A Great Name

Founding Palms

Washington filifera – California’s native Palm

California’s only native palm was long thought to be a Brahea, or even a Pritchardia.  But in 1879 German Botanist Hermann von Wendland noted significant distinguishing characteristics and published a new name, Washingtonia filifera, creating a combination (the genus and specific epithet that make up a scientific name) to identify the plant.  

Many people will associate California Fan Palm with locations like Palm Desert, or 29 Palms, but it has become a common street tree in the Southern California landscape, and we harbor several large specimens in the southeast corner of the Huntington estate, at the bottom of the Desert Garden.  The palms persist there, marking  the original entry road that served San Marino Ranch when Huntington purchased the Shorb property in 1903.  

Washington, whose portraits by Stuart and Peale are on permanent display in the Huntington’s Scott Gallery, lived from 1702 to 1799. He has been the subject of major exhibitions in the Huntington Library, where hundreds of his original letters and documents can be studied by researchers.  Considering his importance in establishing the United States, it is surprising no American botanist had thought to publish a plant genus in Washington’s honor.  But eight decades after Washington’s death, in a foreign country, pondering plants from California, a German botanist coined the genus Washingtonia to honor that “great” American, a patriot who never saw the plant, nor visited the region.  So it’s a bit disjointed, but I’m fond of this Botanical non sequitur – a great palm with a great name.

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.

— Oscar Wilde.

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