Los Angeles Has Little Room for Palms
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 25 — The palm tree, like so much here, rose to fame largely because of vanity and image control, then met its downfall when the money ran out.
The Los Angeles City Council, fed up with the cost of caring for the trees, with their errant fronds that plunge perilously each winter, and with the fact that they provide little shade, have declared them the enemy of the urban forest and wish that most would disappear.
The city plans to plant a million trees of other types over the next several years so that, as palms die off, most will be replaced with sycamores, crape myrtles and other trees indigenous to Southern California. (Exceptions will be the palms growing in places that tourists, if not residents, demand to see palmy, like Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards.)
The department that supplies trees at the request of Los Angeles residents no longer offers palms, and the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project, which includes 1,000 new trees, will feature a mere 40 palms.
By slowly pushing out the palm, Los Angeles joins Miami and other maturing cities that have determined they can live without their youthful indulgence.
“They are iconic,” conceded Josh Kamensky, the spokesman for Eric Garcetti, the council president. “They are also really bad for our city.”
Of the various varieties of palms, none is really indigenous to Los Angeles. In the mid-20th century, land barons relocating to Los Angeles and Hollywood from the East decided that palm trees denoted the easy life, and began planting them at their homes and offices, said Leland Lai, the president of the Palm Society of Southern California, a research group that supports keeping the city lined with palms.
Hotels and housing subdivisions came next, and the state’s transportation authority planted the trees on public parkways “because they decided they were easy, fast growing and don’t need a lot of water,” Mr. Lai said.
But as it turns out, palm trees, particularly Mexican fan palms, feature big, spiky fronds that fall off the trees in the Santa Ana winds that sweep through in winter. The palms clonk cars, and occasionally pedestrians, said city officials, who also say that palm trees do not clean as much carbon monoxide from the air as do shadier trees.
Palms are hard to care for, so hard that the city has a line in its tree-trimming budget just for them. Last year, it was approximately $385,000, but proper care dictates an expense of about $630,000 per year, said Nazario Sauceda, the assistant director of the bureau of street services in the city’s Department of Public Works.
Many of the trees planted in the 1950s “are getting toward the end of their lives,” Mr. Lai said. “Some are 80 to 100 feet high and 70 years old, and these are not self-cleaning palms,” which means they need maintenance to remove old fronds.
Last year, the city removed nearly 8,000 cubic yards of dried palm fronds from the public right of way, Mr. Sauceda said.
Date palms, which make a bit less of a mess, have become prohibitively expensive to import, mostly from the Middle East, because Las Vegas has snapped them all up. And with only 18 percent of the city shaded (the national average is 28 percent), Los Angeles wants trees that shelter people from the sun.
“This is an issue of the image of Southern California,” Mr. Lai said. “And not so much an issue of the provision of oxygen.”
It is unlikely that the rest of the world will start to associate Los Angeles with, say, the jacaranda.
For Americans looking for personal reinvention, palm trees are part of the physical evidence that Los Angeles is the right place to be, up there with the Hollywood sign peeking out from Beachwood Canyon and swimming pools that shimmer in October.
The trees are also used in many company logos, including that of Jet Blue’s frequent flyer program, which features the skyline of New York and the palms of Los Angeles. “While the palm tree is closely identified with Southern California,” Jenny Dervin, a spokeswoman for JetBlue, said in an e-mail message, “it also evokes some of our island destinations — Puerto Rico, Aruba, Dominican Republic — so we may be able to survive this episode.”
Mr. Lai suggested that the city’s actions might be rash and that it investigate the use of palm trees that are easier to care for than the Mexican fan variety. Trees are so integral to the image of Los Angeles, he said, that they are worth the bother.
“Hawaii has a lot of coconut tree liability problems because they fall on people’s heads,” he said. “But the people there have said, ‘That is something that we have to accept.’ ”