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Palms Spring Up All Over for Growers


"It's a disease, this drive to acquire palms," says Ralph Velez of Westminster, who has more than 1,000 palm trees. "But it's nice to know I'm not unique."


And he's not. He is one of 600 members of the Southern California Palm Society, who all, to varying degrees, have a passion for palms. Most of the society members are residents of Orange and San Diego counties.

Some got hooked on palms at a tender age.

"When I was a boy in New York, I was fascinated with the jungle settings of the Tarzan movies," Velez recalls. After acquiring his Westminster house in 1962, he decided to create his own version of a jungle and included some palm trees in the landscape.

He learned of the International Palm Society and contacted its Southern California Chapter. Within a year of joining, Velez had acquired seeds of rare palms and was growing 120 varieties.

Thirty years later, his collection has grown to "more palms than I can count, but I know it's more than 1,000 representing 400 palm species."

He has two greenhouses: One is two-story, and the other is rooftop for better sun and heat, to aid seed germination.

When he's not tending to palms or talking about them, Velez is an art teacher at Los Amigos High School in Garden Grove.

"My artistic training is part of my appreciation of these graceful, aristocratic and elegant looking trees," he explains. "But because I keep adding more to my collection, I have to compromise my artistic sensibilities with my mania for collecting."

Like Velez, Ed Green of Laguna Niguel has been fascinated by palms most of his life--he began collecting palms when he was 11. Now 34 and a member of the Palm Society, his collection also numbers more than 1,000.

"I started by growing coconuts and was fascinating by their grace and beauty," he said. "Palms are fascinating plants because they're so graceful and different from everything else."

He keeps his collection in a greenhouse, where he grows some rare varieties from seed. Although he's lost count of how many palms he owns, he says he plans to keep adding to his collection as new and rare palm varieties become available.

Conserving rare palms also plays an important role in the life of Brad Carter, palm curator at UC Irvine and a member of the Palm Society.

Carter travels the world seeking seeds from rare and endangered palms. Recently he collected seeds from a palm that grows only on Robinson Crusoe Island, 300 miles off the coast of Chile.

He's growing the seeds at the UC Irvine greenhouses, and when the plants are large enough, to help ensure their survival he'll distribute them to botanical gardens and palm collectors.

Collectors prize palms for their graceful appearance, which evokes a tropical mystique, rather than for any functional reason, such as fruiting or flowering.

A few palm species do yield edible dates or coconuts, but those grow only in hot or humid climates, not in Orange County.

Although there are 200 genera of palms, and close to 3,000 varieties, only about a dozen varieties are commonly seen in municipal plantings throughout Orange County.

Mexican fan palms, which soar 100 feet, are native to Mexico and have become a symbol of Southern California. The queen palm, a South American native, attains a height of up to 80 feet here, and the king palm, an Australian native, can reach 60 feet. The Canary Island date palm (ornamental fruit only) grows to 60 feet. The Mediterranean fan palm also thrives in Orange County and, at a maximum height of 20 feet, is more restrained.

The Palm Society says other varieties relatively easy to grow in Orange County include some bamboo palms; fishtail palm (will tolerate clay soil and cold), a moderate grower of up to 15 feet in height; the Majesty palm, to 40 feet; pygmy date palm, to 10 feet; and triangle palm, to 30 feet.

Some varieties retain their dead leaves (called fronds), while others shed them yearly in a process termed "self-cleaning." Some people admire the beauty of the dead fronds as part of the palm's character. Others prefer to trim annually.

Because most palms don't shed leaves, they're popular near pools or spas.

Some palm varieties are so low growing, without forming trunks, that they can be used effectively as ground covers. Taller varieties add visual interest at night when they're lighted from behind or below or silhouetted by direct lighting against light-colored walls.

While palms are generally considered low-maintenance plants, they come from such diverse tropical and sub-tropical areas that their requirements vary. Many need special care and don't like the clay soil commonly found in Orange County.

To counter this, Velez suggests adding a mulch around established palm trees and incorporating mulch into the planting hole when palms are added to the landscape.

He also uses gypsite once a year.

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