serves on the Horticultural Advisory Committee for the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and on The San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers Advisory Council.


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