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Palm Sacrifice

Updated: May 27

Cell tower palm with desert and mountains in background in Landers, California.

If you look out the window in California, you will most likely be able to spot a palm tree. We are obsessed. In every shopping center parking lot, every residential tract, and along many parkways, we see hundreds of thousands of palms planted side by side for miles. For over a hundred years, palms in California have been emblematic of piety, luxury, and tropical exoticism. As much as we love them, almost all of them don’t belong here.

The only palm that is native to California is the Washingtonia filifera, the California fan palm, which thrives in the desert oases of the inland California desert, far from coastal Los Angeles. These palms were a natural resource for the Cahuilla Indians of this region, eating the fruit, and using the fronds for baskets and shelter. Prior to European settlement, the coastal Southern California landscape was mostly populated with oak woodlands, chaparral, and grasslands, typical of a semi-arid environment.

In the eighteenth century, Franciscan missionaries began importing palms for their religious value, but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century gardening craze that saw many thousands of palms planted all over Southern California. As part of an unemployment relief program in 1931, Washingtonia robusta(Mexican Fan) were planted in great numbers in Los Angeles alongside 150 miles of city boulevards. To further the illusion of a semi-tropical paradise, other species of palms were imported in great numbers, like the king and queen palms, kentia palms, and the most royal, Phoenix canariensis (Canary Islands date palm). All of these have adorned and enriched our California landscape for many years. Palm sacrifice

So what’s the problem?  Palms are monocots, much more like grasses than woody deciduous trees. That’s why the only native species live in oases. Much like most grass lawns that are not adapted to our climate conditions, palms need more water than this environment can naturally provide. So they not only rely on imported water to survive, their lifespans are a fraction of what they would be in their natural habitat.

As many of the older Los Angeles palms age out, and become vulnerable to weevil and fungus, they will die off. Despite palms’ undeniable ornamental value, city planners have said they will not be replaced with more palms, but more native or adapted species. Enjoy these beauties while they’re here, the SoCal landscape of 100 years from now may look quite different. 


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