Vic Miller

The Mystery of The California Fan Palm

On this day in 1984, the Arizona Republic newspaper shared an article by Vic Miller, a professor of agriculture at Arizona Stale University, about the history of the native palm of Arizona.

The article starts this way:

"Yes, we do have a native palm. Seeds of it were collected in Arizona; taken to Belgium and grown in a nursery; [observed] and named by a German botanist, but it is called the California fan palm."

The mystery about the California Fan Palm was not whether it existed but where it came from - California or Arizona.
The article continued:
"In 1976, ... researchers published an article ... stating that there was [an area where] native palms [grew naturally] in Arizona... on Castle Creek, about a mile north and west of Castle Hot Springs. This discovery helped solve a 100-year-old mystery.
[Here's the backstory:]
In 1879, a German botanist, Herman von Wendland, named our [Arizona] palm Washingtonia filifera in memory of George Washington. He had seen the plants growing in a nursery in Belgium. Seeds from which these were grown had been collected in America.
But from which state had the seeds been collected?
Three years earlier, in 1876, the German botanist Georg Drude wrote that the seed was collected in Arizona, along the Colorado River. Then, the [Italian botanist, Dr. Francesco Franceschi, also said that the seed was] from Arizona.
But the Stanford botanist and herbarium curator, Samuel Parish, disagreed because the area where the seeds were collected was supposedly near Prescott. According to Parish, this was "a region of pines rather than of palms." Thus he insisted that the seeds had to come from California. Now, what Parish didn't realize, was that there actually were groves of Arizona palms - only 38 miles from Prescott - at Castle Creek.
So how did the Arizona Palm seeds end up in Belgium?
Well, it turns out, the 1870's stagecoach line went right along Castle Creek to Prescott Arizona and then onto Santa Fe New Mexico. In September 1872, the Czech botanist and Extreme Orchid Hunter Benedict Roezl was in that part of the Southwest on his way to Mexico. He likely bought some of the ripe purple fruit of those Castle Creek Arizona Palms when fellow travelers were selling them. Then, he sent the fruit on to Germany with his other specimens.

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Vic Miller
Vic Miller