Uncommon Palms for the Bay Area

Palms have been my favorite plant group lately. When I grew up in Beijing, which is at most USDA zone 6, I had almost no experience with palms except a particular kind of common and versatile fans made from palm leaves (most likely Livistona chinensis).

Chinese Fan

Palms are the ultimate foliage plants with architectural impact, and they should be used more often in our USDA zone 9B gardens, even if just for the fact that we can grow more than 100 species outdoors while people in most of the country can only admire them in heated greenhouses.

Of course gardeners always want exotic plants that sometimes are not suitable for their area. Here are a couple of my own tropical beauties: First is Caryota zebrina native to Papua New Guinea. Its common name is Zebra Fishtail Palm since its leaf stems have striking ring patterns, (image from Palm and Cycad Society of Australia)
Caryota zebrina image from Pacsoa

Dypsis morquerysiana is a nice dwarf palm from Madagascar with pleated fishtail-like leaves. Bifid is the term for this kind of leaf form and a lot of pinnate palms have bifid leaves when they are young. Some palms maintain this leaf form even when mature, which are greatly favored by most palm enthusiasts.

Dypsis morquerysiana
Similar to quite a number of other plants, the new leaves on Dypsis morquerysiana are often bright red, which may be a natural adaptation intended to warn off leaf-munching insects.

Now my favorite palm for outdoors in the Bay Area is Arenga micrantha, which is native to high elevations in Eastern Himalayas. My plant is still only about 5′ tall without a trunk, but you can see the unique shapes of its leaves and leaflets. The backside is powdery white for more visual interest.

Arenga micrantha
Arenga micrantha leaflets
Arenga micrantha leaf backside

I am also trying several other palms with silver leaf undersides including Brahea moorei, Guihaia argyrata, Lytocaryum hoehnei, and Trachycarpus princeps. Unfortunately, most of these are still too young to show those silvery colors.

Another favorite palm of mine is Rhapis humilis, or Slender Lady Palm. This is a medium sized fan palm that is different from common Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa) with its pointed leaflets and taller stems. It is also more sun tolerant and has a more elegant look in my opinion. Other Rhapis palms in my garden include Rhapis multifida, which is slightly smaller than Rhapis humilis, and Rhapis ‘Alicia’, which also has pointed leaflets and is a hybrid between R. humilis and R. laosensis.

Rhapis humilis

A good online reference for Bay Area gardeners who are interested in palms is the website of the Northern Calfiornia Palm Society. Inside there is a species list showing many palms that our local hobbiests are growing. However, since palm horticulture is still in its infancy, there are many new palms that are not on that list but are actively tried out by adventurous gardeners. I am really excited about the possibilities but I first need to find a big yard to plant out all the fancy palm seedlings I have already accumulated.