Palm Trees of Santa Cruz

While browsing an online update from the San Francisco Botanical Garden, I discovered the Chilean Wine Palm (Jubaea chilensis), which is interesting to me because my garden includes a section for Chilean plants.

Santa Cruz also has at least two Chilean Wine Palms, which is another species with pinnate fronds. A prominent specimen can be seen on the hillside below Mission Santa Cruz, toward the downtown area, close to an Australian Bunya-Bunya tree (Araucaria bidwillii).

A Chilean Wine Palm in Santa Cruz

This tree is unusual because it develops an unusually thick trunk, grows very slowly, and produces sap that can be used to make wine. The tree becomes rather too tall at maturity (eighty feet, potentially) for my garden.

Still, learning about the Chilean Wine Palm enticed me into exploring the world of palm trees. This column provides only a brief introduction to these interesting trees, which are widely used in California’s landscapes.

Palm trees are members of the botanical family Arecaceae, with some 2,600 species. Several different plants are included in this family; only the tree-form plants are called palm trees.

Types of palm trees can be grouped by the form of their leaves, which are called fronds.

  • Palmate leaves are characteristic of fan palms. The leaf parts radiate outward from a central area.
  • Pinnate, which is the most leaf form, resembles a feather with a central rib, with the ends divided into individual leaflets.
  • Bipinnate fronds resemble a fish tail.
  • Entire fronds, which are the least common form, resemble pinnate leaves but are not divided at their ends into individual sections.

There are quite a few palm trees in Santa Cruz. If you deliberately look for them while driving about, you will notice many trees and several different varieties. Some of the more recognizable varieties growing locally are the following:

Mexican Fan Palms (Washintonia fillifera) along the Santa Cru Boardwalk

Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana). Several of these very popular trees have been planted fairly recently, particularly near the Wharf/Boardwalk area. They line the main street of Capitola Village. Pinnate fronds.

Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia robusta). This is the tree along Beach Street. In 1962, former Boardwalk president Laurence Canfield planted 42 trees on this street and donated them to the City of Santa Cruz. These trees can grow 100 feet tall and live for 100 to 150 years. Palmate fronds.

California Fan Palm (Washingtonia fillifera). These are the only palms native to the west. Compared with the Mexican Fan Palm they grow shorter (about sixty feel tall) and develop thicker trunks. A good specimen can be seen on Morrissey Boulevard, near Fairmount Street. Palmate fronds.

Canary Island Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis). These trees can grow to sixty feet tall, with canopies thirty feet across. A fine specimen is in the garden of the Santa Cruz City Hall, reportedly planted by birds many years ago. Also, a pair of these trees is at the Darling House, on West Cliff Drive.  Pinnate fronds.

For an extensive catalog of local palm trees, with photos and descriptions, visit Peter Shaw’s blog, Dr. Shaw is Horticulture Department Chair at Cabrillo College, and a self-confessed tree guy. His blog also includes information on a wide range of trees in addition to palm trees that can be found in Santa Cruz County.

The large family of palm trees include a great diversity of shapes and sizes, so one or more of these plants might bring a welcome look to your landscape. In any event, you can appreciate these icons of tropical environments in our community.

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