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Colorful and Blue Palms edition

A Bad Case of the Blues

By Bob Fowler
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In northern and central California we are very fortunate to have many colorful palms that grow well and thrive in our varied, subtropical microclimates. Many genera will lend a wide range of blue, gray, glaucous and stunning crimson accents to our gardens. None are more versatile, beautiful, and adaptable than the venerable Braheas. A Brahea armata in full flower, with its massive pendulous and arching inflorescences extending outward from its blue-gray crown is truly a spectacular sight to behold.
Braheas come in many other sizes, shapes and shades. The powdery glaucous upper surface of the Brahea aculeate creates an exquisite light, blue-green range of color as it glistens in the sun. The Brahea brandegeei has an attractive glaucescense on the underside of its softer leaf, which tends to have drooping tips like a Livistona. This character imparts a lovely ribbon-like appearances to the Brahea clara (likely a natural brandegeei/armata hybrid), which can have arcs of color graduation on its leaf, as well as to the Brahea elegans, a soft and delicate, slow-growing palm which also has a pleasing range of color in its leaf (possibly a brandegeei/aculeate cross). Many Brahea dulcis have a beautifully rounded orbicular glaucescent leaf like a bluish Livistona chinensis. Then there are the awesome acaulescent dwarfs; B decumbens, with its gently rounded icicle-blue leaves; and B. moorei, with a chalky bloom and flowing coloration similar to but more intense than the elegans. Many Brahea nitidas have a deep blue coloration on the underside of their otherwise darker, deeper green, rounded, oblong leaves. One of my favorite Braheas (A questionable concept with this wonderful and exciting genus of palms) is the cultivar “Nuri”, a very blue form of the aculeate (possibly an armata cross) grown from seed gathered by Dale Motiska near the town of Nuri in Sonora. It is my most vigorous Brahea, holding a healthy crown of twenty or more undulating, somewhat costapalmate leaves. My Braheas grow year-round, double and even triple pushing throughout the winter.
My garden is in Richmond, very near the San Francisco Bay, and a few miles north of Oakland, in an essentially frost free, yet mild, part of Sunset Zone 17. Extremes are exceedingly rare, almost never going below 30 deg or much above 90 deg. Most summer days begin with the ubiquitous high stratus, and end with cool breezes off the Bay. However, unlike San Francisco and by the coast, during the day the sun nearly always emerges and warms us up to the low 70s. Although the lack of high heat certainly slows the growth rate of many blue and bluish palms, mostly of desert origin, the daily dose of bright sun seems to be sufficient to stimulate vibrant color development. My armadas are icicle blue, and my beautifully recurved Butia is as blue as they come. In cooler, foggier areas many of the blue palms tend to sulk and fade towards a dull off-green.
Of course, there are many other blue palms that grow here, like the “cerifera” variety of Chamaerops from Morocco, with its tight, rigid, spiky blue leaves, even more adaptable than the Braheas. It should look good even among the coast, unlike the Nannarrhops from Afghanistan, which though it will endure extreme cold, even snow, seems to require high heat to grow well. Its unarmed petioles emerge from a pretty leaf-base reminiscent of aloes. A strikingly beautiful pal, it is nonetheless quite intolerant of both our damp winters and relatively cool summers. I’ve lost many over the years to a slow fungal decline. One, which we had growing in our Oakland Palmetum in an even warmer part of Zone 17 (nearly 23), hung on for fifteen years without growing much and finally succumbed to the dampness. However, our vicious, spiky, deep blue Trithrinax campestris from the Argentine pampas is thriving. Sadly, we lost one of our armadas at the Palmetum last year, a victim of both heavy, wet soil and excessive overhead watering. I have now reconfigured our irrigation system so that none of our Braheas get any overhead watering whatsoever. It seems critical for Braheas (as well as the stately, gray-green Washingtonia filifera) to be able to dry out over the summer as much as possible to suppress fungal infestation of the crown, which they seem to become susceptible to as their vigor declines in middle age. Many Trachycarpus, particularly takils, also have a surprising degree of blueness on their leaves’ undersides.
Butias all thrive here and seem to retain most of their blueness even near the coast, although I’ve never seen a phoenix dactylifera or theophrasti up here as strikingly gray blue asat the Huntington or L.A. Arboretum. On the other hand, Brahea aculeate and brandegeei willthrive in our coastal regions, and should be planted much more widely than they are (which sadly is nearly not at all). They definitely do as well as the occasionally planted, very attractive, but green, Brahea edulis. Braheas are surely one of the most under-planted and under-appreciated genera in California, especially since they’re all Mexican palms and some, like armadas, are nearly native to the U. S.
The most beautiful Nannarrhops I’ve seen is at Dick Douglas’ hot-summer garden in Walnut Creek, possibly the largest in California. His is one of the most splendid gardens in the Bay Area, with a huge Sabal “Riverside”, also the largest up here, as well as many Braheas, a gorgeous Trithrinax campestris,Butias, and other Sabals. But the most spectacular Brahea armata and Sabal uresana in this area are on Edith Bergstrom’s grounds in Atherton. Her armata has a huge spread and carries a full crown of more than thirty leaves-many armatas here are rather sparse. Her uresana is truly breathtaking with huge, blue-gray, deeply divided and extremely fiberous leaves n delicately split wishbone-like criss-crossing petioles which have ruptured as the base of the palm has expanded to form what is becoming a massive trunk.
If only the Bismarkia, with its fantastic range of color from purple to blue, without doubt the world’s most beautiful fan palm, would grow here. I’ve lost two or three over the years although someone is sure to succeed in the most favored microclimate. Perhaps that someone will be Mark Blanchette in Antioch with his torrid summers and thermal belt elevation or at the new pal garden we’re helping to promote and plant in Fremont’s banana belt mission San Jose area, near two huge, splendid blue Jubaea chilensis planted in 1876. I am, however, succeeding in growing Livistona rigida,with its brilliant crimson crown as a young plant.
The most extensive planting of Sabals up here is in the rugged, rocky garden of Scott Laframenta in northern Sonoma County, near the edge of the habitable universe. All of his Sabals survived 12 degrees in 1990 and still look great. The first Palm Society meeting I attended, ten years ago, was at his place and it was Scott who encouraged me to grow Sabals and Braheas in my cooler East Bay location. Until then I had thought it would be impossible for me without high heat so it’s all your fault, Scott-thanks to you I’ve got a bad case of the blues.
No discussion of the colorful palms of the Bay Area would be complete without mentioning my other great palm mentor, Darold Petty, whose lush frigid, fog-shrouded but frost-free San Francisco garden has the Bay Area’s only trunking Hedyscepe, with an elegant, powdery blue crownshaft. Unlike the Southland, where many flamboyant tropical crownshaft palms can thrive, with the exception of Darold’s gorgeous Hedycepe, our northern California selection of colorful palms is limited to fan palms, and non-crownshaft pinnate palms such as Butia and Jubaea, which are nonetheless among the world’s most exciting and magnificent palms. The “King of Blues north of the Tehachapi is our intrepid grower, Phil Nickel, with his intoxicatingly blue nursery and garden on his almond ranch near Bakersfield. His hot, dry inland climate is ideal for growing all the blues, and he does it to perfection. Phil is now our primary source of well-grown hardy palms of all blues and hues. A few weeks ago, my Brahea-land compatriot Gary Wilson and I brought a truckload of Braheas, Chamaerops, and Nannorrohps up to distribute in the East Bay; the other day I was gratified to be informed by the Ace Nursery in Piedmont, which has been selling Phil’s palms, that a woman who was not into palms or even looking to buy one, came in and was seduced by the blue allure of a five-gallon Brahea armata and promptly purchased one for her garden. May the rapturous blueness of Braheas and their brethren spread forth all around us. This troubled world needs more armatas and fewer armadas.
Originally published in :
The Palm J

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© 2004 by the Palm Society, Northern California Chapter