It’s almost impossible to imagine California without throwing a few palm trees into the mix. Los Angeles is virtually synonymous with palm trees.
They’re everywhere, lining the streets and adding their unmistakable silhouettes to the skyline.
Although you find palm trees throughout Southern California, there’s only one variety that truly belongs there.
The California fan palm or Washingtonia filifera, has always formed part of the LA skyline, but the other palm species you see around were introduced to the area soon after it started marketing itself as a “semi-tropical” holiday destination back in 1876.
Before that, Southern California’s semi-arid landscape was covered in a patchwork of scrubby grassland, sage scrub, and oak woodland.
The introduction of palm trees soon transformed the countryside into one that conjures up images of a luxurious desert oasis.
So, what kinds of palm trees do you find in California, and where did they come from?
What Kind of Palm Trees Do do You Find in California?
There are 12 common types of palm growing in North America, many of which have been introduced from places as far-flung as China and the island of New Caledonia.
Only palm species are indigenous to the area and that’s the California fan palm.
Other common types of palm include the super-tall Mexican Fan Palm and the eye-catching Canary Island date palm.
In addition to California’s 12 most common types of palm trees, you can also find some rarer species in gardens, parks, streets, and resorts. These include:
- Bamboo Palm
- European Fan Palm
- Sago Palm
- Chinese Fan Palm
- Desert Fan Palm
- Lady Palm
- Majestic Palm
- Needle Palm
- Paradise Palm
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12 California Palm Trees You Are Likely To See
#1 California Fan Palm
The California fan palm is the only native palm in the United States, and also one of the most iconic.
Also known as the Washingtonia filifera, the California fan palm grows to approximately 70 feet tall, although the oldest specimen in LA now stands around 100 feet tall.
It’s witnessed over 150 years of Los Angeles history and now guards the front entrance to Exposition Park.
The California fan palm has a wide, barrel-shaped trunk that can reach over three feet in diameter.
At the top of this trunk is an array of palmate or fan-shaped leaves that huddle together to form an open crown.
Each leaf also features thick, cottony fibers that distinguish it from the Mexican fan palm.
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California fan palms were widely used by Native Americans who ate the fruits, made baskets from the leaves, and turned the woody stems, or petioles, into cooking utensils.
Despite its delicate appearance, the California fan palm is one of the more cold-hardy palms and can withstand both frost and light snow.
It can survive temperatures as low as 15℉ and is drought tolerant.
#2 Mexican Fan Palm
Mexican fan palms are closely related to California fan palms and have similar fan-shaped fronds.
They also grow to around the same height, with mature palms reaching 70 to 100 feet into the air.
Also known as the Washingtonia robusta, and the Washington fan palm, the Mexican fan palm is one of the palm trees native to northwest Mexico.
It is found throughout the Baja California peninsula.
Unlike the California fan palm’s relatively smooth bark, the Mexican fan palm retains the old leaf bases, resulting in a rough crosshatch pattern along the trunk.
The Mexican fan palm is often found lining the street of Los Angeles, where it thrives in a variety of soil types and grows vigorously when exposed to full sun.
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The Mexican fan palm can tolerate temperatures as low as 15℉ but may show signs of “freeze damage on their leaves” if exposed to temperatures lower than 23℉.
Mexican fan palms flower in the late spring, producing clusters of small, creamy flowers.
The flowers are followed by drupes of blackberries that are “sweet and taste like dates.”
These can be either eaten raw, dried or made into jelly.
#3 Canary Island Date Palm
The Canary Island Date Palm belongs to the same family of flowering palms as both the California and Mexican Fan Palms.
However, despite being in the palm family Arecaceae, it’s more closely related to the true date palm.
The Canary Island Date Palm is an eye-catching and imposing tree that’s often nearly as wide as it is tall.
They can stand up to 65 feet tall at full height, with a potential spread of up to 40 feet in diameter.
This hardy palm species is both salt and drought tolerant, so it flourishes in coastal regions.
You’ll find some of the oldest specimens of Canary Island Date Palms lining the streets of Los Angeles and old town San Diego, although you’d better hurry as this type of palm is under attack from the South American palm weevil.
The palm weevil lays its eggs in the crown of the Canary Island Date Palm.
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Once the larvae hatch, they proceed to attack the tree, eating the soft fibers and tunneling through the tree’s internal tissues.
The infestation is so bad that the forester for the city of San Diego, Brian Widener, says, “Even though we all appreciate them as being a very iconic type of palm in our city, it’s a balancing act on how we keep some of them… and which ones we have to let go.”
#4 Dwarf Sugar Palm
The dwarf sugar palm is native to Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands in Japan.
It’s a small, slender palm tree that rarely exceeds 10 feet in height.
Its long slender stems and graceful pinnate make it an elegant addition to any landscape.
The dwarf sugar palm, also known as the Taiwan or Formosa palm, isn’t particularly cold hardy, nor does it enjoy salt or high winds.
Instead, it does best when protected against the elements by a canopy of taller trees.
The dark red fruits of the dwarf sugar palm might look appetizing, but they aren’t edible and may cause a severe allergic reaction.
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#5 King Palm
The king palm lends a certain tropical rainforest atmosphere to its environment.
One of Australia’s species of native palm trees, King Palm, is a fast-growing species that reach heights of between 40 to 60 feet.
Its dark green, feathery fronds and showy pink flowers make it an excellent street tree, where it adds a little piece of paradise to its surroundings.
King palms are relatively resilient, but they’re not cold, hardy palm trees and struggle when the temperature drops below 25℉.
#6 Pindo Palm
The graceful, exotic tree originates from Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay.
Its long, blue-green fronds form a distinctive crown, while the dead leaf stems leave a decorative pattern along the trunk.
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Highly sought after as an ornamental plant, the pindo palm is also known as the jelly palm due to its edible yellow fruits.
These can be used to make jelly or even wine.
Pindo palms are drought resistant and are also considered to be one of the most cold hardy of the feather palms.
#7 Queen Palm
This elegant palm is “the second most popular palm tree in San Diego.”
Its light, feathery fronds form a full crown some 70 feet above the ground, where it requires “constant trimming and attention.”
The queen palm flourishes in Californian heat, heat and drought tolerant, but struggles in temperatures lower than 20℉.
Originally from Brazil, queen palms produce edible fruits and their hearts are also safe to eat.
#8 Mediterranean Fan Palms
Mediterranean fan palms are the only palms native to continental Europe.
They were probably brought into California by Spanish missionaries in the latest 19th century.
Mediterranean fan palms aren’t particularly tall palm trees and rarely exceed 15 feet.
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Their feathery fronds create a low canopy that often obscures the trunk completely.
The Mediterranean fan palm is one of the hardiest palm species, making it ideal for any North American environment.
Not only is it drought resistant and cold hardy, but it can also withstand the wind and salt spray of a coastal environment.
#9 True Date Palm
True date palms are low-maintenance trees that can grow to around 100 feet tall.
Closely related to the Canary Islands date palm, they are popular ornamental trees that you’ll often see in residential areas and resorts.
Like most date palm trees, the true date palm wears a cluster of feathery fronds as a crown.
You need a male and female tree planted close together to produce fruit.
Date palms are believed to be among the first cultivated plants in the world, having been domesticated some 6,000 years ago.
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Grown primarily for their sweet, edible fruits, date palms prefer full sun and well-drained soil.
#10 Florida Royal Palm
The Florida Royal palm is a hardy palm species and “probably the most commonly grown Royal palm in California.”
For many years, it was considered too cold-sensitive to grow in California.
Still, since its status as a cold hardy palm has been established, it’s started popping up in many “public landscapings throughout the southern tip of the state.”
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This large palm tree species grows to approximately 60 feet and has a smooth, thick trunk and bright green crown.
Like most palm trees, it has a long lifespan, often surviving 150 years.
#11 Flame Thrower Palm
When the flame thrower palm produces new palm fronds, they come out bright red and remain that way for up to 10 days.
Flame throwers, or blushing palms, make excellent indoor palm trees that add a splash of color to your home.
These attractive palms grow to around 20 feet high and are the native palm trees of the island of New Caledonia.
Although relatively cold and hardy, they perform better indoors in the Californian climate.
#12 Beach Palm
If you see a palm tree growing close to the seashore, chances are it’s a beach palm.
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Indigenous to the Atlantic Coast of Brazil, these palm trees live just above the high tide mark.
Its feathery fronds emerge from a trunk wholly hidden beneath the soil and grow in an attractive swirling pattern.
Also known as the Allagoptera Arenaria, its edible fruits can be eaten raw or made into jam.
Being a beach palm, it’s very tolerant of extreme coastal conditions, including high winds and sea spray.
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Are Palm Trees Native To California?
The only native palm in California is the California Fan Palm.
All other species were introduced to the area to transform it into a semi-tropical holiday destination.
Date palms were some of the first types of palm trees to be introduced to the area, having been brought in by “Spanish Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries” back in 1769.
Grown more for ornamental purposes than for their fruits, these date palm species most probably include both the pygmy date palm and the true date palm, both of which continue to flourish today.
Additional palm tree species were introduced in the run-up to the 1932 Olympics.
This beautification project saw 25,000 palm trees planted around the city, an effort that both improved its appearance and put “many of the city’s unemployed back to work.”
California and palm trees go hand in hand, but it hasn’t always been that way.
At one time, California was covered in patchy grass and scrubland – vegetation that did little for its image as a desert oasis.
Introducing non-indigenous palm trees transformed the city, but the only native palm tree species, the California fan palm, remains one of the most iconic.
Palm trees have flourished in California over the past 250 years despite their tropical origins. But many are now in jeopardy.
Last year, experts estimated that the South American palm weevil had killed off nearly 10,000 Canary Island date palm trees in San Diego alone.
That’s not the only danger threatening California’s palm trees, either. A couple of years ago, an outbreak of “a new, deadly Fusarium wilt disease” was detected in queen palms in northern San Diego County.
This disease is common in Florida and endangers several palm tree species, including the majestic Mexican fan palm and the decorative Canary Island date palm.
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Although not all the types of palm trees in California belong there, without them, the state would look completely different and potentially lose its appeal as one of the most popular holiday destinations in North America.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.