Washingtonia robusta in the National Garden, Athens, Greece

Washingtonia robusta in the National Garden, Athens, Greece

Whilst there are a few trees with common names beginning with ‘W’ (e.g. Whitebeam, Willow) the choice on botanical names is once more limited. So you could argue that my choice is really a large (very large), grass rather than a tree, and a bit of a rarity in the U.K. But as the Washingtonia palm can be grown as an ornamental garden tree, I think I might just get away with it…

Common name: Named after George Washington, there are two species:

  • Washingtonia filifera, known also as California Washingtonia, Northern Washingtonia, California fan palm, or Desert fan palm.

  • Washingtonia robusta also known as Mexican Washingtonia, Southern Washingtonia or Thread Palm.

Native areas: Washingtonia is a genus of palms, native to the southwestern United States and northwest Mexico Both Washingtonia species are commonly cultivated across the southern USA, Middle East, southern Europe and north Africa, where they have greatly hybridized. The filifera species is also attempted in cooler climates, including the milder parts of the southern British Isles.

Washingtonia in a natural setting by Jim Harper

Washingtonia in a natural setting by Jim Harper

Historical notes: There is a persistent myth that these palms were brought to the Americas by the ancient Egyptians and their seeds were distributed in the waterways of the Western Californian area. The fruit of the Washingtonia was eaten raw, cooked, or ground into flour for cakes by native Americans. The Cahuilla and related tribes used the leaves to make sandals, thatch roofs, and baskets. The stems were used to make cooking utensils. The Moapa band of Paiutes as well as other Southern Paiutes have written memories of using this palm’s seed, fruit or leaves for various purposes including starvation food.

Features:  They are fan palms, with the leaves with a bare petiole terminating in a rounded fan of numerous leaflets. The flowers are in a dense inflorescence, with the fruits maturing into a small blackish-brown drupe 6–10 mm diameter with a thin layer of sweet flesh over the single seed. W. filifera can grow to around 23 metres tall, whilst robusta gets up to 25 metres. W. filifera has white flowers and large leaves and robusta pale orange-pink flowers, smaller leaves and narrower trunk. The fruit are eaten by birds, which disperse the seeds in their droppings after digesting the fruit pulp.

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Uses: Both species are cultivated as ornamental trees, as specimens, or more often in groups along side roads, in parks and other such open spaces. W. robusta is suitable for coastal gardens.

Growing conditions:  W. filifera is very hardy in a dry climate and able to survive brief temperatures in the vicinity of -15 °C (5 °F), provided the air and soil are not too wet, and the afternoon temperatures are not too cold. Intolerance of wet, prolonged cold is the main reason the filifera species cannot grow properly in temperate marine climates. W. robusta is less sensitive to moisture than filifera, grows faster, but is far more easily damaged by cold. Grow outside in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun.

Further information:

Wikipedia

Old School Gardener

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