Introduction to Brahea Palms
If you have ever visited the more mountainous areas of Mexico you may have glimpsed some of their native palms. They have a number of attractive and popular fan palms frequently planted about southern California. Braheas, sometimes collectively known as Hesper or Rock Palms, are native to much of the drier areas of Central America. As one might guess, they are all quite drought tolerant. It is this reason primarily why they are so popular and grown so commonly in southern California (a ‘natural desert').
Braheas are fan palms that either have a single, thick trunk (most) or in most other cases, smaller, suckering stems. One species, Brahea dulcis, is a suckering or solitary one, and the suckering palms tend to have surprisingly thick, stocky trunks despite their suckering nature. All Braheas are monoecious (both male and female flowers on some plant).
All Braheas are fan palms and for the most part, their leaves are relatively flat and stiff, though some would describe them as being ‘somewhat costapalmate'. Costapalmate leaves are those fan leaves with extended mid-ribs which sort of stretches the leaf out length-wise and making it fold on itself in the middle creating a bit of a curved leaf. Brahea leaves are very similar in some cases to many other species of fan palms, like the Washingtonias and some Livistonas. As with these other palms, some older palms of some species of Brahea had droopy leaf tips, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
typical stiff palmate Brahea leaf (Brahea dulcis) left; Brahea edulis (right) has somewhat more costapalmate leaves
Two species that can easily be confused with Braheas are young Washingtonias (left) and Trithrinax brasiliensis (right), both fairly common landscape plants in California
Also Livistonas can look like Braheas (Livistona chinensis left), though these have droopier leaf tips and a bit more costapalmate leaves; young Sabal sp. (right is Sabal causarium) also have somewhat similar shapes, but the leaves of Sabals are extremely costapalmate (most are, at least)
Brahea leaves tend to fall off the trunks leaving a bare trunk, particular as these palms age. However, that is in not true of all species. Brahea leaf bases are unsplit, setting them apart from Washingtonia and Sabal leaf bases, but not from Livistona leaves.
Brahea armata trunks (left showing retained unsplit leaf bases, and right more typical bare trunk look)
Washingtonias can sometimes be confused with Braheas, but they have split leaf bases that make up a trunk thatch (left); Sabals similarly have split leaf base thatch (right)
Livistona species can look a lot like Braheas in terms of their unsplit leaf bases (left- Livistona fulva; right- Livistona carinensis)
Two more Brahea trunks for comparison (Brahea brandeegei left and Brahea armata 'clara' right)
Cultivationally Braheas are not among the fastest growing palms in the world, but are well adapted to the dry, warm climates and grow much better in southern California than another popular genus of more humidly adapted, hardy fan-palms- the Sabals. So they may be slow, they seem faster than Sabals here in southern California. Sabals, on the other hand, grow far faster on the east coast where some are them are native species. For the most part, Braheas do not grow well on the east coast or in other high-humid climates. Some do fairly well, though (Brahea brandegeii and dulcis for example) in some of the less soggy areas of Florida as long as there is some soil drainage.
As a group Braheas are not among the easier palms to transplant. Digging up and moving an adult palm without killing it is a very difficult job, though it can be done. For practical purposes, when planting a Brahea, be sure it is where you want it, as attempting to move it later will likely end its life.
This large planting of Brahea armatas was done professionally as none of the trees died. I suspect the adults were grown up in large boxes and moved from the boxes to the ground, and not just dug up somwhere and moved or there probably would have been some attrition.
Brahea aculeata (aka Sinaloan Hesper Palm)- this central Mexican species is one of the smaller Braheas and one of the most drought tolerant of all palms. It is native to the Sonora Desert and seems to need little to no additional water aside from rainfall once well established and on its way to maturity. However, as with most drought tolerant palms, it does look better and healthier given regular water. Brahea aculeata grows to about fifteen feet tall and has light green to pale blue-green leaves (this form is much less common). Leaf bases are retained rarely if ever revealing a smooth trunk, so in cultivation, leave trimming will be needed to keep this palm looking neat. The petioles are heavily armed so caution during trimming and walking by. It is a slow grower but very easy palm to grow (in a desert climate). Cold tolerance is excellent into the teens.
Shots of Brahea aculeatas in Huntington Gardens, California
Retained leaf bases of Brahea aculeata (left); Plant in fruit (right)
Brahea armata (Blue Hesper Palm)- this is probably the most popular of the entire genus, at least in terms of specimen landscaping and beauty. Though most of these have pale blue to blue-grey leaves, some variation exists from pale green to nearly whitish leaves. This makes a striking landscape palm and is the most hardy of all the single-trunked blue-leaf palms (Nannorhops and Chamaerops have blue leaf forms and are hardier, but they are suckering palms). This is another remarkably drought tolerant palm native to desert canyons of Mexico and some area s of Arizona. But it can tolerate quite a bit of water and makes an incredible contrast when grown in a lush desert garden among a lot of green palms and other greener foliage. Cold tolerance is very good, almost down to 10F. It is a moderately fast palm (for a Brahea) and quite commonly found in nurseries. It eventually grows as tall as fifty feet. The petioles are armed with smaller yellow teeth and the trunk eventually becomes smoothish and bare with age. The flowers of this species are one its most striking features, shooting out far beyond the leaf tips and drooping nearly the ground in some cases, and are medium yellow color. No other Brahea has flowers like it.
Two mature flowering Brahea armatas. The plant on the right has nearly green leaves.
Examples of much more silvery specimens showing why this species is such a popular landscape palm
Brahea armata petioles showing yellow teeth (left); Brahea armata fruits dangling on a typically super long infructescence (right)
Brahea clara is currently felt to be either a droopy leaf form of this species, or a hybrid of this species and possibly Brahea elegans. It is similar in shape, size and color to Brahea armata but the leaves are strikingly costapalmate with ornamental droopy leaflets.
Photos of Brahea clara showing droopier, more costapalmate leaves
View of Brahea clara on left and Brahea armata on right
Brahea brandegeei (San Jose Hesper Palm)- this is one of the most humid tolerant of the Braheas, and several healthy ‘happy' palms are growing in southern Florida today. It is very similar in appearance to a Washingtonia robusta (Mexican Fan Palm), only a somewhat miniaturized version of one). It develops a similar tall skirt of dead leaves and the leaf color and shape is remarkable similar. However it has a somewhat thinner trunk and smaller overall shape and size. I have read it can grow to one hundred twenty five feet tall, but I have never seen one even half that height. Leaf bases are unsplit (unlike the split leaf bases of Mexican Fan palms), but with the petticoat of dead leaves, this differentiating characteristic is not often appreciated. It is a moderate fast palm, one of the fastest of the Braheas, but still far slower than a Mexican Fan Palm. Drought tolerance is good but not outstanding. Cold tolerance is only down to the mid to low 20Fs. These are not commonly grown in cultivation, but relative to most of the Braheas, it could be considered fairly common.
Brahea brandegeei without skirt (left) and with skirt in foreground (right)... Washingtonias in background showing how similar they look with their skirts to Brahea brandegeei
Brahea brandegeei foliage (left) and showing petiole arrangement and color (right)
Brahea calcarea (aka Brahea nitida, or White Rock Palm)- This Western Mexican palm is not common in cultivation, but not terribly rare, either. They can be found in several southern California botanical gardens and in many palm enthusiast collections. As a young palm it is one of the more attractive having nearly circular palmate leaves on the end of nearly to completely unarmed petioles. It is a moderately fast grower eventually topping out around forty feet. Older palms retain large petticoats of dead leaves and lose some of their youthful ornamental structure. It is not one of the more cold tolerant palms, only hardy down to the mid 20Fs.
Brahea calcareas in Southern California
Mature Brahea calcarea (left) juvenile plant showing nearly circular leaves (right)
Brahea decumbens (Mexican Dwarf Blue Palm)- this is one of the rarer sought after species many enthusiasts want in their collections at an early age (as they will usually be quite aged before these begin to look ornamental- VERY slow palm). I have only seen one mature specimen and it is a beautiful one, in the Huntington Botanical Gardens near Pasadena, California. I don't know how old it is, but it is dozens of years old I am sure. This is a suckering palms with trunks that creep along the ground, so even at maturity, this palm is a low shrub. Leaves are quite pale blue and rival Brahea armata in their amazing color. This palm is not only rare in cultivation, but also in the wild (Mexico) due to predation from goats. It also is very reluctant to produce viable seed in captivity (primarily due to lack of mature individuals, but even those rarely make good seed). Often plants sold as this end up being something else, perhaps some hybrids, as they end up looks much larger than the true Brahea decumbens. Cold hardiness is pretty good down to the mid teens.
Two shots of same plant wtih different lighting to show color variation in various times of day. This is the mature plant in Huntington Gardens, California
Leaf of mature plant (left) Color and size of about a 10 year old plus seedling (right)
Brahea dulcis (Rock Palm)- this is not a very commonly grown palm and is almost never seen in landscaping unless one visits a botanical garden or enthusiast's collection. But it is one of the most beautiful of the Braheas having very finely and evenly pleated leaves giving it a nearly ‘perfect' appearance (if not too wind-whipped or water-starved). This palm comes from multiple countries, from Guatamala, Nicaragua, up through parts of north-eastern Mexico, and possibly even native to parts of southern Texas. It is also one of the most variable of all the Braheas, growing either as a stout, single trunked tree, to a leaner, suckering species. Leaf color also varies from deep green to a pale blue-green. For this reason, this species has numerous synonyms and some of these still have not been worked out completely. It grows in rocky terrain (hence the name) and is quite drought tolerant. Though usually described as costapalmate, this Brahea has one of the flattest, palmate leaves of the genus. Flowers are exceptionally long, complex and often droop to the ground, though usually only a foot or so out from the trunk.
Mature Brahea dulcis flowering (left) close up of leaf (right)
Two different plants of the suckering form; plant on right shows some immature suckers with the bare trunks of the mature behind them
Brahea edulis (Guadalupe Palm)- despite this one being the most commonly grown of all the Braheas, it is one of the most endangered palms as well. It is native to the small Mexican island of Guadalupe which, in the past was a lushly populated island but now is mostly barren with this being about the only tree species left. But it is far from extinct if one takes into account the tens of thousands in cultivation all along the California coast and somewhat inland. Few use this as a specimen tree as it is not that much difference in appearance (to most onlookers) to the common Mexican or California Fan Palms (Washingtonias) that are grown by the millions in California. But if one looks more closely the differences can be seen. For one, this tree is shorter, growing maybe to forty feet, and has a smoothish, thick trunk even without trimming. Leaf bases are unsplit (unlike Washingtonias), but as they eventually are shed, this is not always a reliable indentifying characteristic. The leaves are nearly the same color as those of Washingtonia filifera (pale to medium green) and tend to droop a bit at the tips of the leaflets, too. But the leaves have a more pronounced midrib (more costapalmate), and more finely pleated (so look a bit more elegant) and the petioles have much smaller teeth than do those of Washingtonias. The most telling characteristic are the flowers, which are shorter (do not come near the length of the leaves while the flowers of Washingtonias extend far beyond the leaves) and ‘flufflier' or more full. The fruits of this tree are enormous in comparison, being nearly an inch in diameter, as opposed to less than a quarter inch in Washingtonias. This is hardy palm, and very drought tolerant (which is one of the reasons a few still survive on Guadalupe island, which is now basically a desert island). It is a medium grower, fast enough to make a useful landscape palm, but slow enough to not outgrow its location nearly as fast as Washingtonia can. The fruits are edible (hence the name) but I have to admit at never having tried to eat one.
Brahea edulis on left and a Washingtonia robusta on right showing similarities
Mature palms in fruit but only about ten feet tall (left); flowering palm and leaf shape (right)
Avenue at Huntington Gardens planted with Brahea edulis
Brahea elegans is maybe a species, maybe a hybrid, but either way it is fairly rare and I have no photos of one. Reportedly it is a small, thin-trunked palm with fine, palmate leaves.
Brahea moorei (Dwarf Rock Palm)- this is one of the rarest of all the Braheas and finding even a seedling for one's collection is a great rarity. I have only seen one of these and it was a seedling. Many previously identified Brahea mooreis have turned out to be something else. This is a stemless species from northern Mexico with deeply dividied, droopy, deep green leaves with strikingly white undersides. Petioles have no teeth at all. It would be hard to confuse this species with any other. It is very slow growing and relatively cold sensitive (mid 20Fs).
Brahea moorei in southern California (immature plant) and showing the white on the underside of its leaves
Brahea pimo (Furry Hesper Palm)- this is another pretty rare species, even in the enthusiast's collections, though I am not sure why it is so hard to find. It is my favorite species, though, having wonderful colors (pinks, oranges and several shades of pale green) and a fuzzy leaf and petiole as well. This Mexican solitary-trunk species is a very slow grower and never gets any height over about eight feet (I have never seen one over five feet tall). Cold tolerance is relatively poor only tolerating frosts into the mid 20Fs.
Brahea pimos in botanical garden (left) and in a private garden (right)
the petioles are fuzzy and colorful in this species, and even the underside of the leaves are fuzzy and colorful
Brahea salvadorensis (no common name)- another very rare species from several Central American countries characterized by a moderately thick single trunk and exceptionally large, barely divided palmate leaves with droopy leaflets. Until the 1990s it was always lumped into Brahea dulcis despite its very different appearance.
Brahea salvadoriensis in Huntington Gardens
Brahea sarukhanii (no common name) is another rare solitary species from Mexico that has only recently been described (2005). It grows up to fifteen feet and is hardy to around 20F. I know little about it otherwise.
Brahea surakhanii in Huntington Gardens
Discussion about this article: