Chilean Wine Palm and Historic Palm Grove

from Jason Dewees, The Palm Broker @ Flora Grubb Gardens (November 19, 2009)

Not far from our store, in the Sunnyside neighborhood (near Glen Park), is an extraordinary grove of 100-plus-year-old palms surrounding a historic conservatory-like pavilion. It’s called the Sunnyside Conservatory, and, built in 1898 as a garden structure on a large country estate (before the city engulfed the area), it’s on San Francisco’s list of landmarks.

Most of the palms are Phoenix canariensis, the Canary Island date palm. Planted close together, their trunks lean gently away from each other in an unusual presentation for this species in our area. Most often we see them as very upright avenue trees.

Among these beautiful trees is a single spectacular specimen of the Chilean wine palm, Jubaea chilensis, with a huge, silvery, cigar-shaped trunk and an elegant crown of gray-green fronds. You can see its fat trunk on the left in the photo below. Jubaea is one of the two or three best-adapted palms for San Francisco and the Mediterranean climate zones of California — which is most of the heavily populated part of the state. Endangered in central Chile, its native habitat and a fellow-Mediterranean climate, it thrives in our summer drought, wet winter cold, and foggy coastal winds. It also produces tasty miniature-coconut-like nuts. Killing it for sugary sap to make wine is what eliminated the tree from vast areas of its habitat, although some in Chile have now devised a way to draw the sap without felling the palm, and the few remaining natural groves there are protected.

As rare as this spectacular species is, another landmark specimen grows not more than a mile away, on Yerba Buena Avenue near Monterey Boulevard. Was there a connection between their planting — maybe 19th century country neighbors shared rare plants? As part of the Sunnyside Conservatory’s renovation, a young Jubaea has also been planted in the garden. Because it is drought-tolerant and immune from the diseases that can attack the Canary Island date palm, planting young Chilean wine palms is a smart long-term investment.

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department with the help of the Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory has been renovating the garden and structure over the past couple of years, and the Friends are throwing a grand reopening party at 11am on December 5, 2009. What a great chance to enjoy a beautiful public palm garden!

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