Photo by Yiran Wang

Photo by Yiran Wang

There’s something I’ve always wondered about since moving to Los Angeles: Why are there so many palm trees in Los Angeles?

Many people – especially those not originally from California – might assume that palm trees are native to Los Angeles. These palms are practically synonymous with the city. However, among all these palms found across Southern California, there is only one native species:  Washingtonia filifera (aka the California Desert Palm).

The frond of Washingtonia filifera. Creative Commons photo by Atirador.

The frond of Washingtonia filifera. Creative Commons photo by Atirador.

“There are 2,500 species of palms worldwide, with 11 native to North America. The largest of these, and the only palm tree native to western North America, is the California fan palm. It is also known as the desert palm and the California Washingtonia.” – California Fan Palm – DesertUSA

An old postcard of the Southern Pacific Los Angeles Arcade Depot

An old postcard of the Southern Pacific Los Angeles Arcade Depot

Therefore, almost all of the ubiquitous fan palms growing along streets, the date palms surrounding our most luxurious hotels, and the countless palms growing in front and backyards across Los Angeles all arrived from elsewhere.

The very first palm in the state was planted in the mid-18th century in San Diego by Spanish missionaries as religious symbols. After that, other immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere brought in different varieties of palm seeds. And along with the trend of exoticism promoted by Orientalism in the mid-19th century, Victorians planted numerous palm trees across Los Angeles in an attempt to recreate the Far East.

Furthermore, the Victorian planted rows of palms along roads or in front of grand buildings, their presence representing productivity, piety, and exoticism. Later in the 1800s, when the Southern Pacific Los Angeles Arcade Station opened at Fourth and Alameda, there was a huge Washington fan palm deliberately transplanted right outside the entrance. The formidable plant was to represent Southern California’s salubrious landscape, welcoming travelers  to the Eden in the desert.

Plaque commemorating the Arcade Depot Palm as the "Mute witness to the growth of Los Angeles". Both plaque and Arcade Palm are situated in front of the LA Memorial Coliseum.

A plaque commemorating the Arcade Depot Palm as the “Mute witness to the growth of Los Angeles”. Both plaque and Arcade Palm are situated in front of the LA Memorial Coliseum.

Sadly, it seems the era of the palm trees in Los Angeles may be coming to an end. Populations of palms are dwindling due to fungal disease, age, urban pollution, and the effects of the drought. Beyond that, “palm thieves” have actually targeted and removed the highly desirable plants for profit (valued upwards of $40,000!). City leaders have proposed replacing the stolen or deceased palms with a California native: the oak tree.

These palm trees weren’t the only plants introduced by migrating populations. Schinus molle, the California pepper tree, is another introduced variety still commonly found growing across Southern California. The story of its introduction, proliferation, and eventual replacement by palm trees across LA warrants its own future post…

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  1. August 29, 2016

    I’m not sad that the era of the palm is slowly ending. Imagine how much shadier and more pleasant it would be to walk or bike around Los Angeles if every palm were replaced with another tree. I’ve also lived and visited the tropics, where palms are native, and they seem to me to make more aesthetic sense. Spindly palms and thirsty grass lawns just look all wrong to me, affixed to the rocky, semi-arid chaparral city in which we live. Maybe I’m just becoming a Nativist (in regards to flora) the longer I live here.

    Liked by 1 person

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