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Dr. Universe

Palm introduction


Dr. Universe:

Why are there so many palm trees in California?

Jenny, 11, California


Dear Jenny,

Along with beaches, sunshine and movie stars, a lot of people picture palm trees when they think of southern California. While there are lots of palm tree species in California, they aren’t all originally from the area. Many were brought from different places around the world. 

That’s what I found out from my friend Chuck Cody who manages one of the greenhouses at Washington State University.

Believe it or not, Washington state also used to be home to lots of palm trees. In the Jacklin Collection Museum at WSU, are all kinds of petrified wood. One of the pieces is fossilized palm wood from central Washington. Fossils can give us a lot of clues about what life was like before humans were around.

Cody also told me that in prehistoric times, during the earliest days of flowering plants on our planet, palms were a big part of the natural landscapes. This was back more than 145 million years ago when dinosaurs like iguanodon and ankylosaurs roamed the earth.

In Washington, palm trees were common 15 million years ago and were able to survive during a time when the climate wasn’t so cold. But as you’ve observed, California is home to a lot of palm trees these days.

While the California fan palm is a native palm of California, Cody told me that people started bringing other species of palm trees to California around 200 years ago.

That’s when settlers from Spain brought different kinds of palm trees from their homes in Europe to new areas in North America. The trees were able to grow in places like Mexico and California because the climate was similar to conditions in their old habitat. Palm trees love warm weather. Under the right conditions, they can live to be 80 or 90 years old.

In the 1930s, some people in Los Angeles wanted to make the streets more beautiful — especially because the Olympics were just around the corner. They thought palm trees would do the trick. People planted them by the thousands. 

A big part of the reason there are so many palm trees in California is because humans brought trees and seeds with them to plant and trade when they settled in a new place.

Some of the palms in California produce small, sweet fruits called dates. Other palm trees in different climates around the world produce coconuts that can provide people with something to eat and drink. 

For the most part, palm trees are planted for decoration; they don’t give off a lot of shade.

What trees or plants are icons in your state? Do you know your state tree? Tell us about it sometime at


Dr. Universe

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