California has no more native palms than Oklahoma has with the diminutive dwarf palmetto. The stately California fan palm, which is also known as the desert fan palm, inhabits warm desert regions in southern California. It is what put the ‘Palm’ in ‘Palm Springs’. However, because it likes heat and minimal humidity, it is not so happy away from deserts. The very tall and lean Mexican fan palm is closely related to the comparably stout California fan palm, but is so happy in local climates that it naturalizes and can be invasive.
The queen palm has a leaner trunk, and a broader and more billowy canopy. It rarely self sows, but is so overly popular that it very often gets planted in bad situation where it does not have room to grow. Unlike fan palms that have rounded palmate leaves that radiate outward from the ends of bare petioles (leaf stalks), the queen palm is a ‘feather’ palm, with pinnately compound leaves comprised of narrow leaflets arranged along stiff midribs.
The massive Canary Island date palm is another feather palm, with a broad canopy and bulky trunk. Like Mexican fan palm, it often self sows, so gets into some weird situations. The foliage is so thick that is commonly becomes infested with rats and pigeons. Female trees produce messy fruit that keeps rats and pigeons well fed.
Whether they get planted intentionally or simply appear in the landscape, the main problem with all these and other large palms, is the expense of maintenance, since they can only be maintained by professional arborists who know how to climb such large branchless trees. Without regular grooming, fan palms that are so often allowed to retain long beards of old leaves become fire hazards, and have the potential to drop dangerously heavy sections of their beards without warning. Removal of old deteriorating leaves from the huge canopies of Canary Island date palms is quite an chore!
There are few small palms, like windmill palm and Mediterranean fan palm, that are more proportionate to compact gardens. Windmill palm has a strikingly shaggy trunk and a compact canopy that is easy to groom before it grows beyond reach. Mediterranean fan palm has multiple trunks that grow so slowly that it takes many decades for them to grow beyond reach. Nasty sharp thorns on their petioles make pruning difficult but not impossible.
Selection of a palm that is appropriate to a particular situation is just as important to limiting serious long term problems as the selection of any other tree is.
highlight: queen palm
While Mexican fan palms and Canary Island date palms dominated the palm fad in California during the Victorian period, the queen palm, Syagrus romanzoffiana, was still relatively uncommon. Since then, selective breeding has improved their foliar color and density. They are now the most popular of palms.
Modern queen palms grow a bit faster than their Victorian ancestors to about thirty feet tall, and then grow somewhat slower for another ten to even twenty feet. Their long and arching feather (pinnately compound) leaves are quite billowy. The elegant trunks are generally slender, but often develop constrictions or bulges from fluctuations of irrigation or nutrient availability. The abundant fruit can be messy.