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Articles > Experiences with Phoenix palms

1 Jul 2005

Phoenix canariensis (Canary Island Date Palm)

On my first visit to California in 1967 I stayed at the Hotel Circle in San Diego where tall palms near and far were swaying in the wind, quite a dreamy experience.  At that time all I could do was take in the total experience, concentrating simply on the good weather, not what the good weather had brought.  I lived in Connecticut then, was formerly from Indiana, where there were no palms.  But the red tile roofs and the palms had made their indelible mark in my thinking.  Finally in 1985, at the encouragement of my wife Louise, we made a bold (and scary) move to southern California and found a home in Escondido.  I began teaching at San Diego State University.  Every morning I would walk by a 40 year-old Phoenix canariensis every morning on that campus to my office.   I could not believe the overwhelming presence that this palm had, its ability to give perspective to physical matters.  There was something about its spectacular orange inflorescence and tightly recurved, deep green fronds that spewed from its crown that captured me, not to mention its huge trunk and amazingly uniform and wondrously textured surface.  Without even knowing about the Palm Society I made a promise that someday I would own this palm.


Well, you may know the rest of the story.  I did plant two of these magnificent plants, one at my first home in 1985 and another at my present home in Hidden Meadows in 1991.  Planting two of these plants is similar to having ten children…that’s probably enough.  But there are no regrets.  Just yesterday I showed my Canary Island Date palm to two visitors and there’s still excitement about its 5-gallon size at planting and how it has grown to its present awesome size.  And, of course, I always tell my visitors how to distinguish a Phoenix from others, the V-shaped leaf that is pointed such that it will catch rain; with this simple lesson, in short time they start telling me where the rest of my Phoenix can be found!


In case you are considering the Canary you should know that this is not a plant-it-and-forget-it plant, not if you want it to resemble the boulevard Canaries.  In its first 10 years it assumes a bush-like, low profile, with greater than 20-foot diameter because there will not be any trunk height, just a very low, thick trunk with spewing fronds that tend to grow out and weigh down.  Yes, I understand that putting it in the center of your driveway would certainly be your choice but it will be difficult to maneuver around it with your automobiles without some of those scratchy leaves affecting their paint finish.  I maintained (not sure about this) that keeping these lower leaves on for as long as they were green and sumptuous would lead to a perfectly shaped, thick trunk.  Well, in 10 years your spouse will win a few arguments and you’ll find yourself either cutting off those lower fronds a little early or attempting to “tie up” those fronds with rope to allow her to comfortably park her vehicle.


Now, about trimming.  This is very serious business, and is to be done with due caution, only by those who consider themselves “handy”.  The leaves at the end of the frond are stiff but reasonably compliant.  With no exception in the Phoenix world, as you progress from the tip of the frond to the trunk, the last 12 inches of this frond change to a spiky, extremely sharp and rather formidable, stay-away-from-me character.  I suppose there was some dinosaur or other large animal that munched on palms and the Phoenix’ evolved to keep those guys away.  You should know that it is difficult, if not impossible, to keep from being stabbed when you work with a Phoenix.  These wounds can give you terrible pain for 3 months before they finally heal, so wear gloves!  And, always wear protective eye gear.  It is also very easy to scratch your eye with the outer frond leaves, and that will cause you trouble for several weeks.  I speak from experience.  Because I had a home operation and am not a professional tree trimmer, I did the trimming in 3 steps, using an AC-powered Makita Sawzall® the following way,

1)     Cut the frond 15 inches away from the trunk—this portion of the frond that falls is soft and can be handled without gloves; you can cart it away or further cut it into 30 inch lengths with a loper for refuse pickup,

2)     Cut the spines away on each side of the first 12 inches protruding from the trunk in a similar fashion to removing spines when cleaning fish.  Put these spines in a 30-gallon garbage can, not to exceed one-half its depth so the sanitation people can easily and safely pour its contents into that container.  Check your driveway and grounds carefully for spines that have separated.  These will puncture your spouse’s car tire (and then you’ll really be in hot water), and

3)     Carefully cut a vertical slice a consistent distance, about 6 inches or so, from the trunk for each of these protrusions, giving it its true “pineapple” look.  Once the tree has gained some height, the fronds will stay up and away from people and vehicles.  You can do these 3 steps in just one fell swoop if you have a chipper/mulcher nearby.


Phoenix dactylifera (Edible Date Palm)

I’m probably an oddball, but I’m the proud owner of a male Phoenix dactylifera, the edible date palm.  When I looked to obtain it in 1994 all of the palm growers were heavily into palms from Madagascar and elsewhere so they queried, “Why would you want a green-gray palm, ugh?”  Well, because I think they are so stately, and I really do like that color.  I have a male (remember that all Phoenix are dioecious, meaning it takes two separate palms to tango).  All desert-based Phoenix palms generally want “a dry head and wet feet” which will become very clear to you after a few seasons with the date palm.  Here, as opposed to the desert and especially Coachella Valley, the heads of palms stay wet from dew all night.  This is not conducive to growing a perfect dactylifera.  Regardless of what they may say, you would be impressed with these green-gray beauties.



Phoenix goelkry-bodrum (believed to be a form of theophrastii)

This Phoenix has risen to the top of my most desirable Phoenix palms.  Why?  Well, it is the bluest of the entire Phoenix’ line.  Mine is so “blue” and so hungry for a hot climate with maximum sun that it is really a black-green—I’ve seen this behavior before with the cycad, Encephalartos chimanimaniensis, which apparently cannot get enough sun.  Escondido is definitely a very warm climate, simply not as warm as this palm is expecting.  The palm I chose to plant on an east-facing hill (that loses its direct sun after 2 p.m.) with rocks to provide overnight heat is a stately, single trunk form with very stiff leaves.  I have others in 24 inch boxes.  They are definitely clumping, gnarly palms.  You must approach these palms with a five-foot pole and protective gear!  But regardless of that, this is an exceptional Phoenix.



I have most of the other Phoenix, namely: theophrastii, multiple trunking (difficult to handle); reclinata (when trimmed and thinned its usual way this palm is chameleonic to any swooping, tropical palm.  A most ferocious/thorny Phoenix that requires considerable initial care to get it to its final, desirable look); loueirii (a medium-sized, very balanced palm with frosty blue petioles, especially as they emerge from the trunk); P. humilis (green-yellow, and nearly identical to the canariensis); sp "New Zealand" (from the Botanical Garden there, with a deep green leaf having a shimmering surface); rupicola (the most difficult to grow from liner to 5 gallon, then OK after that, the softest Phoenix you can own, with wide leaves that are very thin, lax and weepy, pale green); roebelenii (miniature, with thin green leaves, a version of a date palm because of its similar trunk, does fine in harsh sun but produces the best leaf in dappled light); sylvestris (a miniaturized replica of the Canary but is blue—you should have this palm if you have a small yard); roebelenii x rupicola (this is a huge palm that retains a very soft leaf).


The Phoenix is only slightly behind the Brahea, which truly belongs in California, but otherwise is one of the easiest palms to grow because of climate similarities.  There is a Phoenix that will suit every palm grower.


Phoenix lourerii


Phoenix reclinata


Phoenix rupicola


Phoenix sylvestris


Phoenix goelkry-bodrum


Phoenix humilis

David Minks