Three Desert Fan Palm Oases

Desert Fan Palm, Washingtonia filifera

Text and Photos by Linda McMillin Pyle

Looking for water in the desert? You can always find it where native Desert Fan Palms grow indicating water seeps, springs and streams. These palm oases occur along linear earthquake fault zones where crushed rock and clay act like an underground dam, interrupting water flow and pushing it to the surface. The lives of many past desert travelers depended upon reaching fault oases such as these.

The Desert Fan Palm, Washingtonia filifera is the only palm native to the western United States. Fossil evidence indicates that 10 million years ago, this species extended throughout the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, to the Pacific Coast of California. Today, due to geologic and climatic changes, they are found only in southeastern California (Death Valley National Park south into Baja California) with a few specimens ranging into extreme southern Nevada and western Arizona.

Thousand Palms Oasis / Coachella Valley Preserve

Fan PalmsDescending into grotto-like coolness, we began the popular trail to the McCallum Grove at the Thousand Palms Oasis. The sudden air-conditioned feeling we experienced was not just from the shade of the Fan Palms. Like an evaporative cooler, their huge leaves and dozens of other plant's leaves transpire water during the day. Within the heart of the Oasis, we felt 10-20 degrees cooler than in the desert outside.

These tall monarchs of the desert tossed their green crowns in the breeze as their benevolent, shaggy skirts hid creatures from the glaring sun. Pupfish swam in quiet pools. Emerald grass drifted in the wind playing a haunting, ancient flute song. Lounging, Fringe-toed Lizards burrowed into favorite sand dunes. Life was cool and easy at this Oasis straddling the infamous San Andreas Fault zone and the Indio Hills.

As we wound through the Oasis, I wondered what it would cost to own this property and how I could you buy it? Eighty acres of Thousand Palms Canyon was worth just two mules and a wagon to Louis Wilhelm in 1906. His son, Paul Wilhelm, inherited it. Priceless now as the rare habitat of the palm oasis woodland, it is also home to the endangered Coachella Valley Fringe-toed Lizard, Uma inornata to his friends. The Preserve is jointly owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management, Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish & Game and California Department of Parks & Recreation.

Out of the sheltering heart of the Thousand Palms Oasis, our self-guided tour brought us along a hot sandy stretch of trail and instructed us to stop and look down to observe the grinding of rocks into a fine powder. Under our feet, the enormous forces of the San Andreas Fault and its branches were at work grinding a unique, flour-like soil associated with palm oases.

After about a mile of walking, we reached another one of these Southern California groves, the McCallum Grove, another cool Eden. Looking up at the tall trees, we wanted to know their age. Fan Palms don't have growth rings, so it is difficult for botanists to tell; but some are thought to be perhaps 200-250 years old. The scientific name, Washingtonia filifera, was given in honor of George Washington, who could have been President when some of the palms living today were just seedlings.

Intrigued by the long skirts of thatch, I peeked under the petticoat of an unmanicured Fan Palm knowing that although I saw nothing, it was alive with oasis dwellers. Black widow spiders, lizards, snakes, rodents and bats -- all the creepy crawly things of human terror -- lurked.

Back at the Thousand Palms Oasis, we picnicked in the shade. Before leaving one of California's largest groves of Fan Palms, we scouted trails to the other oases in the Preserve. Trails to Indian, Pushawalla, Horseshoe, Hidden and Willis Palms oases called us to return another day.

Palm Canyon Oasis, Palm Springs

In Palm Springs, we passed through a tollgate and entered into the pristine canyons of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. From the bustling Trading Post on Hermits Bench, we dropped down the steep path to the world's largest stand of Fan Palm trees. Here, more than 3,000 native Palms proliferate with a constant supply of water from year-round streams.

Fan PalmsListening to our footsteps as we walked along the Palm Canyon Trail, I was reminded that the Cahuilla Indians have a word describing the pleasant sound. "Gash mo," the sound of the crunching of sand as one walks, was a place name referring to a sandy wash nearby. Dictated by the natural world around them, such place names helped the Cahuilla travel skillfully without maps or written language.

The Fan Palm was woven into the daily life of the Cahuilla. Palm thatch made a home (kish) wind- and water-proof; leaf fibers were woven into ropes; rare baskets were stitched with palm fibers. Until the early part of the century, older Native Americans still wore sandals fashioned from palm leaf fibers.

The Cahuilla ate boiled "maul pasun" (heart of the palm) in times of famine; more popular was the pea-sized, dark blue fruit with a taste similar to a cultivated date. The fruit clusters were harvested from the tall trees with a notched willow pole.

The palm dates could be dried then ground in a bedrock mortar into meal as an addition to gruel. Fan Palm tea was made by soaking the fruit. Even today, the Cahuilla eat the palm dates fresh and collect the seed pits to be used inside rattles.

Mother Nature was not a tidy housekeeper of the trail we walked; the oasis littered with debris was a welcome shelter for birds, animals and plant nurslings. Pendant nests of the Scott's Oriole built from the loose fibers of palm leaves hung from above; unseen tree frogs croaked under thatch; seedlings pushed up through plant debris.

This world-famous trail followed a rippling stream under lazy palms that swayed and rustled softly. We proceeded through their realm where trees ranged from tall monarchs to lower minions. Some were dressed well -- clothed in full thatch -- others almost denuded and bare.

In the past, the 15-mile Palm Canyon Trail was heavily used by travelers moving back and forth from the desert and other parts of Southern California. Now, this most spectacular route and oasis is the domain of the hiker and the equestrian.

Twentynine Palms Oasis, (Oasis of Mara) Joshua Tree National Park

Day was dawning on Joshua Tree National Park in the Mohave Desert when we began the half-mile, self-guided Oasis Nature Trail starting at the Oasis Visitor Center.

nThe oasis trilled with a sweet harmony of Gambel's Quail, robins, warblers and mourning doves. This twittering, peeping choir was hidden by a tangled mass of green trees and a few Fan Palms with their thatch still intact. Each year, new leaves stand apart in an open crown at the top of the trunk while older, dried fronds bend down to form a dense skirt around the base protecting the tree from high heat.

As we walked, our view was of low, ranch-style homes of the encroaching city of Twentynine Palms, but the sibilant, shush-shush of palm fronds whispered old Serrano Indian lore of how the name Twentynine Palms came to be.

Indian women wanting to produce male children came here to this "Oasis of Fertility" on the advice of their medicine man. They set up camp at this "little springs much grass" and, as instructed, planted a Fan Palm for each male born. Twenty-nine trees were planted the first year. Quite a record.

The old Twentynine Palms Oasis, now called the Oasis of Mara, with water rising to the surface along a section of the Pinto Mountain fault, formed a desirable environment for three native tribes, Serrano, Chemehuevi and Cahuilla. These peoples were known to have lived here hundreds of years before Anglos followed their foot trails into the desert. Miners, homesteaders, cowboys and the stage line came later to the Oasis for the life-sustaining water.

The thousands of small roots in the shallow root system of the Fan Palm seldom extend much deeper than a foot below the surface; consequently, a dropping water table can seriously threaten the palms. Water no longer flows here naturally but must be piped in by the Park.

It was hard to leave the cool and easy life of the Oasis with its Fan Palms standing firmly fixed against the sky as if the ancient ones had landscaped the desert with a tapestry woven from golden thatch and green fronds. Outside, burning desert and modern life awaited. But briefly, lost in time, we felt nurtured and protected by the silent, observant Fan Palms along these historic trails.

Where to Find Fan Palm Oases

Coachella Valley Preserve/Thousand Palms Oasis
To reach the Coachella Valley Preserve / Thousand Palms Oasis from Palm Springs, take Ramon Road east to Thousand Palms Road. From Indio, take Washington Street north to Thousand Palms Road. Go north and watch for signs to the Preserve on left. Open 7 days a week. 760-343-12234.

Palm Canyon Oasis in Palm Springs
The Indian Canyons are reached by proceeding 3 miles south from the intersection of Palm Canyon Drive South and Palm Canyon Drive East. Enter the Agua Caliente Reservation through the toll gate. Proceed to the end of the road to the Trading Post. Indian Canyons information is 760-325-3400. Open daily in fall and winter from 8 am to 5 pm and during daylight saving hours until 6 pm. Fees are $5.00. adults;l senior 62+, $2.50; children 6-12, $1.00; equestrians, $6.00;students and military, $3.50. Season passes and group rates available. Smoke Tree Stables information 760- 327-1372.

Twentynine Palms Oasis (Oasis of Mara) in Joshua Tree National Park
From Interstate 10, take Highway 62 east past the town of Joshua Tree continuing on to the town of Twentynine Palms. Turn south on Utah Trail to the Oasis Visitor Center. Call 760-367-5500 for more information. Open daily from 8-5 pm.


Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Deserts, Janice Emily Bowers, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1993

Indian Uses of Desert Plants, James W. Cornett, Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1995

Temalpakh, Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants, Lowell John Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel, Malki Museum Press, 1971

California Fan Palm
Joshua Tree National Park
Palm Springs, California
Twentynine Palms, California
Plant and Wildflower Index


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