You’ve probably driven by it hundreds of times. Right there, almost touching the sidewalk on Pacific Coast Highway, in Newport Beach, is one of the most famous palm trees in the United States. The northernmost outdoor growing coconut palm in the world. The tree is legendary.
I’ve been watching this tree for about twenty years, since my days as a member of the International Palm Society. It was tiny then, not much more than a seedling, innocently planted by the previous owner of the business it now stands beside. Today, it is still only about twelve feet to the top of its fronds, but it has a well-developed trunk and is showing the characteristic look of a coconut palm you might recall from some far off tropical island.
Each time I drive along Pacific Coast Highway, a bit south of Newport Blvd, I glance at it, paying homage to this lost tropical wanderer. The kind of glance long-term residents might give while passing The Matterhorn (not the one in Switzerland, the one in Anaheim). I glance at the lonesome palm on the side of the road the way you might gaze at your old elementary school as you pass by.
Coconut palms aren’t supposed to grow in California. Winter is too chilly and we get too much winter rain. But most troublesome for a coconut palm in southern California is the cool soil temperatures during our winter months.
But there are over two hundred palm species that we can add to our coastal landscapes. Common species, like Mexican Fan Palms, Pygmy Date Palms, Queen Palms and King Palms are only the beginning. Palmscaping with selections other than these common species will require some searching, but you will be rewarded with a selection of almost infinite plant size, leaf color, shape, texture and form.
I spoke with David Leaser recently, a local palm expert and author of the recently published Palm Trees: A Story in Photographs. He suggests some less common, but beautiful palms for our local garden. Included were the Formosa Palm (Arenga enlgeri), a compact clumping species with a silver back to the leaflets and very fragrant blossoms. The Miraguama Palm (Coccothrinax miraguama) is an elegant medium sized, spineless fan palm with a rather small crown; a better choice than the towering and messy Mexican Fan Palm.
The Bismark Palm (Bismarckia nobilis) may be the most striking palm for either a Mediterranean or a contemporary landscape. The bold foliage is a beautiful silvery blue color that has to be seen to be believed. It is a gorgeous, newly introduced palm from Madagascar that is easy to grow and drought tolerant.
Of all the palms David spoke of, he was the most excited about the Moroccan Blue Fan Palm (Chamaerops humilis var. cerifera). Discovered in Morocco only twenty-five years ago, this easy to grow palm has fine textured leaves that become more silvery blue each year. David recommends the Foxtail Palm (Woodyettia bifurcata) as an excellent alternative to the Queen Palm. Growing half as large as the common Queen Palm, the Foxtail Palm is a handsome feather palm that loves heat.
In our mild coastal gardens, David says the most exciting palm we can grow is the Flamethrower Palm (Chambeyronia macrocarpa), a must-have in a coastal palm garden. It is one of the most beautiful palms in the world with magnificent red new leaves and purplish colored stems and it grows easily in our Costa Mesa-Newport Beach-Corona del Mar neighborhoods.
But Coconut Palms, of course, aren’t on the list of palms David recommends for our gardens. However, twenty-five years ago, longtime Palm Society member Bill Dickenson noticed the tiny coconut palm planted on Pacific Coast Highway. Bill and fellow southern California palm patriarch Ralph Velez, informed the business owners of the palm’s rarity. Then they spoke with the gardeners maintaining the property. In spite of impossible odds the coconut survived its first few years.
I met Bill Dickenson last Saturday and we spoke fondly of his long association with this most famous of all coconut palms. For the past two and a half decades Bill has overcome the challenges of new gardeners, new business owners, city maintenance crews and even vandals.
Several years ago the young palm began developing the characteristic “lean” that all coconut trees acquire. Fearful that the bend of its trunk would bring it too far over the nearby public sidewalk, Bill met the challenge. The tree’s human foster parent rigged a sling, wrapped it around the tree’s trunk and for years pulled it carefully back toward the building and away from impending doom. Thanks to Bill Dickenson, our coconut is still with us.
Next time you take a drive down Pacific Coast Highway, just south of Newport Blvd., give a glance and a warm smile to the most northern growing Coconut Palm in the world.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar