Header Graphic
Articles > Butia capitata

1 Jul 1999

My Butia capitata is the NUMBER ONE palm out of 90 in the ground.  I wish I could tell you that it was some rare Dypsis ah-oog-ah but I can’t.  Because of it’s special place in my life, I’m going to give it a Steve Allen “Man-on-the-Street” interview.  This is dedicated to our newer members, but I hope you all enjoy it.


When?  Nov, 1993.


How large was it then?  A small plant in a 15 gallon pot, about 18” above the soil line


How much did it cost?  $14.00.  Cheap!  But I wasn’t so sure then, I wondered if it was silly to spend so much money on a palm.


Why this palm?  I was simply collecting, had already killed an existing Trachycarpus (Windmill), planted a Syagrus (Queen), Washingtonia (California Fan), Phoenix canariensis (Canary Island), Archontophoenix cunninghamia (King), and a Chamaerops humilis (Mediterranean Fan).  I knew this one was really different.  But I had not known about the Palm Society yet.


What did you know about this palm then?  I knew nothing about it.  I saw that it was growing in Valley Center (hot, hot, hot), looking very good so I imagined it would do well in Hidden Meadows, Escondido (rarely goes over 95 degrees F at 1500’ elevation, 18 miles from the coast).


What do you know now that is different?  Well, I joined the Palm Society 16 months after this palm purchase and my world was turned rightside up.  BPS (before the Palm Society) I shoulda, I coulda, but why didn’t I?  Why didn’t I know about Ralph, Walt and Pauleen? 


Where would this palm thrive—desert, inland or coastal?  I have seen huge specimens with gushing inflorescences on the coast, husky ones toughing it out in Las Vegas and a dark-leafed one in Japan where snow will sit in it’s crown every year.  I’ve seen it mistreated in the flats of Escondido (105 degrees in the summer) where it will have only 4 petioles spewing out the top and exhibit funny, droopy leaves—I assume they never water these poor fellows, just very occasional grass watering.  And, of course, there’s my Butia—it’s pretty special.


Any particular care?  With poor DG (decomposed granite) soil and reasonable irrigation it will be absolutely lush in southern California.  It likes it here!  For the last 3 years I have used 4 equally spaced 2 gallon per hour drippers placed in a circle at the base for irrigation, watering about 3-4 hours per week year round, a touch more in the heat of the summer.  This palm probably doesn’t need 24-32 gallons of water per week but it will thrive on this diet.  It was fertilized with Apex 13-5-8 slow release the middle 2 years of it’s 6 year in-the-ground life.  Doesn’t appear to need anything now.


How big is it now? After 6 years in the ground it is 12 feet in diameter, 11 feet tall (tip-to-tip of leaves), no discernible trunk but an 18 inch base that is flared inward to a point where most of the highest petioles emerge, at about 4 feet high.  This is also the height of the top of its flower spathe.  Check it out in the accompanying digital photos.


What are its features that you enjoy?  Foremost, the lace in its crown!  Reminds me of very fine, period English clothing.  The very strong rib in the middle of each leaf is mesmerizing.  The shimmering leaves are a paler green than the Phoenix but with a touch of blue/gray.  These non-green colors really come out on cloudy days or at dusk.  The recurved fronds that refuse to lie in a plane, twisting out like a stubborn cowlick.  The shallow thorns, not vicious, lie along the petiole edge, swimming with the lace, and that edge has a dark line that gently transitions to the green-gray of the leaf—very, very pretty.  The leaf has upside-down V shape (cannot collect water), opposite that of the Phoenix.  The leaves are bonded to the petiole in an interesting manner--looking at this bond on the back side of the leaf you will see a tuft of light brown fuzz emerging (this is the plant world’s version of underarm hair).


Did it fare well during the past winter? Why, it simply coasted with ease.  Vigorous growth continued through the winter.  I rate it Number 1 over the 4 runner-ups at my inland location and here is why:


1.      Butia capitata---“at home” with southern California’s weather.  Takes our “minor” temperature excursions in stride and laughs.  Growth rate as a juvenile is remarkable.  Continues to grow in the winter.  Virtually zero leaf-tipping (by the way, palms that show ¼ inch to 2 inches of brown tips are trying to tell you something, are you listening?).  Oblivious to the wind—the leaves are particularly tough and even if they slap each other in the wind there is no damage.  The first 6-8 petioles to emerge are shaving brush angled on the juvenile plant and are about 2 feet in length—but they continue to grow over the years and then relax and lie flat on the ground, get partially covered with mud, but still stay green!  After 6 years you begin to think they will never die.   If you try to cut them you will find that they are like ironwood—hand clippers will break before they cut these!  You’ll need those 2 foot tree branch clippers and even then there will be a loud pop when the petiole is cut.  If you use a curved saw it will “catch” on each stroke and you won’t like that job when the saw digs in the dirt and your elbow keeps bumping into the higher petioles.  Absolutely no pests like scale or mites.  I sometimes see a grasshopper on a leaf but little evidence that it munches, whereas the Livistona chinensis will be decimated in a day or two by just one grasshopper.

2.      Phoenix canariensis—“at home” also but uneven growth, slows in the winter, jumps in summer.  Some leaf-tipping appears unavoidable, hard to find out what it truly wants (probably the water?).  It runs a close second to the Butia.

3.      Syagrus romanzoffianum---very, very healthy, with deep green leaves that have minimal brown tips. This palm has grown from 6 feet to 26 feet, total, in 9 years! The actual trunk length is around 14 feet and 12 inches in diameter. The old leaf bases, from 3 feet on up are stuck tight to the trunk and cannot be pulled away.  Our 40 mph wind causes it to shake like a cheerleaders pom-pom, with some tattering, indeed it has suffered 2 broken petioles.  It is so tall now that it is hard to enjoy it’s subtleties.  A specimen to behold from afar and definitely a winner, that’s why the landscapers love it.

4.      Washingtonia filifera—awfully nice palm and perfectly happy but huge leaves show yellow spots and marks with significant leaf-tipping.  Perhaps the water tastes bad and it wants a desert spring?

5.      Livistona decipiens—grows in summer only, stuck in neutral during the winter thus its rate of growth is less than the Butia (yes, I know this disagrees with our good folks, Reynoso and Osborne).  As a juvenile the growth was ridiculously slow, but it must have been growing underground because it has begun to kick butt in the 4th year.  Lower leaves show “fatigue” (spots, marks, etc.) after a hard winter.


What would you recommend for the novice?  A Butia capitata.  And don’t let those Dypsis guys put you down!   David W. Minks



Butia capitata - 1999


Butia capitata - 2003


Butia capitata - 2006

David Minks