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Piety and Perversity: The Palms of Los Angeles
July 28, 2014 5:50 PM   Subscribe

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.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (38 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Palm trees have all the aesthetic value of a telephone pole wearing a fright wig. If a blight were to kill every single blasted palm tree in California, I would shed nary a tear.
posted by entropicamericana at 6:03 PM on July 28 [10 favorites]


I like palm trees.
posted by birdherder at 6:06 PM on July 28 [6 favorites]


Palm trees are okay. But I live in Pasadena, where (for the most part) we have oaks instead of palms. I really prefer oaks, especially when the temperature is in triple digits.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 6:11 PM on July 28 [6 favorites]


Palm trees are great, and the best palm trees are the LED ones.

I'm not being ironic. I would be very happy with a yard full of those things.
posted by oddman at 6:16 PM on July 28


But if you take down all the palm trees where are the rats going to live?
posted by Nerd of the North at 6:19 PM on July 28 [4 favorites]


Yes, there are some parts of SoCal where there aren't a ton of palms: Pasadena, South Pas, LaVerne, Claremont.

I much prefer live oaks.
posted by persona au gratin at 6:20 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


When I moved from California to Seattle, the lack of palm trees was seriously upsetting. I have since found a few near my home that I can go look at in case of emergency.

One nice feature of palm trees is that they can be transplanted fully grown, so you don't have to plant a sapling and wait 10 years to have a tree!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:22 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Though there's something marvelous about a 75' palm blowing in the breeze against the sun setting across the Pacific.
posted by persona au gratin at 6:22 PM on July 28




Oh right. That's in TFA. Palms are a handy way of finding the San Andreas fault. So there's that.
posted by persona au gratin at 6:29 PM on July 28


A downside of having palm trees, as my parents discovered, is that they tend to produce cute little baby palm trees in one's lawn. For obvious reasons, this quickly becomes suboptimal.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:32 PM on July 28


There are plenty of ficus and jacaranda(pronounced with a Portuguese/English j) too.
posted by brujita at 6:41 PM on July 28


San Jose has a lot of palms, too. Generally full of rats and whatnot. All they do for me is remind me I need to live somewhere else that doesn't have any palm trees.
posted by doctor_negative at 6:41 PM on July 28


I lived in Pasadena and we had big palm trees in my hood. Being a born and raised midwesterner, they were a delight I never really tired of in my four years in Southern California. I love how practically every show set in Los Angeles has the characters driving down that one street in Beverly Hills that's lined with the tall ones - it's been almost a decade since I've been there but I think it's the part of Beverly Drive mentioned in the article. If you hadn't lived there you'd think the whole city looked like that, but no. It's just the one street.

When my mom, a small town girl from King City, Missouri, first visited LA in the 1960s, she asked the woman she was staying with, "How do they get those big plants up on those tall poles?"
posted by something something at 6:45 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


Growing up in L.A., I watched my father's triumphant response to owning a house with a back yard - building dirt mounds at opposite corners and planting 3-foot-tall baby palm trees on top, the kind that sprouted new fronds off the top and required handsaw surgery to remove the bottom fronds to make them look like palm trees. The fronds had sharp barbs and he rarely finished a trimming without bleeding some and swearing more. But they were his pride and joy, the things that made this Insurance Underwriter a true gardener and this Baltimore-born boy a grown-up California Homeowner. By the time we moved out of that house, both palms had grown to almost-too-tall-to-trim-without-a-ladder and my dad had marks on his arms that looked like an inept junkie's, but they were marks of pride; nothing he ever did as a hobby gave him more pride (and he never let his only son partake in the dangerous chore of trimming, since he knew I was a klutz with a brown thumb). Memories.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:47 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


When I was a kid I remember watching an very old palm tree burn. The tree was down the block next to my neighbors house. I have no idea why no one died or no one's house burned down. Palm trees may look nice but I don't want one near my house. That's a problem because a volunteer in my next door neighbor's yard is getting pretty tall.
posted by rdr at 6:48 PM on July 28


I can't speak for LA, but many, maybe most of the San Jose palm trees are native California Fan Palms and their distinctive dead leaf beards provide habitat for a good range of other species. I rather like em.
posted by Long Way To Go at 6:49 PM on July 28


When I was a kid I remember watching an very old palm tree burn. The tree was down the block next to my neighbors house. I have no idea why no one died or no one's house burned down.

You know those fireworks that you're supposed to nail to a fence, and then you light them and they spin and shoot off sparks? When my brothers were little, they and a friend decided to nail one to one of those fuzzy palm trees and light it. Oops.

(Actually, those fence fireworks don't even sound like a good idea if used as directed. Do they even make those anymore?)
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:26 PM on July 28


But if you take down all the palm trees where are the rats going to live?

Fort Meade?
posted by entropicamericana at 7:40 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


This doesn't pertain to California, but to palm trees. I was born in South Florida and lived there until my early 20s. I loathed all things Floridian and disdained them as rednecky and backwoods or cheesy and touristy, including and especially palm trees, and plotted my escape from the Sunshine State for years. I moved blind to Portland, Oregon the moment I got a professional certification that allowed me to do so -- rain! A temperate climate! Gentle mountain mists! Bookstores and serious coffee consumption! Changing leaves and the chance to clomp around in serious boots! I was in heaven. Eventually I sought to recapture the rare adrenaline rush of the bold blind cross country move, and a job offer from Anchorage, Alaska made this possible. Alaska -- like living in another country, except it's part of the U.S., land of the last frontier, land of gorgeous desolation...

Yeah, well. Eight years of dark Alaska winters maybe wore me down. But do you know what broke me, and moved my heart to true homesickness for Florida such that I had never felt before?

That holiday Corona beer tv ad with the twinkly lights in the palm tree.

There I was, surrounded by immaculate white arctic wilderness, and all I wanted was to be back in Florida, under a tacky twinkly lit palm tree. I was so shocked to discover this about myself! So shocked, but it was undeniable.

So. Yes. The palm trees won. Now there are twinkly lights in the palm trees in my yard year round. My yard in Florida.

Don't underestimate the palms.
posted by quietalittlewild at 7:44 PM on July 28 [15 favorites]


Parisians claim that in Paris, one is never more than 400 yards away from a Metro station.
Couldn't resist testing that statement. Spoiler alert: not true, but near the city center pretty truthy.
posted by tmcw at 8:27 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


But I live in Pasadena, where (for the most part) we have oaks instead of palms

There are way more than enough palms in Pasadena. I say that as a native. I grew up around them and got very tired of their gawky, obnoxious omnipresence. The palms tend to be congregated along major thoroughfares and in the working-class parts of town. They really thin out in South Pasadena and San Marino (and Linda Vista). I think there must be an ordinance against them in Sierra Madre.

I went to college in Northern California hoping for a leafy reprieve, and they were everywhere on campus too. There was no escaping them.
posted by blucevalo at 8:58 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Not only does Pasadena have palm trees, it has the world's single best palm tree ever.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 9:11 PM on July 28 [6 favorites]


Not only does Pasadena have palm trees, it has the world's single best palm tree ever.

Fascinating! Do you know what the story is with this twisted tree?
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 9:13 PM on July 28


Fascinating! Do you know what the story is with this twisted tree?

Nope, I just drove past it one day, did a double take, and turned the car around to make sure I wasn't losing my marbles!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 9:15 PM on July 28


Right, Sierra Madre too. So the SG mountain communities have at least portions sans palms.

I was out in SB county and saw this distinct line of palm trees way back in the mountains. I asked why it was there and found out it's the SA Fault.

Anyway, yeah, too many palms. But this place still is just fantastic.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:23 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I'm happy to say that my working class part of Pasadena hath not much in palmage and that makes me happy. Did make me mad when a few years back, the city came through and whacked a couple of the old oaks that weren't doing so hot. Yeah, i know, but still..

I grew up in Florida as well and my experience was never the palm tree, but the giant live oak on my house corner with moss beards and the skinny always fragile pines that soared scary high enough for me to never climb. I remember being heartbroken when a few years after my mom sold my childhood home that I drove by to discover the new owners had chopped down the wonderful old live oak that shaded half the house. My mom's explanation - they're islanders and don't trust trees in a storm - never quite made it ok.
posted by drewbage1847 at 11:53 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I'm from Cerritos and while we definitely have palm trees I always associated them with that one iconic drive in Beverly Hills and with the Westside/West LA in general. I think more of eucalyptus and jacaranda trees in bloom when I think of home.
posted by andrewesque at 5:39 AM on July 29


Sherman Way in the Valley around Reseda is a stand in for the "Beverly Hills" palm trees. As is Stadium Way in Elysian Park. And there is your FYI for the day.
posted by Sophie1 at 6:54 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


I was starting to feel like the only Pasadenan surrounded by palm trees.
posted by malocchio at 7:12 AM on July 29 [2 favorites]


As a Mile High state resident who has been obliged to visit Los Angeles yearly (no longer, though!), I'm noticing that there is one feature that most of you palm-lovers and palm-haters haven't mentioned, because you're so used to it, I guess, like I'm used to thin air. Namely this: after a storm or high wind, the city is literally littered with thousands of big ol' strips of palm bark, or whatever you call it. What happens to all this biocrap?
posted by kozad at 7:37 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


There is one species that's indigenous.

Kinda sorta. The Washingtonia filifera didn't grow naturally in the LA region--it's natural habitat was further East in the desert. So it might not be a long-distance import, but it's still an import. It's often mistaken for the far more widely planted Washingtonia robusta (most of the really tall old palms in LA are of this species) which is an import from Mexico (Baja California mostly). There are also hybrids: the wonderfully--and perhaps prophetically, named Washingtonia filibusta. Perhaps it should be adopted as the National Palm Tree by Congress.
posted by yoink at 9:06 AM on July 29


I think all the eucalyptus trees and iceplants are far more irritating non-natives than the palm trees.
posted by jnnla at 9:27 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


Apparently heaven looks like Los Angeles, with palm trees.
posted by bad grammar at 9:42 AM on July 29


I just moved from LA to Seattle last month and I'm aching for palm trees already. Thanks for this great essay.
posted by town of cats at 10:08 AM on July 29


What happens to all this biocrap?

After a storm the city deploys clean-up crews come to pick up all the dead fronds and other branches that got knocked loose.

I drive through Beverly Hills every morning at about 5 a.m. and there's almost always a frond or two in the street. I assume the daily fronds get pulverized to palm juice by all the cars, or it gets swept away by the street sweepers eventually.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:52 AM on July 29


Eucalyptus trees are definitely more irritating and way more splody than palm trees. From the article: [Eucalyptus] not only put a lot of fuel on the ground as they shed bark, leaves and twigs, but in intense fires, volatile compounds in foliage cause explosive burning.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:58 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


What happens to all this biocrap?

After a storm the city deploys clean-up crews come to pick up all the dead fronds and other branches that got knocked loose.


And these then go to the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation Free Mulch Program!
posted by mr_roboto at 3:05 PM on July 29


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