Palms, like tall buildings, make a powerful impression upon the landscape. With near-perfect symmetry and almost identical growth habits, they appear more as natural sculptures than trees.
Many species will reach monumental proportions within our lifetime, placing an enormous responsibility upon anyone wishing to plant one.
How is one to know just where and how to use palms in the landscape?
Landscape architects view the palm as a work of art, a strong form that can be used to manipulate spaces. Its characteristics allow it to become an extension of architecture, a rigid element that--like walls or buildings--can enhance an overall concept by carrying it into the landscape.
But these design professionals have an ability to see into the future, to imagine the effect of a 30-foot-high column of plant material. The novice must learn to have such a vision to understand palm plantings.
In all forms of basic design, a few fundamentals exist. Palms have four major uses: lines, groves or bosks, groups and individuals.
Consistent Growth Habits
Planting palms in lines takes the greatest advantage of their consistent growth habits. Typically, the straight-trunked varieties, such as Washingtonia filifera and Phoenix canariensis, are selected for avenue planting.
Stemming from agricultural windrow plantings, and even taking inspiration from the formal gardens of France, urban planners early in this century knew the value of such trees.
An equally stunning design statement can be made on a residential scale. Keep in mind that "linear" plantings aren't necessarily straight. They can be laid out in beautifully symmetrical arcs as they are at the entry to Newport Center in Irvine. They can snake along a pool deck or a curving driveway.
But probably most dramatic are the double rows of palms flanking entry drives, with thick trunks and bushy heads creating a visual rhythm.
The use of bosks and groves began in the rigid Moorish gardens of the Middle East. A bosk is typically an orchard-like grid planting of feather-fronded palms. These varieties might include Canary Island, queen, king and date palms. The palms are planted in a grid so that the fronds can grow into canopies and provide large areas of shade.
Residential Bosks Possible
A small residential bosk might include as few as four palms. The availability of matched palms at almost any size today makes bosk planting possible without the long-term commitment once necessary. A bosk might be in a paved area, possibly with a pattern incorporated into the ground plan. The palms can be planted in circular or square openings in the pavement, and a fountain might be built at the center.
The bosk can be larger, in a variety of geometric shapes with beds of annual color emphasizing the symmetry. So rarely used to its full potential, the bosk offers a solution for small urban gardens, where the soft, waving fronds and filtered sun, latticework trunks and bright paving extend upbeat interiors to the outdoors.
Groups of palms always will suggest the tropics, where the trees grow like weeds and seedlings surround the mother plant with thick foliage. These dense thickets of green fronds provide a perfect background for colorful plantings, lending that hint of exotica.
When designing a garden with clumps or groups of palms, it's important to stick with just one or two varieties. Conglomerations of different palms in a dense garden environment will dilute the effects of each type. When planting the clump, try to incorporate different heights to simulate the natural regeneration of the tree.
Select Palms Carefully
For most homes, a single specimen fits the budget and scale of the lot. If only one or two palms will be used, take care to select an appropriate variety.
For example, the blue, feather-fronded Butia capitata, while rather expensive, is worth the money if it fits your color scheme. King palms, Archontophoenix cunninghamiana , can be one of the most decorative, with huge clusters of bright red berries and lime-green trunks.
Avoid the Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta , because it soon will grow out of sight with a long, spindly trunk. Plant your specimen palms near entries, or as a focal point with night lighting. Make them the center of your garden or tuck them into patio corners.
The watchword for planting palms is scale. It is important to understand the relationship between the palm's ultimate size and the space you plan to put it in. Patios will want smaller palms that stay neatly sized or those that grow very slowly. Against tall buildings, use tall trees. So often, palms are removed because the characteristics of the species were not understood.
Keep in mind that palms are one of the best ways to disguise street lights and telephone poles. And, for best results, use companion trees for your palms.
These trees are often used in conjunction with palms due to forms and textures that enhance the overall character of the garden. They include but are not limited to: Albizzia julibrissin (the silk tree), California pepper, most eucalyptuses, standard-size citrus and most ficus trees.
Some available landscape palms:
Fan palms--California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera; Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta; Mexican blue palm, Brahea (Erythea) armata; windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei; Mediterranean fan palm, Chamerops humilis.
Plume Palm--Canary Island date palm, Phoenix canariensis; jelly palm, Butia Capitata; king palm, Archontophoenix cunninghamiana; thatch or kentia palm, Howea forsterana; queen palm, Arecastrum romanzoffianum; Senegal date palm, Phoenix reclinata ; pygmy date palm, Phoenix robelenii.