Green Thumbs in the Garden

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It's been a hard winter in Texas. Record low temperatures have left their mark in all of our gardens. As I look around Fort Stockton, the badly damaged leaves on the California Fan Palms tell the story of this winter's frigid cold snaps. The casual observer might conclude that these beautiful palms are dead. But that would be a mistake. In fact, the California Fan Palm, Washingtonia filifera, is one of the hardiest of palms. Able to withstand temperatures of 10 degrees Fahrenheit, this is a palm well suited to West Texas’ infamous “blue northers.” Add to that the ability to tolerate long dry spells, and you have a palm perfectly suited to our local high desert climate.

Fan Palms give the feeling of arriving at an oasis, and that is, in fact, much the way this remarkable palm appears in its home range. The California Fan Palm is native to the deserts of southeastern California, Western Arizona and parts of Baja Mexico. Native to a hot, low desert with less rainfall than the Chihuahuan desert, these palms cluster at springs and creeks. The largest of the North American palms, W. Filifera can grow to 60 feet or more. With massive trunks like Egyptian columns, these palms grow great shaggy manes that only add to their majestic appearance. Not surprisingly, they can be very long lived, with 250 year life spans commonly attained. But the California Fan Palm is not alone in area gardens. I've noticed the Mexican sabal, Sabal mexicana and date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, growing happily in the high desert climate. This suggests to me that the California Fan Palm’s close relative would thrive here as well. Washingtonia robusta, the Mexican Fan Palm, is somewhat less cold tolerant than filifera. But some reports indicate hardiness to 14 degrees F. This is comparable to the Mexican sabal. Robusta is a thinner trunked palm with a smooth trunk. Expect great heights from this palm. 80 to 90 feet tall examples are common. And this is an extraordinarily long lived palm. Studies of older groves in Baja California point to a lifespan of 500 years or more. Some of the iconic “sky dusters” in Los Angeles are present in photographs taken in the nineteenth century.

Fort Stockton has always been an oasis. Water in the desert always is. And gardening here is very much the creation of an oasis. If you don't already have some, adding palms to your garden can really enhance the feeling of living in a desert oasis. Easily maintained, with low water needs, the Washingtonia are worthy additions to a xeric garden. If you have a sunny spot in your yard or garden, consider these beautiful palms. Add some fertilizer and moderate supplemental water and you'll be rewarded with rapid growth. Enjoy the sculptural effect of the California Fan Palm. Try the Mexican Fan Palm for variety. The California Fan likes moderate water in the summer, and very little additional water in the winter. The Mexican Fan will grow faster with additional water all year long. It can tolerate more water than filifera. Both will respond to supplemental fertilizing. I hope some of you will try these palms. Meanwhile, I'll be watching established plants this spring to see how they have tolerated this year's cold. I look forward to fresh green fans in the spring.

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