California Fan PalmsDid you know that palm trees aren't really trees? They are giant plants that are monocots and as such do not have woody tissue, so they aren’t trees, botanically speaking. But they certainly do get as big as trees. The tallest monocot in the world is a palm that is Columbia’s National Tree, it reaches a height of 180 feet! Palms also have the biggest leaves of any plant, reaching sizes of 75 feet, the largest seeds of any plant, nearly 2 feet long, and the largest flowers of any plant, up to 24 feet tall. They are ancient plants that have been around for 80 million years.
Palms mainly grow mainly in tropical forests, but some species also grow in high mountain, grassland, and desert areas. Enter the native California Fan Palm Washingtonia filifera. The genus name honors George Washington, the first President of the United States. This is the only palm native to the Southwestern US. Another close relative grows in Mexico, the Washingtonia robusta.
California Fan Palms grow naturally in desert oasis in the Sonoran Desert. I’ve hiked to several of these oasis including Borrego Palm Canyon and Coyote Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Lost Palms and 49 Palms in Joshua Tree National Park. Natural oases environments are mainly restricted historically to the area surrounding warm or hot springs, near the source, or shortly downstream from the source. These are magical spots not only for plant life but for wildlife as well. Fan palms provide critical habitat for Nelson’s bighorn sheep, Hooded Oriole, Gambel's Quail, coyotes, the palm boring beetle Dinapate wrightii, and a rare bat species, Lasiurus xanthinus that is especially fond of fan palm groves. Hooded Orioles rely on the trees for food and places to build nests. Both Hooded Orioles and coyotes play an integral part in fan palm seed distribution.
Of course humans have made use of palms as well. The fruit of the fan palm was used by the Cahuilla and Southern Paiute. It was eaten raw, cooked, or ground into flour for cakes. Fan palm leaves were used to make sandals, thatch roofs, and for making baskets. Stems were used to make utensils for cooking.
If you decide to visit a fan palm oasis, please tread lightly. Please leave your dog at home, as they can easily scare away wildlife that depend on the oasis for water and food. And please don’t drink the water, many oasis are literally drying up, so pack in your own supply.
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