Parisians claim that in Paris, one is never more than 400 yards away from a Metro station. In Los Angeles, I am equally certain that one is always within 400 yards of a palm tree.
Scores of streets are lined with them; they are ubiquitous in domestic and public gardens; they rise from hilltops; they tower above cemeteries; they front museums, movie studios, hotels, hospitals, municipal buildings, modest apartments, and lavish villas; they are clustered around swimming pools; they dominate the skyline — they are everywhere, and have never been more popular. The city’s 200-year love affair with palms has never ceased, and rather than waning, the affair is waxing. From the first palms planted by Spanish padres to the city of Beverly Hills, which recently, in an act of cosmetic alteration, created a palm-lined, palm-bisected thoroughfare on upscale Rodeo Drive, the palm has been the tree of choice for Angelenos.
Lately, as I have been scanning the local horizon, the pervasive palms have begun to make me feel queasy. In fact, they now irritate me. I long to see a vista uninterrupted by the skinny, merciless palms — they mock the very idea of shade, and in a region with abundant sunshine, their presence is exasperating. Like alien invaders, reckless colonizers, and “escaped exotics,” as invasive plant species are known, palms have driven out more modest species, claiming, as autocrats do, the exclusive right to reign supreme — they alone signify the arboreal realm of Los Angeles despite their inability to provide shade, their over-reliance on water and their environmental incongruity.
The palm has run its course: it is time to rethink our attachment to the outmoded fantasies palms represent. Los Angeles, by appreciating and planting its native trees, could expand upon its one-dimensional image and emerge from its palm addiction. Apart from the beauty and usefulness of the native trees, they tell the real story of the city, and do we not deserve the truth? Or is the palm dependence too strong, the opportunity for planting too great, the mythology too entrenched? Are we content with Los Angeles being visualized as a place of grotesque exaggeration, unstoppable frivolity, cultural banality, and overall flimsiness, with the palm tree as its perverse symbol? Was Sumner Spaulding right? Is Los Angeles so chimerical and insubstantial that it is nothing more than stage set? The palms of Los Angeles, histrionic poseurs that they are, would support Spaulding’s claim.