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1 Nov 2003

3 Steps Forward and 2 Steps Back


Ten years ago I visited Paradise Palms on Interstate 5 near Pea Soup Anderson’s windmill restaurant in Carlsbad, CA on Palomar Airport Road.  It was there that I learned about the “other” palms-- you know, the palms that aren’t Washingtonias or Queens.  It fascinated me that I might be able to grow a rare palm like the Howea forsteriana, or any rare palm, and that would be an accomplishment that few others would attempt.  Looking for my 15 minutes of fame, I suppose.

After a half hour of cruising with the owner on his golf cart through his palm heaven, we turned a bend.  I saw 3 giant Roystonea regias in 60 inch boxes, originally grown in El Cajon to about a 25 foot height, then sold to this palm grower and now approaching 30 feet, with massive trunks.  He disclosed that the original owner had tired of worrying that one cold winter day in his inland valley town could easily wipe out 20 years of loving care (and his investment, don’t forget that!).  Apparently these trees had escaped the winter bite of 1990 because the original owner had put heat-wrap tape onto their trunks, and then covered these trunks from top to bottom with 6 inches of fiberglass insulation.  I couldn’t imagine fussing over a tree like this.  Well, times have changed, and I’m a changed man.

For my birthday in September 1995, Louise took me to a PSSC palm grower to pick out a “few” palms.  I spied a Roystonea hispaniola for $100 that I simply had to have.  It was about 12 feet in height with a 3 inch diameter stem, with no trunk.  To me this was a fabulous amount of money but visions of those smooth, gray/white-trunked Royals at the Hilton FountainBleu, Miami Beach I had seen in my twenties spurred me to make this splash!  This exquisite, gorgeous palm was planted the very next day….but in less than 3 weeks it had burned down to 3 feet!  Yeoww!

Well, this is a good lesson for anyone—never trust that another’s location is similar to yours.  You must “test the waters”; instead of touching your toe in cold water you must start your new plant in its pot in the shade of your patio, then start inching it out over a period of up to 3 months into the sun.  And if it is super-green that’s even more evidence it is tender and will need a little time getting used to the sun.  After you place this palm into the ground you might try a patch of 30% shadecloth over the palm’s crown (for up to 6 months) to dapple the sunlight.  My Royal went into shock for about 18 months, just like those hospitalized patients you see on television who are in a coma and don’t move.  Finally, it began to grow, but fitfully so.  What I noticed, and I’ve talked with many others who agree:  Royals during the first 10 years of growth in the drier areas of southern California take 3 Steps Forward and 2 Steps Back.  That is the nature of this plant from the tropics as it attempts to cope in our dry climate.  You’ll be so excited about those 3 steps forward that occur from April to November but so discouraged by the 2 steps back when the fronds brown in the cold, dry air from December to March.  Nevertheless, with this small net positive, the Royal palm eventually thrives.

The worst is over.  My recovered Royal is over 15 feet tall, sporting 22” of exposed trunk length, and it’s base is 11” in diameter.  Each set of new leaves that push is more and more vibrant.

Hey, where can I buy heat-wrap tape?  


Roystonea hispaniola

David Minks