Over the long holiday weekend my wife and I decided to take our kids, dogs and bikes down to Campland on the Bay near Sea World to enjoy the warm weather and get more use out of our trailer. While down there, my lovely wife granted me a free day as long as I took my son with me. So with son and iPad in tow, I figured it was a great opportunity to visit one of my favorite palm gardens in San Diego. Dennis Willoughby’s beautiful palm garden is located up on the hill in Point Loma where few better microclimates can be found in Southern California. For this reason, Dennis has some amazing plants to showcase, as well as palms not found in any other garden that I know of in San Diego.
A life-long resident of Point Loma, Dennis and his wife have lived in this current house for over 40 years now. But for half that time Dennis was not into cultivating palm trees. Instead, he had fruit trees. Growing tired of the maintenance and mess, he decided to make a change. So in the late ’80s he cut down the trees and started planting palms on his roughly 7,000-square-foot lot.
If you don’t already know, the first thing you will learn about a palm gardener is that you will never have an issue finding their home. Typically you just have to look for something like this while driving around.
Another thing you’ll learn while heading to the doorbell is that the walkway to the front door has usually been lined by palms to the point that you feel as though you are in a jungle somewhere. Dennis’s house is no different. On the left you will find an old Laccospadix australasica and on the right a native Floridian –Acoelorrhaphe wrightii.
Some of the first palms Dennis planted were from the genera Livistona and Sabal. Almost twenty years after being planted, they are now thick-trunked canopy palms for some of his later-in-life palm interests.
Staying in the front yard, we find a Nannorrhops ritchiana that had a stem flower and had to be cut out recently. Nannorrhops ritchiana is monocarpic—meaning after it flowers and seeds, it dies. Since it is a multi-trunking palm, only the flowering stem dies.
Raphia farinifera is another monocarpic palm. However, once this palm flowers and seeds, the entire plant dies because it does not have any basal suckers to continue its growth. Raphia farinifera grows into a very large palm over time and loves water. It is difficult to grow well here in Southern California, but Dennis’s palm is about as good as you will find.
I will show a few more plants from the front yard later in the tour, but for now let’s move to his backyard—where all the good stuff is. Upon opening the gate with a carved palm tree on it, you are given a sneak peak into his carefully thought-out and well-crafted backyard oasis.
Dennis’s backyard has quite a few meandering walkways that are coupled with a few water features that serve as points of interest. Thanks to the large volume of old, towering palm trees, his backyard is mostly covered in shade all day. There are, however, a few areas where the sun does peak through, which can make it difficult to photograph his backyard. You can see from the following pictures just how densely planted out his beautiful palm garden is.
As you might have picked up on in the photos, Dennis has a unique way of labeling the palms in the garden. He has created a simple numbering system that is tied to a spreadsheet. From this Dennis is able to keep track of all the palms he has planted and just where to find them in the garden. An additional benefit of the numbering system is that when Dennis has a garden tour he is able to pass out a key so visitors can match the number to the correct palm. Having toured many gardens, I can tell you that it is incredibly handy to have something like this available. It serves an additional purpose in that it frees up Dennis’s time from having to answer the numerous “What is this plant?” questions that every gardener hears while hosting a tour.
Dennis has two methods of numbering. 1) He paints a number on a river rock used in his border found flanking his pathways. 2) He uses numbered signs that he places in the ground for those palms planted away from his pathways.
While walking through Dennis’s backyard you can’t be totally focused on looking down at the numbers. Gazing up is always an impressive sight as well. He has so many unique palms that have grown into canopy trees. Such as this Coccothrinax spissa.
If you look closely, you will see that the Coccothrinax spissa above is also in seed. With so many mature palms planted, you are bound to find a few trees in either the flowering or fruiting stage. Below, you see Rhopalostylis sapida with the ripe red seed in back; and in front, a favorite of palm tree growers—Hedyscepe canterburyana.
This is the easily recognizable inflorescence of Burretiokentia hapala. Can you guess why it has the nickname of the Dreadlock Palm?
Native to Puerto Rico, Prestoea montana is usually not found growing in cooler California, yet alone fruiting. This palm is holding thousands of seed right now.
Hawaiian native Pritchardia martii with its large fruit (or “nuts”).
I mentioned earlier that Dennis has a few water features in his backyard. You can see his stream in the picture above. Each water feature is designed in a similar manner, with the use of river rocks—the same type of stones found in Dennis’s numbering system. His largest water feature is a stream that starts from the edge of his property and drops down to a small pond about twenty-five feet away. I love the use of water in gardens, and in my opinion a beautiful palm garden just wouldn’t have the same ambience without it.
Dennis’s other water feature is a small waterfall that drops into a conch shell. The conch shell actually softens the sound of the water hitting the pool and also reduces splash. Quite an ingenious addition.
In keeping with the river rock theme, Dennis built an outdoor shower next to the waterfall. It is a lot larger than the picture represents.
Another great aspect of Dennis’s backyard is that he built elevation gain into the landscape. When looking at the photos of the stream, you will notice a cinderblock retaining wall. At the top of that retaining wall is a path that parallels it.
Up on the top path you will find what I call a cement hillside. Of course, there are palm trees planted in it.
One perk of elevation gain in a landscape is the chance to look out over a garden from a different perspective.
Root competition can be an issue with mass planting. Palm trees are much better at handling this than most other plants. Still, Dennis has done a great job of making sure his palms have plenty of room between them so they can each claim a stake underground. Palm trees with no room to grow roots become stunted, and mature into a fraction of what they should. You won’t find any examples of this in Dennis’s garden. Some palms are more aggressive rooters than others. This Hyophorbe indica looks to be searching out more territory to claim.
So let me just cut to the chase and tell you the real reason why I enjoy visiting Dennis’s garden so much. It is because he has so many Madagascan and New Caledonian palms planted throughout his yard. To me there is no more exciting or impressive genus of palm tree that you can grow in Southern California than Dypsis. Palms from New Caledonia come in a very close second. Dennis and I are kindred spirits in our love of these groups of palms and each of our gardens are well represented by them.
Personally, the king of the Dypsis in Dennis’s yard is one that came into cultivation as Dypsis sp. ‘honkona.’ This is an extremely rare palm and can only be found in a handful of collections around the world. It is quite possible that it is extinct in the wild, so it is crucial that it succeed in cultivation and eventually flower. Dypsis sp. ‘honkona’ has gorgeous long leaves with irregular leaflets. The crownshaft is colorful as well. This will grow into a large plant, as the leaves coming out of the ground are already about ten feet tall.
Most likely the largest Dypsis carlsmithii in California. Yes, that’s a garage door for scale. Still a baby yet.
Back to the front. A palm once known as Dypsis sp. ‘Big Curly’ in cultivation, Dypsis prestoniana is one of the largest palms found in Madagascar. Thanks to the efforts of famed plantsman Mardy Darian and his many trips to Madagascar, Dypsis prestoniana can be found in many gardens around Southern California. In fact, some are now setting seed here, so second-generation palms are now available.
In keeping with the large Dypsis theme, this is Dypsis canaliculata. It is a colorful palm, as you can see.
This is one of the most attractive caning Dypsis you can grow, in my opinion. Dypsis albofarinosa.
Similar to the palm above and just as remarkable is Dypsis psammophila.
This palm is hard to photograph, which is unfortunate, as it has one of the more ornamental leaves found in the palm world. It has a reputation as being a difficult palm to grow in our climate, yet Dennis pulls it off with perfection. Dypsis pinnatifrons.
Dennis grows many more Dypsis, but I have to draw the line somewhere or this post would go on forever. So I will move to some of his New Caledonian palms. Because of bad lighting, I am unable to show a few of the more rare ones like Chambeyronia lepidota or Kentiopsis piersoniorum that Dennis has (guess I’ll have to go back—again). As a general rule, New Caledonian palms can be fastidious to cultivate and are almost always extremely slow to grow. Once again, Dennis proves his thumb is green with their successful cultivation in his yard.
First up is Cyphosperma balansae. Once this palm trunks, the stem is usually black, so it is a popular plant among enthusiasts. Unfortunately, seeing trunk can take twenty or more years from a seedling here in California. Dennis’s palm isn’t too far off from trunking.
I have already shown you the flower of the next palm—Burretiokentia hapala. This palm likes more shade than others of its genus. You can see in the photograph below how nice the leaves that are protected in shade are and how others burn with too much sun exposure.
Basselinia glabrata on the left and Basselinia pancheri on the right—a very slow and challenging palm. Both of these are being grown perfectly.
One more photograph of a palm in Dennis’s yard that you can see peaking in from the right in the picture above. This is Pritchardia hardyi from the Hawaiian island of Kauai. One of the slower and rarest Pritchardia to grow. You will notice the beautiful bronze color of the underside of the leaf.
I will close this post out with one final picture. One of my host Dennis standing next to a pride and joy of his. The foot on this Acanthophoenix crinita is actually quite famous amongst palm growers around the world.
I could have easily spent hours talking to Dennis about palm trees. Plus it is the kind of place you don’t want to leave. But almost two hours into the visit the horn to my truck started sounding. It was my son letting me know the movie on his iPad was over and that it was time to go.