1 Jul 2006
Braheas, perfectly at home in California
Brahea clara, green form
Our palm society pioneers will tell you that every 10 years or so you simply must brace yourself for a disappointment in your quest for growing exotic palms. Inevitably there will be a once-in-ten-year ferocious Santa Anna, extraordinary wind, torrential rain or persistent, bitter cold---and with a tear in your eye you will say a loving goodbye to one of your adult palms endemic to Madagascar, New Caledonia or other tropical location. Apparently this is price we must pay for an otherwise delightful hobby.
But have you considered the Brahea, especially the Brahea clara? Oh, you say they are palmate, and you prefer pinnate. Well, this palm has an exceptional drooping leaf character and a color, unlike most others, that may win you over—I’m very enthused with this look and make the claim to every visitor that this is truly my favorite palm.
In 1996 I acquired two special palms, a Ravenea monticola and this Brahea clara, the former having its native habitat in Madagascar and the later in Mexico. Ten years of care is quite an investment of time of watering, weeding, pruning (and gazing). For the monticola I only have pictures and memories because it expired this winter. But the clara is one of the most vibrant palms I have.
The Brahea clara was acquired November 1997 from Allen Valley of Palm Desert as a 15-gallon plant, and being desert-grown it went immediately into the ground needing no acclimation. I worried that gophers would get it for the first 3 years because the gophers appeared to party each night at the base of this palm. Then it took hold and became a very strong grower, smaller in stature only to the Phoenix canariensis, Washingtonia filifera, and the Butia capitata. Yes, the clara appears to be a cross of two Braheas, certainly the armata and either the brandegeei or aculeata, because it has an appearance that is a mix of the two yet has more vigor and robustness than either—I’m not qualified to say more. But why is this not known for certain? Can’t Botanists do the cross and prove it, in short order?
After eight years in the ground the trunk is 24 inches at the base tapering to about 10 inches at the point where the petioles emerge, the actual trunk being about 6 feet high. Mike Marika calls it a “Baby Huey” (the large baby duck in Donald Duck comics). The leaves are colored light green with a touch of silver, about 3-4 feet in diameter, nearly orbicular, with a pronounced center crevice, giving it the costapalmate designation; the leaves rise above the trunk at least 6 feet. Their most spectacular feature is the 24-inch or so drooping edges of the outer leaf edge. Depending on how close the older petioles were cut from where they emerged from the trunk, the remaining length of leaf base tends to curl and give the trunk a special look. The old leaf bases on the trunk have light brown webbing. The petioles have slightly curved and blunted armor, colored light brown; they can be handled with little concern the armor will snag the skin or clothing. The petioles have the same green-silver color, with yellow edges, reminiscent of certain agaves. As I drive into my driveway in the evening, the undersides and part of the petioles of the blue Braheas pick up and reflect from my truck’s lights a pleasing, phosphor-like glow. This plant thoroughly enjoys southern California’s climate—it makes me look like I’m an expert palm grower!
Brahea clara, blue form
Acquired August 2001 as a 15 year old plant stuck in its 15-gallon container, I began to doubt this was a clara when its outer leaves remained straight and there was a great deal of wooly fuzz on the petioles, like the armata. But within the past 3 years it has surged way ahead of my Brahea armata, planted 1 year earlier, and I do see some droop developing (maybe I have an overactive imagination?). So, it simply can’t be a true armata because it grows much too fast and is larger. It may be a blend, or have parents contributing the other-way-around to give it its blue character.
Brahea aculeata (elegans)
Acquired August 2001 from Bob Burtscher of Fullerton as a 20 year old plant, still in its original 24” box, this is truly a specimen plant. I’m thrilled to own it---just imagine how long 25 years can be! This is the typical Brahea that refuses to grow straight, no matter how much you attempt to train it, taking on crooked growth and remaining low to the ground, very bush-like. The outer edges of the leaves are only 4 feet above the ground.
Brahea moorei, a dwarf
This is a must-have plant for all southern California palm gardens. The leaf is exceptionally dark green, loving as much sun as it can get.
Brahea dulcis (may be a nitida)
Purchased in 1995 in one of the first palm society auctions I attended, I kept this in a 5-gallon pot until 1998. The petioles are decidedly free of armor, thus this is likely a nitida. But the confusion here is that the very-round leaf is very glossy, dark green but the nitida is usually a paler green. There is considerable confusion among growers and palm collectors regarding the Brahea. For many years the nitida was brought in by certain growers and sold as the dulcis.
Brahea sp. ‘blue’ (may be a decumbens)
I have a true decumbens ready to go into the ground, but am holding off because this (already established) plant appears to be a decumbens. Of course, the Brahea decumbens is the most sought after Brahea in California, probably due to the remarkable silver undersides of the one at Huntington Gardens. Most people viewing this plant for the first time declare their intention to own one, that is, until they find that they are largely unavailable and are quite expensive. Many thanks are due to grower Kevin Weaver for obtaining true decumbens seeds and learning the proper way to germinate the seeds. Before he came along, this plant, as a 2 leaf seedling, was a $100. rarity, and traded like gold. Now everyone can own a 1-gallon Brahea decumbens for less than $50.
Purchased from Vista Hills Nurseries in Vista in March 1995 as a 15 year-old plant, this plant has grown slowly but steadily ever since, and is over 9 feet tall. The singular attraction of this palm is the white tomentum on the undersides of the leaves. The leaf color is a rather plain green. As a point of interest, I explain to visitors that the Mexican Blue and the Guadalupe are “cousins”, having very similar features, but one is very blue and the other is very green.
Acquired August 1995 from Gary Wood, Fallbrook, this palm deserves it’s “slow-growth” description. My armata has oil spots on its leaves, similar to that of Queen Protea leaves. It is less than 4 feet tall.
Acquired August 1996 from Gary Wood, Fallbrook, this looks very much like the edulis, but with yellowish leaves, and surely to be twice as tall.
An exciting new plant, with seeds obtained from Dr. Felix Montes of Nayarit, Mexico. This plant will go into the ground this year so I can have one of my own.