Most articles about growing palms discuss their need for warmth, humidity, watering etc., but few are written from the point of view of the desert climate. While warmth is usually a good thing when growing palms (though not always), there are limits to what heat some palms can tolerate, particularly when the humidity is low. This is possibly because most palms live in the humid tropics, where temps may occasionally soar, but the protective humidity will often keep them from succumbing. Some palms are native to much more arid climates and these make excellent cultivated plants for those who also happen to be living in such climates in other areas of the world. However, some palms that do not come from desert climates, or anything like a desert climate, still surprisingly manage to make excellent choices for growing there.
For true exotic plant lovers, an arid, hot climate can pose a bit of a challenge and limitation in plant species selection one has to choose from. Many growers simply concentrate on the cacti and succulents one normally sees in such climates, and the native species that have adapted to an arid and exceptionally hot environment. There are more plants to choose from than one might at first realize, however. There are dozens and dozens, of beautiful and exotic palms that perform excellently in arid climates, as long as there is water available for their roots. I am obviously not going to be able to cover them all, but I will cover a few exceptional species and several genera with many suitable members.
typical offerings at a nursery for desert plants (left); Right is a shot of a desert garden with lots of palms in it
Almost every time I visit the deserts of California and Arizona am surprised by what can and can’t grow there. Plants like Aloes and Agaves that I have really begun to take an interest in seem the epitome of desert plants sometimes, yet many struggle in these desert climates. On the other hand, I was not expecting to see the large variety of palms that can grow there (and also many of the palms that can’t grow there, either).
This article will not be a complete list for those wishing to know all that can grow in their desert for several reasons. The main reason being that would be a long article. The other main reason is there are high deserts and there are low deserts. High deserts have the secondary problem of having relatively cold winter temperatures which severely limit the number of palms (and other species) one can grow there. This article will be geared more towards the warmer, lower desert climes as I can then cover more genera and species. For those who live in a somewhat more inhospitable climate, there are plenty of resources for obtaining cold tolerance on any palms you might want to grow (see some below).
Palms growing along the strip in Las Vegas, an example of a 'high' desert climate- still gets pretty hot, but it also gets significantly colder here, limiting the number of species that can be grown
Generalizations:1. You might notice when looking for palms in the desert is there are preponderance of fan palms versus feather palms. With some exceptions, of course (such as Phoenix palms), fan palms tend to survive hot, dry climates better than do most pinnate leaved or feather palms. Those genera of fan palms one rarely if ever finds growing in desert regions tend to be among the more cold sensitive species. In other words, it is the desert’s cold that is more the limitation for most fan palm species than is the high heat. A few genera of fan palms, however, are fairly cold tolerant but still cannot handle high heat (notably some of the Trachycarpus and Pritchardia).
Pritchardia pacifica, though a beautiful example of a classic fan palm, is NOT a good desert palm choice and struggles in high heat situations with low humidity (left); right is Trachycarpus martianus, a nice cool weather fan palm, but not a good desert palm unfortunately.
2. There are many exceptions to this rule, but of the pinnate palms that perform best in the desert, few are crownshafted species. One of the more commonly grown palms in cultivation, but that makes a very poor choice for growing in a desert environment, is the king palm (Archontophoenix genera). Chamaedorea is another palm commonly grown throughout southern California, but it is the heat and lack of humidity that seems to be the major limiting factor for many (if not nearly all) of these species.
Some of the most commonly grown landscape species of palms include the Archontophoenix, such as Archontophoenix alexandrae, or Alexander Palm (left) and Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, or king palm (center), do not seem to survive well in the desert and do not look good if eked through a summer in some darker corner of the yard; Chamaedorea elegans, or the Parlor Palm, a very common and adaptable species, both indoors and out, does not like the deserts either (right)
3. Palms with blue leaves tend to do exceptionally well in the desert. Again, with the exception of the very cold sensitive species (eg. Mauritiella), this generalization is pretty dead on
One of the most beautiful palms in the world, in my opinion, is this blue fan palm, Mauritiella armata (left)... but it is a very tropical palm and does not appear to be a good choice for most deserts (though it might do OK in a super tropical desert where lows do not go below 40F); right is another Pritchardia, a rare blue form of Pritchardia hildebrandii, and though I do not know if this particular Pritchardia has been tried in a hot, desert climate, my guess that despite its blue coloration, it would not perform well
The Fan Palms:
Acoelorrhaphe wrightii (Paurotis Palm, Everglades Palm)- this palm looks good in the desert only if watered really well (this plant thrives on water). Fortunately many desert areas, despite their lack of rainfall, are blessed with copious groundwater supplies (eg. Inland California).
Paurotis palms (Acoelorrhaphe wrightii)
Acoelorrhaphe palms in inland California deserts, looking as healthy and happy as above examples in more temperate climates
Bismarckia nobilis may be one of my favorite of all species that grow well in the desert. This palm is a great palm for southern California, Arizona (the warmest areas) and Florida, as well as the tropics and really should be planted more. It has exceptional tolerance of high, dry heat and is perfectly adapted to the low desert areas.
Bismarckias growing along the coast (above) and inland California (below)
Bismarckia nobilis in Palm Desert, growing nearly as lushly as in tropics (left); rarely seen perfectly grown green form of Bismarckia, a much more tender and difficult to grow palm in temperate regions, with about twenty feet of trunk in Palm Desert, California (right)
Brahea is a genus with many species native to the deserts of Mexico, so it should be surprise no one that many of these species do very well in other deserts as well. The blue species (Brahea armata, clara and decumbens) are exceptionally suited for the desert, not only growing much faster there than just about anywhere else, but able to survive long periods of drought with little deleterious effects. Still, the more water most palms get in the desert, the better. Brahea calcarea, aculeata, dulcis, edulis and moorei are excellent choices as well (this last one does not like full sun in the deserts, however). Brahea aculeata is probably the best of these green-leaved Braheas for really hot, dry areas. Brahea brandegeei, B. pimo, B. salvadorensis and B. sarukanii might also do well, too, but I have very little experience with these species as far as seeing them growing in the deserts.
Brahea armatas, or Blue Mexican Fan Palms, in inland California yard blooming (left); mature plant (right)
Brahea armata extra silvery looking (left); right is Brahea clara (or Brahea armata variety 'Clara') showing the more droopy leafletts and finely split leaves
Brahea armatas in desert region of California
Brahea armata grown in hot, inland desert, California (left) and another one, showing a more green coloration, also doing well in Palm Desert, California
Brahea armata (right palm in left photo) often holds more leaves and looks more 'lush' in desert climates than near the coast in California. Other green palm in left photo is also a Brahea, Brahea brandegeei, as is palm in right photo
Brahea brandegeei looking perfect in Palm Desert, California, in some shade protection part day (left), and Brahea moorei with moderate shade protection (right) in slight less than extreme desert conditions
Brahea aculeatas growing in the Huntington, southern California (not exactly the desert, but close at least on the left where palms are growing well in the cactus garden)
Brahea decumbens in cultivation- these particular individual plants shown above are not in true desert climates, but look the same, perhaps with a few less leaves, as those found in their native Mexican deserts. Thanks to its glaucous blue powder on the leaves, this species is particularly adapted for desert life
Brahea dulcis photos (single trunk form on left, and multiple trunk from, aka suckering, on right)
Brahea dulcis juvenile in Palm Desert, California (left); adult Brahea calcarea in the Huntington (right)
Brahea pimo- too rare to have much desert experience, but a possible plant to try out there
Brahea edulis photos- pretty hardy palm considering it is native to an island with minimal temperature extremes. Still, not often grown in super hot deserts
Brahea salvadorensis (left) and Brahea surakhani (right) are too rare or new in cultivation to know for sure how they would perform in super hot, sunny conditions. though Brahea salvadorensis likely would need at least moderate shade protection
Chamaerops humilis, aka the Mediterranean Fan Palm, is a very commonly grown palm in cultivation and is one of the most adaptable species of palm there are, surviving extreme heat as well as extreme cold. It also has exceptional wind, heat and drought tolerance. The blue form, Chamaerops humilis var. argentea, grows exceptionally fast and well in the deserts compared to its growth rate along the more coastal climates and is an excellent landscape palms for just about all deserts.
Two shots of typical Chamaerops humilis in southern California
and the less typical forms of Chamaerops humilis also perform excellently in the desert as seen in the above examples growing in the Living Desert arboretum, Palm Desert California (wispy form on the left and stiff, short-leaved form on right)
Chamaerops humilis variety argentea is a particular blue variety of this species that, not surprisingly, seems to be growing very well in the deserts, too, though it has not been readily available long enough for there to be too many mature, large specimens in cultivation, yet. Plant on left (my own) is one of the large specimens I have seen growing, but it will likely be soon dwarfed by those planted in the desert areas.
The Cococothrinax species (often called Thatch Palms) are another group of palms that seem to do exceptionally well in low desert areas, and tend to grow quite fast compared to what I am used to seeing them grow like along the more coastal areas of California (which is almost intolerably slow). I cannot say that all the species are good desert choices, but at least a few seem to do quite well there. Coccothrinax argentata, C. miraguama, C. barbadensis, C. salvatoris, C. ekmanii and C. spissa are few that are known to do pretty well in the deserts.
Probably tlhe most commonly grown species of Coccothrinax grown in desert climates is Coccothrinax argentata. Both plants above are growing happily and excellently, though in partial day sun, in Palm Desert, California (right photo David Bleistein)
Coccothrinax barbadensis growing nearly as lushly and happily in Palm Desert (left) as plants in Hawaii are growing (right)
Coccothrinax spissa is a species that does exceptionally well (though slow) in the low deserts (left photo David Bleistein)
Coccothrinax miraguama/scoparia also seems to tolerate desert climates, though perhaps not in full sun
Copernicia is a genus of palms that is almost too slow to even bother trying to grow in most of California (with a few exceptions)… and many are very marginal in the first place. Surprisingly, many of these marginal species seem to thrive in the lower deserts and survive the freak lows seen there that seem to otherwise kill them off in climates will less cold extremes, but more importantly, less heat. I can grow maybe four species of Copernicia in Los Angeles, but there are over twice that many species that are doing well in the deserts of California and Phoenix, some incredibly ornamental, too. Copernica alba, C. prunifera, C. hospita, C. gigas, C. fallensis, C. baileyana, C. curtsii, C. macroglossa, C. beteroana and C. rigida are a few that seem to like the deserts.
This Copernicia macroglossa in Palm Desert, California nearly approaches the magnficence of this same species grown in far more tropical environments (much older plant in Thailand in right photo)
Copernicia alba is an excellent desert palm, though also a good tropics palm. Plant on left is growing in Florida while one on right is living in full sun in Palm Desert, California
Copernicia prunifera is basically the same species as Copernicia alba, only with waxier leaves (source of Cornuba Wax) and seems well adapted to desert life as well
Copernicia baileyana, once thought of as a sensitive tropical species (seen on left in Thailand) does surprisingly well in dry, temperate conditions, including inland, warm areas (plant on right growing in California)
Copernicia curtisii is another relatively tropical species (left in Florida) that can be grown, though slowly, in the inland, warm deserts (right photo by David Bleistein)... this species is nearly impossible to grow anywhere else in California other than the deserts
Two more Copernicias that are sometimes grown in inland deserts are Copernicia hospita (left) and Copernicia glaubrescens (right). Copernicia hospita is another plant that struggles mightily in most temperate climates but the very hottest ones, though it is pretty slow anywhere outside the tropics.
One of my favorite genera are the Hyphaene, or Doum Palms. These are particularly excellent species of the deserts and seem to grow faster and faster the hotter it gets. Though they do have some cold sensitivity, they seem to grow out of their funks a lot faster in the desert where the heat returns quickly (as opposed to my area where it can stay cool for months in a row). Hyphaene coriacea, petersiana and thebaica are exceptionally well adapted to the deserts, though the other species might do well, too. I just have not seem them out there.
Hyphaene thebaica growing in Egyptian desert showing typical branching behavior that seems only to occur in certain climates, or at extreme ages (photo by Charlie Slezak)
Two more shots of Hyphaene thebaica growing in its native environment, Egypt (photos by Charlie Slezak)
Hyphaene coriacea in Palm Desert, where it grows much better than it does anywhere else in California (left); young, healthy plant in less severe climate, southern California (right)
Mature Hyphaene petersiana in tropical environment (left) and in much younger plant in deserty environment showing nice colors (right)
Hyphaene petersiana (left) and Hyphaene thebaica (right) growing in Palm Desert, California (right photo by David Bleistein)
Hyphaene coriacea colorful leaf bases (left) and suckering trunks (right)
Livistonas almost all do well in the deserts. A few might be considered a bit too cold sensitive (eg. Livistona rotundifolia) and some are too rare for me to guess… but in general these seem to be excellent palms for most warmer desert areas. I had thought that the most cold tolerant species, Livistona chinensis, might be one exception, and needs to be grown in nearly some shade to look good in some climates, but I was wrong... this palm even does well in full sun in the desert. Some of the pickier species in my climate, like Livistona carinensis and Livistona victoriae, do very well in the warmest desert areas (not a very cold tolerant palms, though). And one of the most dainty of all the fan palms, Livistona inermis, does surprisingly well in the desert areas of California despite it being nearly impossible to grow in just about every other climate in California. Other good choices are Livistona australis, L. decorum, L. drudei, L. lanuginosa, L. mariae, L. rigida, L. alfredii and L. nitida.
Right is probably the largest and one of the best looking Livistona alfrediis in California, growing in Palm Desert- obviously a great palm for the desert climate. Livistona alfredii is a pretty rare species and has a nice blue-grey leaf color that makes one correctly think it would do exceptionally well in such a climate. Livistona australis, a very adaptable palm in right photo
Livistona carinensis is another fairly rare species in cultivation, partly due to its finicky nature and difficulty with cooler climates. However, the inland desert is an excellent climate as it turns out, demonstrated by the very happy looking palm on the right, growing in Palm Desert, California (photo by David Bleidstein) . Left photo is of an extremely rare example of a maturing palm in California not in the desert showing less typical appearance than this palm shows normally in superior climates.
Livistona chinensis is a typically short, slow palm in southern California, growing best in somewhat shaded conditions... excpet in the inland desert (right) where it grows fairly fast and in perfect form in full, hot sun
Livistonas decorum (aka decipiens) left, drudei (center) and nitida (right) all seem fairly good choices for the desert climate, though all seem to benefit a bit from some sun protection
Young Livistona decorums in a dry field... very hardy, durable palms
Livistona mariae seedling showing typical red color of seedlings (left); mature Livistona rigida inland California (but not quite desert)- center; Livistona mariae in Palm Desert (right)
Livistona inermis seedlings (left and center) are normally the only way I ever see this species in real life.... it is an incredibly finicky species in our climate and nearly impossible to grow in California... except note the mature palm in the right photo in Palm Desert- incredible! (right photo David Bleistein)
Livistona fulva probably would do well in the deserts, but perhaps might need some shade (left); Livistona lanuginosa (middle and right) is a proven winner for the low deserts
Livistona saribus is a tad marginal in the desert climate and does not tolerate much in the way of sun at all (seen growing nearer coast on left); right shot is of a younger plant in the desert growing well but in nearly complete shade
These two rarer grey to bluish Livistona species (Livistona loriphylla left) and Livistona victoriae right) do much better in the deserts than in most places nearer the coast. Livistona victoriae is a particularly good grower in the desert environment
Medemia argun is a pretty rare species, but has been shown to be much easier to grow in the California deserts than it is nearly anywhere else in California (also does well in wet areas of the tropics despite what one might guess considering its own desert origins).
Medemia argun in Thailand, where it gets tons of water... but normally this palm grows in sandy Arabian deserts where rainfall is minimal and heat is intense.
Nannorhops ritchiana is an amazingly tolerant palm, surviving the wettest tropics as well as the driest, most inhospitable places on earth. Still, it is a tricky palm to grow when young, for some reason… but as it ages, it seems to adjust to whatever climate it’s growing in, including most of the desert regions. It is also one of the most cold tolerant species there are.
Nannorhops in southern California inland, doing quite well in whatever situation it finds itself
Nannorhops in the inland Californa desert doing very well
Rhapidophyllum histrix is the most cold tolerant palm in the world, but it has surprising tolerance of other climates as well. I have seen it growing happily in Thailand right near the equator, and in the California deserts (though in some shade there). Give this one a lot of water if growing it in the desert, though.
Rhapidophyllum growing in California... needs good sun protection in the inland desserts.
Many Sabal species seem to have few problems with hot, dry desert conditions, though some are better than others. Sabal uresana is probably the best of these, perhaps thanks to its bluish leaves. A few of the tender-leaved species like Sabal mauritiiformis and yapa seem to have some troubles with the high heat, particularly if grown in sun.
Sabals bermudana (left), causarium (middle) and mexicana (right) all survive desert climates, and seem to actually thrive there.
Sabal minor does very well in the deserts (left) being one of the most adaptable palm species on earth; the similar Sabal etonia grows well in very inland California (Riverside in above photo) but I have not seen this one in the desert (probably just not been tried often, though)
Sabal minors can grow short trunks (left) so though this plant on the right is healthy and happy growing in the hot, inland dsert, it was probably put int the wrong place (under the overhang)- (grows very fast and well in the desert).
Probably the best Sabal for the inland deserts is the normally super-slow-growing Sabal uresana, a plant with some blue in its leaf color
mature palm near the coast (left) and in the inland deserts (Palm Desert) where it grows surprisingly fast and looks very different from how it looks in cooler climates (right)
Sabal palmetto, another incredibly adaptable species, is not only one of the most cold hardy palms, but does great in a cool climate (left), a warm, tropical climate like Florida (center) and in the California inland deserts (right) . It is one of the few palms that can be grown in probably over half the US.
Sabal rosei is a pretty good species for the desert (lef), but Sabal mauritiiformis (right) might be a bit too tropical and thin-leaved for the hot, desert sun (at least I have not seen this species tried there)
One might think that Rhapis would not be particularly well adapted to growing in desert climates, since they are somewhat cool, temperate palms.... but as it turns out, these amazing adaptable palms do extremely well in the hot deserts as long as they don't have to deal with the direct sun.
Rhapis excelsa growing in full sun in inland California (but not the desert), left- this is a sight one would never encounter in the low deserts as Rhapis cannot tolerate much direct sun at all in a desert climate. However, the Rhapis excelsa Tenzan (a wonderful variety with nearly entire leaves) shown in the right photo is growing very nicely in Palm Desert and shows no adverse effects from the hot summer heat, and even tolerates a modicum of sun on its leaves.
This Rhapis humilis variety is also growing perfectly in Palm Desert, but needs sun protection
Serenoa repens is an excellent lower-growing species for most desert regions (save the most cold). This species is one of the more adaptable species of palm there are, though also one of the slower species (grows WAY faster in the desert than in my yard).
Serenoa repens is a very common palm on the east coast and very hardy to cold, wind, drought and heat. Turns out it's a great palm for the inland deserts, too, as it grows fast enough to be worth the effort (while its incredibly slow rate of growth in most Mediterranean climates keep most from attempting to grow it). The above photos show both the common green form (right- very old plants) and the rarer and sought after whitish form (left).
Supposedly Thrinax and Hemithrinax species will grow well inland, but I have yet to see any growing there. It would make sense that they would do well, though, as they grow best with plenty of heat. I just don’t know how much direct inland sun they can tolerate.
Trachycarpus is another exceptionally tolerant genus of palms, having one of the widest range of temperatures it can adapt to of all the palms. However, most members of this genus do not like full sun in desert climates and some seem a bit unhappy with high, dry heat (eg. Trachycarpus maritianus). And though it may be an excellent low-water palm for Los Angeles, it cannot survive that same watering scheme in the deserts. Most of the species, other than Trachycarpus fortunei and wagnerianus have not been grown that often in the desert so it is hard to say how well most of these cool climate palms will do there. I have seen one Trachycarpus fortunei (see below) in Palm Desert that looked pretty normal, but it was in nearly full shade and was a bit on the skinny side.
Trachycarpus fortunei in the desert (left, in 90% shade), and more coastal in full sun (middle). Whether or not species such as Trachycarpus latisectus (right) or a few of the others could survive the desert heat is unknown, but I suspect they would be in trouble there.
Trithrinax is another very tolerant genus of palms, and the two common species seem to do well in the desert climate (Trithrinax schizophylla has not been grown there much yet as it is still pretty rare in cultivation).
Trithrinax brasiliensis (left); Trithrinax campestris mature (middle) and younger plant growing in Palm Desert looking perfect (right)
Washingtonias of course to very well in most of the deserts and are probably the most common species grown in most of the deserts I have visited. These palms are very tolerant of a wide range of conditions, though Washingtonia filifera (California Fan Palm) seems the better suited to the extreme desert (just as it the lesser suited to life on the beach and the tropics). However, Washingtonia robusta (Mexican Fan Palm) also grows extremely well in the desert. This latter palm is probably one of the most commonly grown palms around the world in all sorts of climates from the deserts to the tropics.
The only native desert palm to California, Washingtonia filifera, of course does extremely well in the deserts (left only 'somewhat trimmed' and right over-trimmed in cultivation)
a natural stand of Washingtonia filiferas in the California desert (left); Washingtonia robusta and filifera center photo; stand of Washingtonia robustas (right)
Zombia antillarum is a quirkly looking species that is very closely related to the Coccothrinax, and like many of them, grows better in the desert than anywhere else in California, despite being subjected to periodic moderately severe frosts there.
The Pinnate non-crownshafted Palm species:
shot of palm garden in the Living Desert Museum Gardens, Palm Desert, showing a number of fan palms, but also the ever present pinnate Phoenix Date Palms
Chilean Wine Palms being grown in deserty conditions, Southern California
Allogoptera arenaria or Sand Palm. Perhaps the name Sand Palm gives away its desert affinities, but it shouldn’t. Sand Palms grow along the sandy coasts, not the inland deserts. But it turns out they do great in inlands deserts as well. In fact, they grow a lot faster and tend to look nicer in the desert than they do in my area. It is likely the other relatively stemless species of Allogoptera would do well in deserts, too, but Allogoptera caudescens (formerly Polyandrococos caudescens) does not seem to be a good desert choice).
Allagoptera arenaria is commonly grown in the hot, inland deserts and does very well there
Allagoptera campestris (left) and Allagoptera leucocalyx (right) would probably do well, too but are much rarer in cultivation so experience with them is lacking so far
Acrocomia aculeata not only looks a lot like a spiny Queen Palm, but it seems to grow nearly as well as one in the deserts. This palm needs a good watering when it is young, but as it ages, seems to become relatively drought tolerant, as well as heat tolerant. I cannot comment on the other Acrocomia species.
Acrocomia aculeata (left) and Acrocomia totai (right) are both pretty hardy palms and do well in summer heat (though perhaps a bit better with some afternoon sun protection)
Attalea is normally a very tropical genus, but I have seen a single palm (Attalea cohune) growing in Palm Desert, and it is the only Attalea in all of California that has any hint of a trunk. I have found from personal experience that several other species seem to grow surprisingly well in California (though slow slow slow) and would not be at all surprised if many other Attaleas did well in the deserts.
Attalea cohunes grow best of all in the tropics (left and center) but the plant in that back yard in Palm Desert (right) is growing exceptionally well for this genus in California, and is easily the fastest growing individual I have seen in California, thanks to the desert heat. It is now (2012) the only trunking Attalea in all of California, and probably will remain so for many years to come
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