Palm trees for a backyard oasis

For centuries palm trees have been symbols of an escape from the ordinary– of a luxurious haven in the sun-drenched landscape. So what more perfect place for a palm or two than your own garden.

But if you are considering planting palms as part of a backyard desert oasis, be aware that there are 9 palm trees you can grow with confidence in our dry, hot desert — out of the over 2500+ species of palms around the world.

Palms should be planted during warm weather, unlike most other trees. The ones on this list can stand sizzling hot summers and poor soil conditions. Additionally, these palms tolerate some winter cold. If your hot climate has freezing days in winter, click here for cold hardy palms and ways to protect palms from cold weather.

See bottom of  this page for Pruning and Planting Palms.

Mediterranean fan palm Chamaerops humilis Mediterranean Fan Palm (Chamaerops humilis) – a multi-trunk palm that grows to about 15 feet. It is a good palm near pools. Fronds are shaped like an open fan. Often you see them trimmed as shown in this photo, but they really are a “shrub” palm. A new silver-blue cultivar has been introduced but you may have to special order it. This is just one of several palms suitable for cold winter areas — like London in the U.K.

Mexican Blue Palm (Brahea Armata) – a slow-growing palm with arching, silvery-blue feather-like fronds. Reaches about 30 feet at maturity.

Guadalupe Fan Palm (Brahea edulis) – similar to the Mexican Blue Palm, this one grows faster to 30 feet in height. The fan-shaped fronds are a light green. Edible fruit.

Pindo palm California fan palm

Pindo Palm (Butia capitata) – Another short palm, growing only to 20 feet. The gray-green feather-shaped fronds curve downward. Edible fruit. The Pindo palm, right, stands side by side with a much faster growing California Fan palm (Washingtonia filifera). Both were planted at the same time.

Phoenix canariensis date palmCanary Island Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis) — a giant among palms, grows to 50 feet high with a massive trunk and 10 foot long fronds. Shown left, it is called a date palm for a reason: the fruit is the edible date, the Medjool, and it is delicious! Thorns on the fronds are dangerously sharp and even a slight scratch can lead to an infection.

Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera) — more slender than the Canary Island palm, but also grows tall: 60 feet. The fruit is edible and super delicious, of course, and the thorns on the fronds are dangerously sharp.

Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) – a semi-dwarf palm with windmill-shaped fronds. Slow-growing to 15 feet tall. This tree loves our summer heat!

Washingtonia california fan palmCalifornia Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) – a native of California, Arizona, and Mexico, this massive palm grows to 50 feet. Old fronds droop against the trunk giving a “hula skirt” effect, unless removed. The 3 Washingtonias shown here are accompanied by an olive tree and juniper hedge. The “hula skirts” of old fronds have been removed.

Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia robusta) – a palm equivalent of a skyscraper, it grows to 80 feet or more. It looks very much like the California Fan Palm but more slender and, eventually, taller. It grows fast. This one, too, loves our summer heat.

If you can locate them, two other palms worth trying are the Chinese Fountain Palm (Livistona Chinensis) and the Australian Cabbage Palm (Livistona australis). Both have a “weeping” shape with gracefully drooping fronds. Both look somewhat like short California fan palms and reach a height of only about 40 feet. The Chinese Fountain Palm has bright green fronds; its Australian cousin has dark green fronds.

A personal favorite, the Queen Palm, (Syragrus romanzoffianum), does not do particularly well in parts of the desert that have cold winters. The fortunate people who live in Palm Springs and other warmer winter areas can enjoy its beauty year round. This Brazilian native suffers in the cold and may die when the temperatures fall much below freezing. But oh, how graceful and beautiful it is with its long, flowing fronds. It has been known to thrive in high desert microclimates that are warm in winter.

But it looks like a palm! And it is even called a Sago palm (Cycas revoluta), but the plant that looks like a short stubby palm is actually a Cycad. Cycads are ancient plants related to conifers like pines.

Sago palmCycads are excellent companions when planted near the base of palm trees. A Japanese native, the Sago palm is slow growing, eventually reaching 10 feet high. But that will take a very, very long time–perhaps even a lifetime or two! One note: the seeds and leaves of the sago are poisonous if eaten. Keep them away from small children and pets.

Some final words about palms: these trees are essentially architectural. As they mature, many become tall brown columns with a giant powder puff of green at the top, usually too high for easy viewing at ground level. Generally, a shorter palm trees will look better in a backyard garden over the long term.

About Planting Palms

Palms, unlike other trees, are best planted in late Spring or Summer. They like warm soil for their roots to grow.  Be sure the hole for planting is 2 to 3 times as wide as the root ball.  And water regularly until established.

About Pruning Palms

Only trim off the brown drooping fronds. Do not trim off ones that are still green — the tree needs them to collect sunlight to create chlorophyll for growth and best health. As a rule of thumb, leave a minimum of 7 fronds on the tree. If your palm is very tall you should hire a professional to trim it.

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