Palm trees are one of the plants most commonly seen in Baja California second to cactus. Palm trees are found in Baja’s desert like climates where there is water and many times will signify a natural oasis. Palms have flowers and most have the characteristic leaves known as fronds. Palms (Palmas in Spanish) as they are commonly referred to are a part of the botanical family Arecaceae and include mostly trees with some shrubs that make up around 2600 different species of palms. The palms with their fronds create a wonderful relaxing clicking sound with light to medium breezes tickling the palm fronds then as the wind increases, into a wonderful swishing sound. Palms are not just wonderful plants to look at or to listen to but palms have many valuable uses as well.
Many species have edible seeds such as the date palms while some palms like the coconut actually produce more of a fruit. The coconut and the date are really drupes (hard shelled, fleshy interior containing a seed or pit) and not a nut and in the case of the coconut, which has not only the fleshy meat to eat but the water or coconut milk as well. This makes the coco palm an important source for food and water (milk) in a desert climate. It has been said without these trees in many desert climates around the world, people could not have survived.
Palms most commonly seen in Baja are the Mexican Fan Palm (indigenous to Baja) which can grow upwards of 30 meters, making it one of the tallest palm trees, the Coconut (cocotera palm brought by Jesuit Missionaries) and Date palms (also brought to Baja years ago). There are many more palms that grow in Baja, mostly for decorative purposes such as varieties of Royal, Pigmy Date, Queen, Triangle and Traveler palms to name just a few.
Palms generally grow in the tropics but can survive in areas of desert if there is water available underground such as the case in many arroyos (dry river beds with underground water) of Baja. The fact that Baja is one of the few places in the world where the tropics meet the desert, Baja has proven ideal for many varieties of palms to thrive and create large oases in some areas of Baja. San Ignacio and Muelge are a couple of small towns well known for their very large palm groves as well as the small rivers that feed them making for the classic desert oasis.
Palms in Baja not only make for decorative plants but have historically provided food from the coconut and date palms as well as lumber, roofing materials and palm rope used for construction from the Mexican Fan palm. Commonly seen Palapas were historically made with nothing but a machete as the wood beams, rafters and posts were of palm trunks for the structure and the weaving of Mexican fan palm fronds for roof thatching as well as the fronds are split and twisted to make the rope to tie it all together. These Palapa roofs are incredibly flexible and therefore durable, making them one of the best roofing materials for withstanding hurricanes. One interesting fact about harvesting the palm fronds is that it is said to be important that they are harvested on a full moon. The reason for this, is that it is believed that there are no insects in the fronds at that time. The insects of greatest concern are “polilla” which are a type of wood worm that eat the palm wood and fronds and if in the fronds that are used for a roof, a continual dust will be created as a byproduct of these insects eating the materials. These Palapa roofs were historically one of the cheapest roofs available, but with the luxury homes, hotels, restaurants and bars creating larger and larger palapas, there has become a shortage of palms, raising the price of these once inexpensive building materials.
In addition palm wood and fronds are used for making products such as bridges, furniture, carpets, mats, hammocks, fans, flooring, baskets, clothing, jewelry and much more. Palm trees also provide additional foods products in addition to the obvious coconuts and dates such as the coconut milk products, palm oils, palm hearts, and medicinal tea from the roots, for example.
So when traveling and living in Baja remember that these beautiful trees are not just great to look at and rest under but they do provide a great deal of necessary products for life in Baja. Oh and just as a reminder be sure not to sit or sleep directly under palm trees as not only the coconuts can be dangerous but the dried stiff fronds as well when they fall from the top of a palm tree well over 10 meters tall. In several areas of the tropics, legend has it that the bottom of coconut has three indentions, that legend say is the eyes of the coconut and that with these eyes the coconut can see you and will not hit you upon landing…like I said, it is a legend but not one that I would trust. Whether or not many actually people die from being hit by a falling coconut is of great debate but there have been many hurt by them.