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The California Fan Palm - The Washingtonia Filifera

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     The California Fan Palm, also known as the Washingtonia Filifera (scientific name), Desert Fan Palm, Petticoat Palm, Cotton Palm, or California Palm is a member of the Arecaceae Family. The genus for this palm, Washingtonia, is named in honor of George Washington, and Filifera means Thread Bearing. These fan palms are known for their large draping skirts, which is how they received the common name Petticoat Palm. The California Fan Palm is the only palm native to the western United States, and is the countries largest native palm. In fact, the California Fan Palm is one of only eleven palms native to North America. These palms are known for their hardiness, ease of grown, and life span of up to 80-250 years or more, which is one reason why they have received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

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This Map Shows the Native Distribution of The California Fan Palm

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The California Fan Palms Native Soil

     The Washingtonia Filifera is native to the Southwestern United States and Baja California. These palms grow near underground water sources, and can be found naturally in desert riparian habitats and oases. They can be found in the Colorado Desert, the Mojave Desert, the Sonoran Desert along the Gila River in Yuma, Maricopa County, Pima County, Pinal County, Mojavi County, and several isolated locations in Clark County Nevada. The California Fan Palm can be found naturally in the Central Coachella Valley at the Indio Hills Palms State Reserve, the Coachella Valley Preserve, as well as other Coachella Valley Locations. Lastly, they can be found at the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, and the Anza Borrego State Park.

California Fan Palm General Info

     The California Fan Palm grows to heights of 49-66 feet (15-20 meters). These palms can grow up to a foot and a half per year, but are likely to grow about half of that height in normal gardening conditions. Once mature, the frond spread is between 20-30 ft (6-9 meters), with each frond measuring 11-13 feet (3.5-4 Meters) long forming a crown at the top of the palm. These fronds are made up of petioles and fan leaflets. The sharply barbed petioles measure up to 6.6 feet (2 Meters), and the evergreen fan leaflets measure about 5-7 feet (1.5-2 meters) long, and feature white threadlike filifera fibers on the ends of their bright green to sea green tips. Healthy filiferas can be found in our fields with around 30 fronds jutting from the crown, but these numbers are likely to fall upon transplant due to Potassium (K) deficiency. The Fan Palm leaves are mildly “costapalmate” Unlike palmate leaves that spread from a central point, the distal ends stem from the top of the midrib, and the proximal ends stem from the bottom of the midrib. The Sabal Palm is an example of a pure Costapalmate. 

     The California Fan Palm grows to heights of 49-66 feet (15-20 meters). These palms can grow up to a foot and a half per year, but are likely to grow about half of that height in normal gardening conditions. Once mature, the frond spread is between 20-30 ft (6-9 meters), with each frond measuring 11-13 feet (3.5-4 Meters) long forming a crown at the top of the palm. These fronds are made up of petioles and fan leaflets. The sharply barbed petioles measure up to 6.6 feet (2 Meters), and the evergreen fan leaflets measure about 5-7 feet (1.5-2 meters) long, and feature white threadlike filifera fibers on the ends of their bright green to sea green tips. Healthy filiferas can be found in our fields with around 30 fronds jutting from the crown, but these numbers are likely to fall upon transplant due to Potassium (K) deficiency. The Fan Palm leaves are mildly “costapalmate” Unlike palmate leaves that spread from a central point, the distal ends stem from the top of the midrib, and the proximal ends stem from the bottom of the midrib. The Sabal Palm is an example of a pure Costapalmate. 

California Filifera Palms

     The California Fan Palm is an Evergreen Monocot, meaning that it is green all year round that bears a single seed leaf. This seed leaf is also known as the spear. It is estimated that this palm can produce approximately 30 of these leafs per year, but that number needs verification. The fronds persist on the tree after they die forming a dense, brown, shaggy covering, “Hula Skirt” below the crown, and is how the California Fan Palm got the name Petticoat Palm. This skirt can be a fire hazard, and can host a variety of wildlife such as: birds, snakes, rodents, and Insects.

Desert Empire Palms Installing 15' California Fan Palms at a Palm Springs Remodel

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California Fan Palm Fruit & Floura

     The palm also produces a white or creamy flora in late spring, and small, round, black fruit of about ½ inch in diameter that sticks out beyond the limit of the crown. The fruit does not attract much wildlife, but birds will eat the fruit and propagate the palm. We suggest removing the skirt, fruit, and flora in urban settings. 

The California Fan Palm Trunk

     The trunk of the California Fan Palm is thick and sturdy, solitary, and unbending columnar shaped. This feature is unlike the Mexican Fan Palm, which has a great degree of bend in the trunk upon hitting heights of 40 feet. The California Fan Palm trunk tapers down from a thick base to a diameter of approximately 2-4 feet. The Mexican Fan Palms on the other hand have diameters of 1-2 feet. These trunks start off brown, but weather to a grey over time. Ring scars remain where dead leaves have been removed.

The USDA Hardiness Zone Map

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Hardiness, Soil, and Water

     California Fan Palms are known for their Hardiness, but they are not as hardy as the Mexican Fan Palm, which is one of the hardiest palms in the world. The California Fan Palm is salt resistant, drought resistant, resists pests very easily, and can live in a variety of soil types including sand, clay, and loam. It is important to note that the California Fan Palm is not as drought tolerant as many people think due to their rividian origins, and the soil must drain for the tree to do well. We cannot stress enough that these palms do need water, however too much water can lead to root rot. Also, light is extremely important to the health of these palms. In fact, this palms shade tolerance is as low as it gets. The California Fan Palm is tolerant to a wide range of PH, making soil PH rarely an issue with these palms. These palms grow fairly well in mildly acidic soils to extremely alkaline soils. Soil that is not too acidic is preferable, and the palms are able to grow in extremely alkaline soils.

Hardiness and Transplant

     The California Fan Palm does well in many climates, going as low as 14 degrees fahrenheit to 125 degrees fahrenheit and fis in zones 7-11 in the USDA Hardiness Zone Map. However, you can expect slight damage on both extreme ends of their tolerance. Further, it is important to note that the mature palms are much more tolerant than the juvenile palms. This makes it more tolerant to arid cold than the Mexican Fan Palm, but unlike the Mexican Fan Palm they are sensitive to high humidity and struggle when grown next to the coast. Both the California Fan Palm and the Mexican Fan Palm have high wind tolerance, but he California Fan Palm is much higher as it does not bend once they grow to taller heights. Both have low likelihood of breaking under high winds, and have bad reputations for potential damage. However, far more damage and injury occurs every year from just about any other public ree growing in Southern California. These palms get blamed unfairly for falling over when they actually rarely do. Lasly, the California Fan Palm transplants easily as a mature specimen. We transplant the palms with a large 5’x5’x5’ root ball to ensure survival of the tree.

About Hybrid Fan Palms

     Truly pure California Fan Palms show very little variation between one another. This suggests that the genus of the palm is very stable. The California Fan Palm Hybridizes with the Mexican Fan Palm, or the Washingtonia Robusta. And if there is any red in the petioles of the fronds, it is not a pure filifera, but a Fila-Busta hybrid. The California Fan Palm is a true desert species that is more resistant to cold snaps provided conditions are dry, and the Mexican Fan Palm is better suited to moisture climates and the east coast. It is thought that the hybrid between the California Fan Palm (The Washingtonia Filifera) and the Mexican Fan Palm (The Washingtonia Robusta), the Filibusta, should grow fairly well in cooler climates with wet winters, combining the cold tolerance of the W. Filifera with the moisture resistance of the W. Robusta. Examples of potential application in the United States include Oregon and Washington. There is a lot of misconceptions about palm tree survival and plant hardiness. We suggest reading David A. Franko’s “Palms Won’t Grow Here and Other Myths: Warm-Climate Plants for Cooler Areas” to help guide you in incorporating palms and other species into your garden or landscape.

Trimming & Maintenance

     The main thing that somebody purchasing the California Fan Palm will need to keep in mind is tree trimming. Once a tree gets taller than around 25 feet a professional tree pruner is needed to remove the old fronds. We suggest trimming the California Fan Palm in late spring or early summer just after the tree has produced its fruit and flora. This will get the trimming done and remove the fruit or flora at the same time, eliminating the seeds from scattering the floor of your landscape and preventing the inevitable propagation of the tree. Neglecting to remove the flower stalks will result in volunteer palms showing up near the parent tree. We advise all of our customers to be mindful of how they trim their palms. It is common practice to over prune the California Fan Palm, leaving just a few fronds in the crown. Palms that are repeatedly pruned this way will lose their vigor, and they may not be able to sustain themselves through photosynthesis. Therefore, we suggest leaving at least 50% of the green fronds intact.


     Few nutrient problems occur in the California Fan Palms, but potassium deficiency is virtually ubiquitous in this species. It can be seen by leaf discoloration and premature death of the old leaves. Avoid removing discolored leaves as the palm is able to drain potassium out of them when sources of potassium in the soil are insufficient. With that said, as far as fertilizer is concerned, consider supplementing with Potassium (K), and lower water usage once the tree is established.

Closing Remarks about the California Fan Palm

     Overall, the California Fan Palm is undeniably the best Palm Tree for  the Southwestern United States. This Palm Tree is great for lining streets, and is perfect for drought tolerant desert landscapes. The California Fan Palm does not grow as tall as the Mexican Fan Palm, making it better for smaller homes in the Coachella Valley. We recommend some of the following plants to incorporate with the California Fan Palm: Desert Agavi, Elephant Tree, Desert Lavender, Brittlebush, Barrel Cactus, Ocotillo, Chuparosa, Beavertail Cactus, Palo Verde, Smoketree, Joshua Tree, Mojave Yucca, Melaleuca Trees, Oak Trees, Carolina Cherries. Date Palms, Mexican Fan Palms, Palos Verdes, Eucalyptus Trees, and a variety of succulents and desert plants. Finally, we recommend highlighting heir grand statuesque appearance with palm tree landscape lighting. We grow small to large California Fan Palms on our Farms. Let us know how we can transform your landscape.

     With all of these positives, it is safe to say that the California Fan Palm is the Best Palm Tree for Southern California, and Desert Empire Palms carries the best California Fan Palms in the world!

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