A Brief History of Palm Trees in Southern California
December 15, 2011 3:49 PM   Subscribe

Of the hundreds of species of palm trees you might find in southern California, only one is native to the state, and that shaggy specimen is naturally found around springs and arroyos in the desert southwest, not lined along beach community parks and streets. How did a desert tree become an icon of fruitful turn of the twentieth century Los Angeles, the former garden city? KCET writer Nathan Masters provides a brief history of palm trees in southern California.

Though not native to the state, 157 palms are known to grow in northern part of the state, according to the Northern California chapter of the Palm Society (the Southern California chapter sells their more detailed list of suitable palms, but Jungle Music Palms & Cycads lists a number of spiny-trunked species that flourish in southern California).

The article notes that many attribute the 1932 Summer Olympics (video clip and photos, more photos) as the reason for a significant number of palms around Los Angeles, but counters that Los Angeles' first forestry chief, L. Glenn Hall was behind "the $100,000 program that planted some 40,000 trees in total was part of a larger unemployment relief program, funded by a $5 million bond issue."

Many of these iconic and prevalent palms are approaching (or passing) their 75 to 100 year life span. Additionally, there are a number of palm diseases, and more recently, the appearance of red palm weevil, in southern California palms, an insect that has been a serious pest in southern Asia and Melanesia, then appearing in Saudi Arabia in 1985 and spreading out, reaching Egypt in 1992. Add to these threats the fact that palms are more structural than functional, requiring a significant amount of water and providing little shade, Los Angeles was looking to replace its palms with a number of other trees (back in 2006). The Million Tree Initiative of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wasn't anti-palm but wouldn't be planting any as part of official replanting. More about this in the second portion of the Nov 27, 2006 Which Way, L.A.? segment on KCRW (jump to 14:40 mark).

Palms might be out of favor with people looking to plant more functional trees, but there are many Palm Societies still propagating and promoting palms.

Bonus bit: there is also a comment tossed in about Abbot Kinney's "zealous advocacy" for eucalyptus. His 1895 book on the subject is available on Archive.org and Google books.
posted by filthy light thief (23 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Last bonus link: Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era (Google books), specifically the page with the source of the cited Kevin Starr line: "Southern California's turn-of-the-century conviction that it was America's Mediterranean littoral, its Latin shore, sunny and palm-guarded."
posted by filthy light thief at 3:53 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the outstanding post. The palm is one of my favorite culturally invasive species introduced to Southern California and the Southwest. By culturally invasive, I mean something that's no longer just a happy accident- something that's strangely culturally celebrated, something that has become a real part of the ethos of a place. Maybe only celebrated by some, maybe hated by others.

A couple other favorites, particularly when it comes to L.A., are the pepper tree (Schinus molle, the eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus in particular), and the lead tree (Leucaena leucocephala, considered an invasive species by many, celebrated by others).
posted by Old Man McKay at 4:03 PM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Palms might be out of favor with people looking to plant more functional trees, but there are many Palm Societies still propagating and promoting palms.

Even without palm societies, many local governments will require you to plant trees along the street if you develop a property, with king or queen palms being favorite choices.

My old office had a Mexican palm in front of the building that was getting up into the 100-year old range - during a wind storm in January, 2009, the top 2/3 of the ~50' tree sheared off and fell into the street, narrowly missing a bus (it didn't uproot, the trunk actually broke at a point 15' above ground).

It's interesting to see the ones out in the desert, many of which have their full skirts intact, although they can be removed naturally by floodwaters or fires.
posted by LionIndex at 4:13 PM on December 15, 2011

Best post in years!
posted by norm111 at 4:16 PM on December 15, 2011

Awesome awesome awesome post. I <3 palm trees. Thank you, thank you for this.
posted by pointystick at 4:28 PM on December 15, 2011

I moved to California from Nebraska 12 years ago and I still get a kick out of seeing the palm trees. It never ceases to make me smile, even if its just an inside smile.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 4:33 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have a California Palm in my front yard. Tall, broad and I can only assume quite old, it's an inspiring sight to walk out of the house to every morning. And one day I'll drop the $800 needed to send someone up to the top and remove the dead fronds.
posted by veritas que at 4:47 PM on December 15, 2011

There used to be several Mexican fan palms (Washingtonia robusta) on Route 101 as it passes by downtown L.A. They had been there for probably as long as the freeway, and they grew up and over the bridges for Broadway, Spring and Main Streets.

Back during the riots of 1992, I saw them burn. All of them. I was totally heartbroken, they were the only living things there, and they really had a huge impact on the space. You wouldn't notice, but you would if they were gone. On top of that, Caltrans would not be replacing them due to the updated standards for planting distances.

The charred trunks stayed there for at least year - then a miracle happened. They grew back. The hearts were still intact, and they put out new fronds. Today they are all still alive, and you can see them in Google Street View.

I love those trees. They have their issues, but damn, the Mexican Fan Palm is a tough bastard.
posted by Xoebe at 5:00 PM on December 15, 2011 [11 favorites]

was part of a larger unemployment relief program

Fucking communism, am I right?
posted by Threeway Handshake at 5:08 PM on December 15, 2011

Xoebe, you mean one of these? It almost looks like a weed, growing out of the cracks in the pavement, there's so little dirt for such a tall plant.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:12 PM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I frequently "forget" about palm trees. I live in Long Beach, CA where I (think) there are quite a lot of them.

I say I "think" there are because, to me at least, you don't really pay attention to palm trees the same way you pay attention to other trees. Big oak trees, as this article from the post mentions, are the types of trees you'll walk under and say, "wow, it's really nice under this thing." Or maybe you'll see them shifting in the breeze and say "wow, look at how big and beautiful that thing is."

Palm trees, for me, are different. I bet it's because I'm a Southern California native, but they blend into and create the setting rather than sticking out as a beautiful thing themselves. That street that I linked to above is one of the downtown thoroughfares in the city and it came to my mind because the whole street just feels very beachy and nice, and I bet it is in large part because of the palm trees. I just had a feeling that if I street viewed that street it would have palm trees on it, although I know I have definitely never looked at the palm trees and though, "wow, that is a beautiful wonder of nature."

So, to me, palm trees create a setting and blend in whereas other trees are more likely the centerpiece.
posted by Defenestrator at 5:57 PM on December 15, 2011

Speaking as a Northern Californian, palm trees are fucking hideous.
posted by entropicamericana at 6:16 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yup, I just checked and there is a palm tree outside of my window. They line my street. I couldn't have told you that definitively before I looked.
posted by Defenestrator at 6:27 PM on December 15, 2011

A palm log cabin
posted by buggzzee23 at 6:32 PM on December 15, 2011

Xoebe, you mean one of these? It almost looks like a weed, growing out of the cracks in the pavement, there's so little dirt for such a tall plant.

This is the great thing about palms in urban spaces: they don't have tap roots, just a root mass, so they can live in very small spaces without roots snaking into crevices and busting up hardscape. I love the role they play in the historic landscape of California. The big feather palm, Phoenix canariensis, was popular at the turn of the last century. Even in rural northern California you can find them at the site of old farms, homesteads, and cemeteries. I used to watch for them in the rural areas around Hollister and Gilroy. Now I watch for them on my train ride into Davis from Oakland. Washingtonia were planted along drives or on the boundaries of property. Here in Oakland the Ninth Avenue Palms remain along the former driveway of the Borax Smith Estate, even though the estate is long gone. On the end of my block palm trees line the sidewalk where a state senator's mansion once stood. I once found a picture with the palms at about 8 feet tall, taken over a century ago. They are now over a hundred feet tall.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:31 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

palm spring
posted by hortense at 11:13 PM on December 15, 2011

It's almost certainly the case that the proliferation of palm trees happened after WW2 after returning veterans from north Africa and the south pacific bought the aesthetic back with them.

It's not possible to get the city to plant palms any more; they were banned a few years back since they are non-native and don't provide the benefits of leafy trees. See: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15287692/ns/us_news-environment/t/la-replacing-signature-palm-trees-natives/#.TusBofF5mK0
posted by jeffreymcmanus at 12:32 AM on December 16, 2011

That shaggy specimen
posted by stormpooper at 6:44 AM on December 16, 2011

I've always wondered how the palm tree, a tropical plant, can thrive in northern California's temperate climate. It's a bit bizarre to see one poking it's shaggy head above the pines.
posted by happyroach at 7:19 AM on December 16, 2011

Great post!

Near Palm Springs you can also see another favorite palm... the date palm. BTW date shakes are super tasty.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:10 AM on December 16, 2011

Speaking as a Northern Californian, palm trees are fucking hideous.

Some time in college, I heard a description of palms as dog poop that just piles upwards, never growing outwards like a proper tree. This description made smirk, and think about the palms I've seen.

And with this thread, I've come to realize they are architectural, rather than a landscape feature. Those Ninth Avenue Palms look ridiculous now, completely out of scale with their surroundings, like a 20 story highrise next to a neighborhood of bungalows. But at one time, they were stately pillars lining the driveway for an estate.

Speaking of context, I grew up in Santa Barbara, so this view was what I thought of when people talked about palms: palm trees in a green lawn (it's called Chase Palm Park for a reason). Then I visited some natural springs around Palm Springs. The city has more of the green lawns and manicured palm trees, but the natural palms look more like this (source), home in authentic desert oases.

If you find yourself near Palm Springs and have half a day to explore the area, leave the semi-linear sprawl of city that is Palm Springs/Cathredal City/Rancho Mirage/Palm Desert/Indian Wells/etc, and hike some trails and see some real palm springs.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:07 AM on December 16, 2011

It's almost certainly the case that the proliferation of palm trees happened after WW2 after returning veterans from north Africa and the south pacific bought the aesthetic back with them.

It really happened several decades before then. Most of the significant palm planting in northern California happened just under a hundred years ago with the rise of the nursery industry, suburban California expansion, and the connection between palms and stately victorian homes (where exotic plantings proved one's status as a monied collector). The last link above the fold has a very good synopsis and photos of the history of palms in the landscape of Southern California. It was pretty much along the same timeline that palms were planted up here, though there was less of a municipal effort to do so in northern California, and fewer species that lived through the occasional hard frosts. California was essentially made by real estate, and orange groves and palms were all over 1910- 1920's promotional material touting the benefits of California's climate to people in the less balmy northeast.

Anyway, here's a picture of the palms at the end of my street in their youth, though not the photo I had seen before. There's an Araucaria bidwillii in the garden of the mansion as well- another victorian collectible that only remains in large gardens, parks, cemeteries, and estates. The mansion and garden were torn down in 1957 in order to build an apartment block, but even in 1957 palms added some cachet: the apartment building is called "Jackson Palms".

For Bay Area people, the Lake Merritt Palmetum has the most extensive collection of cold tolerant and high altitude palms in the US. It's looking much less shabby than it was a few years ago, thanks to volunteers. If you attend a monthly work day, the parking pass is free (the gardens are always free, but parking is sometimes not).
posted by oneirodynia at 11:08 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

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