Under ideal growing conditions, a young Mexican fan palm tree (Washingtonia robusta) can grow 6 feet a year, reaching heights of 100 feet or more. Known for keeping their dead leaves tucked around their trunks like a hula skirt, this iconic palm often lines highways and beaches in California and Florida. Their striking height makes the Mexican palm ideal for planting in groves and large areas but their thorny leaves and massive size make them a poor choice for yards.
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Thatch Problems Abound
Before considering a Mexican palm tree, know that maintaining them can be problematic. In mature trees, dead fronds usually drop off the tree as it grows. Younger trees, however, tend to hold onto these dead fronds. As the dying leaves collapse against the trunk, they create a shaggy skirt of dead, dry yellow or brown leaves known as thatch.
Many people consider this thatch a part of the character of a Mexican fan palm while others remove it. Those who remove the thatch do so because it creates a refuge for rats and other vermin as well as a fire hazard. Some cities legally mandate that tree owners must remove the thatch from their trees — a daunting task that requires a professional when the trees get taller.
If your tree is still short enough that you can remove the dead fronds yourself, wait to do so until the base of the dead leaves dries completely. When they have, prune them with a pruning knife or another type of sharp knife. Wipe the knife with a clean, alcohol soaked rag between cuts to avoid introducing or spreading any palm tree diseases.
Climate and Soil
Mexican fan palms grow in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 through 11. Although they like well-drained, moderately rich soil, they can survive in sand and poor soils. You can grow a young plant in a container to give your deck or patio a tropical look, but do not plant one in a small yard since they need large, open areas.
The Mexican fan is considered invasive in parts of California and Florida. If you live in an area where the Mexican palm is an unwelcome guest, consider planting a Guadalupe Palm (Brahea edulis) or Mexican Blue Palm (Brahea armata) instead. These species stay a bit smaller and aren't considered invasive.
Water and Fertilizer
Though they tolerate both salt and drought, water your Mexican fan palm deeply at least once a month. The fertilizer needs of Mexican fan palms will vary with the soil, but a general maintenance recommendation is to apply 1 1/2 pounds of 8-1-10-4 palm tree fertilizer for every 100 square feet of area every three months. An 8-1-10-4 fertilizer contains the ratio, by weight, of 8 parts nitrogen, 1 part phosphorus, 10 parts potassium and 4 parts magnesium.
Washingtonian Palm Diseases and Pests
Mexican palm trees can suffer from Gandoderma butt rot, a soilborne fungus that can infect all palm species. The fungus spreads upward from the soil until it destroys 80 to 90 percent of the bottom 3 to 5 feet of the trunk, causing leaves to drop and the tree to eventually die. There is no known cure or prevention for this fungus. Remove infected trees as soon as possible and avoid planting other palms in the area.
Similarly, there is no known treatment for Thielaviopsis trunk rot, which can cause the canopy to fall off the tree without warning. You can avoid this disease by refraining from pulling off lower leaves before they are ready to drop and not wounding the tree with climbing spikes or bad pruning techniques. There is also no chemical cure for Fusariam wilt, a fungal disease spread by the wind and infected pruning tools.
Mexican fan palm doesn't generally have problems with pests, but avoid buying plants with visible exit holes from borers.
A one-time farm boy, Richard Hoyt, holder of a PhD in American studies, is a former newspaper reporter, magazine writer and college professor. While writing 27 novels of suspense, he has lived on sugar cane, pepper and papaya plantations and helped keep bees in Belize.