Ten Uses for Palm Fronds

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Like the sound of one hand clapping, one of the great unanswerable Zen koans of life in Los Angeles is, “what the hell do I do with all these palm fronds?” Those outside the few places on the earth these monsters grow will be amused to hear that great masses of the fronds drop (80 to 100 feet) in the slightest breeze. Disposing of them is a constant chore but, thankfully, there are a few things you can do with them.

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To be clear I’m speaking of the nearly 100 year old Mexican Fan Palms (Washingtonia Robusta) that grace our neighborhood. While not pretending I can give closure to this issue, I thought I’d round up as many uses as I can find:

1. Make a mask. When Halloween comes around palm fronds can be made into creepy masks. Get good at this craft and open an Etsy store.

2. Make a roof. Weave them together and you’ve got the perfect roof for your tiki hut. Warning: you’ll need a lot.

3. Make a low quality mulch. Using palm fronds as mulch is somewhat controversial. The stuff takes forever to break down. Our arborist told me that some conventional citrus growers use palm frond mulch specifically because it takes forever to break down.

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4. Paint stirrer. I’m proud of this Root Simple innovation. While I was painting the garage recently, I couldn’t find my paint stirrers. Watching the fronds fall as I was up on the ladder (in fear of my life after a neighbor told me that he knows of someone who was killed by a falling frond) I got an idea that I’m as proud of as my milk crate humanure potty.

5. Celebrate Sukkot. Sukkot is the Jewish feast of the tabernacle. Unfortunately, it seems that our Washingtonia Robusta is not the right kind of palm.

6. Celebrate Palm Sunday. As with Sukkot, it looks like there’s some entrepreneurs on this idea.

7. Make a basket. Here’s a tutorial using coconut fronds, so I’m not sure this will work with Washingtonia.

8. Palm frond origami. I’m excited about this idea. Here’s how to do it.

9. Use as a symbol of victory. Palm fronds have symbolic meanings across numerous cultures.

10. Rob a liquor store. I’m not making this up. Via Bob in Oz.

One runner-up idea: hugelkultur.  I’m skeptical.

What did I leave out? Basket weavers do you have any tips? Please tell me I don’t need to scale the tree to get a green palm frond.

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19 Comments

  1. AGH! NOT my favorite tree! Falling fronds are dangerous, damage cars and block traffic when they fall. Useless, dangerous trees, in my opinion, that harbor rats and bats at the top and don’t even provide shade. There are lots of them around in SoCA. Shame on whoever planted them! Now my post will probably incite all the palm tree lovers..those who “love the sound of them in the wind” and see them as a “beautiful symbol” of SoCA.
    PS: I tried the mulch idea and they NEVER broke down so they are probably better then putting down colored rubber bits. Now THERE is a good idea for them!

  2. I have two sabal palmettos in front of my house in Florida. I use the fronds to line the bottom of my compost bin to allow for better airflow and keep the pile from getting too soggy at the bottom when we get our almost daily rain during the summer. It works pretty well and they break down so slowly that I can reuse them for a couple of seasons, adding new fronds as I need them.

  3. I get a lot of fronds dropped from my tree. I usually chip them but only after they’ve really dried out. Most people won’t run them through a shredder as they’re quite fibrous and the strands are long and have a tendency to wrap around the bearings and burn out the motors. If you have a Hammer Mill chipper / shredder like a MacKissic you’re in better shape. It makes nice pathway mulch since it doesn’t break down too easy. Also, when really dry makes good kindling to start a fire or feed it into your bread oven. They’ll go up quick so be careful when doing it.

    In nordic cultures there is the pastime of night skiing down a mountain in a synchronized line, weaving back and forth. Looks real pretty. I’m going to be starting something here in Lincoln Heights in the same vein. Same concept but with roller blades and fronds dipped in used motor oil. Think Waterworld meets Colors.

    And I thought I was gonna not have a joke for this post

  4. I had no idea that palm fronds were a problem, since I live far from any palm trees. However, I like the masks and the craft ideas a commenter posted.

    My neighbor is up to his knees (seriously)in magnolia leaves, a really big mess. Maybe he could start a craft business since they don’t seem to break down easily and are large enough for masks and the pretty fish. At least they won’t kill you when they fall.

    I like the idea of the paths lined with the fronds, also.

  5. Fibrous plant material is better off composted under anaerobic conditions. Think underwater compost pile. Anaerobic composting is usually called a biodigester because you want to capture the methane gases produced. However, overall the underwater version retains more nutrients than the aerobic composting method. So depending upon your concerns and volumn of material you might want to toss them into your fish pond.

  6. Up here in the high desert I see them woven into fencing quite a bit, to create a privacy screen. Also see them used to make shade awnings. Requires less fronds than a full thatch roof.
    I wonder if anyone has tried them out in a light straw clay type mixture?

  7. Wow! Never occurred to me that this was such a problem, but then I’ve never seen a live palm tree, either. Can you chop them up and put them in your worm box or is there just too much? Can worms digest the fronds?

    Up here in the cold Northeast, the many, many feet of snow have finally melted and we are enjoying what we locals call “Mud Season”. Maybe some entrepreneur could package up your palm fronds and send them up to us to cover the mud until the ground finally dries out.

    • Nah, the worms couldn’t do anything with them. They just don’t break down. Ever.

      I wish I could magically transport them all over to you to help with your mud, but soon enough you’d be cursing us.

      Did we mention the branch-like part has sharp serrated edges? Aerial shark teeth. I’ve cut myself on them.

  8. I thought I’d add my own palm story: I read somewhere that in the tropics, palm frond ash was used to make lye for primitve soap. It’s usually made of hardwood. Since we have a scant amount of hardwood in LA but a limitless amount of unwanted fronds, I was very excited and dragged a bunch home. Needing to reduce them to ash, I put them in the only firepit we had–our little bbq grill. Let me tell you, those babies burn. In an instant I had a 10 foot column of flame and almost set our roof on fire. I spent a long hot afternoon feeding the fire to get enough ash, but sadly, they did not make good lye.

    • Since they burn so well, maybe some prepper or survivalist type could find a way to bundle them into compact logs. Surely, the fronds must be free for the taking if they are such a bother.

      Can they be incorporated into mud for bricks?

    • Reminds me of a fire story:
      Many years ago, when I was a teen-ager, a lovely young family moved in around the corner. The husband was an attorney – very smart, but not well-versed in practical skills. One day, my dad glanced over to this neighbor’s yard to see the lawyer pouring something around the foundation of his house, which dad discovers is gasoline, ostensibly to kill weeds. Dad was always quick on his feet, but I don’t ever recall seeing him move so fast to stop the neighbor before he lit a match.
      They’re still friends, by the way.

    • !!! He was going to light his foundation on fire? No wonder your dad sprinted! I love that they’re still friends.

  9. I use them as fire starters from the palms around here, though not your sort. They catch quickly and burn long enough to get kindling wood going without any hassle. I tie them in knots or bundles all year round for winter fires.

  10. Just Sunday, as I stepped back in my yard one beaned me in the nose; fortunately no one saw and my nose wasn’t broken. Definitely don’t leave them leaning against fences after you pull them down. A better use I have for them than getting a bloody nose is to use them to suppress weeds in my beds – lying down, the stalk(?) cut off. Now to put more ointment on my nose.

  11. I live in the Great Lakes region so please forgive my ignorance when it comes to palm fronds. Actually I’ve never heard of a frond before this. I can say though, they aren’t a very sightly tree. Symbolic of SoCA but not attractive. So I guess they aren’t edible, lol? If you want to see a hazardous tree check out a buckeye tree. When those babies drop their “fruit” whilst walking underneath, you’d hope your hat was on :D

  12. We had a giant bunch fall from a tree onto our driveway. Luckily, nobody parked there that day. My husband took the frond part and wove them in our chain link fence for privacy. It looked really cool and held up surprisingly well.

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