Los Angeles palms

A 2010 photo showing LA’s oldest Washingtonia robusta, planted in about 1875. Located on what was Palm Avenue at Adams Boulevard. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Close your eyes and picture Los Angeles – chances are you’ll be imagining something like the image above. I know I was when I visited LA last year, but not knowing the name of the tall, slender palms I mentally nick-named them Hollywood palms (because Hollywood is Los Angeles, right?).

Thanks to this informative webpage by Nathan Masters, I can now identify them as Mexican fan palms (Washingtonia robusta), mass planted in the 1930s both as a beautification project for the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932 and as a work scheme during the Depression, although many are older than that.

As close as I got to Hollywood – Washingtonia robusta in the Disney California park at Anaheim. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Geoff Stein on the Dave’s Garden site says he can’t think of another palm that is as easy to grow and as hardy as W. robusta (and that sometimes stopping them from growing is a gardener’s biggest problem). Geoff also mentions some of the other palms that are widely grown in southern California.

Washingtonia filifera is the only palm native to the western United States and has several common names including California fan palm and petticoat palm (because of the way the old fronds hang down the trunk). These are also grown as street trees but, as Geoff points out, they have thicker trunks than W. robusta (although, interestingly, he puts the case for them not being two separate plants, while also muddying the nomenclature waters is the hybrid of the two, the so-called W. filabusta).

In an interview by Nathan Masters with author Jared Farmer, we learn that in the 19th century California’s preferred tree for public planting was the pepper tree (Schinus molle), but in the early 20th century the majority were removed because they housed a scale that threatened the citrus industry. The first avenue of Mexican fan palms in Los Angeles was planted in the 1870s, although there have been many different types of palm used as street plantings throughout southern California.

An avenue of Phoenix dactylifera (date palm) in Anaheim. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Surprisingly, today’s vision of tall, stately palms wasn’t intended. “In the wild, California and Mexican fan palms grow from 40 to 60 feet [12-18m] tall,” says Don Hodel, horticulture advisor for the University of California system and author of Exceptional Trees of Los Angeles (California Arboretum Foundation) and quoted in the LA Times. By contrast, their city cousins have shot up to between 100 and 150 feet tall [30-45m].

In 2006 Washingtonia robusta were deemed by city councillors to provide no street amenity (shade) and to be too water-hungry for dry southern California and so were not to be replanted as they came to the end of their natural lives – although exemptions were given to Hollywood and Sunset boulevards. The story from the Los Angeles Times also notes that deep-pocketed palm buyers in Las Vegas have pushed prices too high for LA councils.

With citrus now largely gone and the palms reaching the end of their lives what will be next for the City of Dreams? Apparently, councils are considering jacaranda, native oaks and ficus. Read my earlier piece on jacaranda trees.

In an erudite (and long) article from this year’s Los Angeles Review of Books, Victoria Dailey, in Piety and Perversity: The Palms of Los Angeles, claims the palms make her feel “queasy” and are a cliché.

A Disney Plaza planting of the Canary Island palm, Phoenix canariensis. Photo: Sandra Simpson

But when choosing trees to line Grand Avenue opposite the Walt Disney Concert Hall in central LA, well-known landscape architect Nancy Goslee Power used  the Mexican fan palm. To her mind, it had the grace, the elan, and, most important, the resonance. “They’re ours,” she says in the LA Times article. “They’re California.”

The Times story also answers a question for me – when I read that my “Hollywood palms” were Washingtonia robusta, I was surprised but, as it turns out, it’s all in the way the fronds are removed.

“The way its trunk is trimmed can make it look like two different plants. Palms with cross-hatching on the trunk still bear the stems. Skinned palms look more like elephant legs.” I had been associating the cross-hatching effect as “normal” for W. robusta as that tends to be how gardeners in New Zealand deal with the old fronds.

Phoenix reclinata (Senegal date palm) pictured in Tomorrowland. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Update September 2017: This Guardian report says the palm trees in Los Angeles are dying – falling victim to a beetle and/or a fungus – and won’t be replaced. City authorities plan to replant with shade trees that are less thirsty.