How The Palm Tree Came To Southern California
There is a pervasive image of Los Angeles– one can easily imagine the top down on a stylish convertible as it drives down a perfectly manicured road, loud music, palm trees rising on either side like the icons of a bygone age. It is an image that could be from any number of decades in LA’s history– the music and the car change perhaps, but the palm trees remain, tall and thin, pillars of towering opulence, and utterly ubiquitous.
The first ornamental palms were planted in the Los Angeles area during the 18th century by Spanish missionaries, for whom they had both practical and symbolic dimensions– palm trees are a famously biblical plant and their fronds are used during Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday observances. The date palms planted by the missionaries provided no shade or fruit (date palms require fertilization by hand in order to produce dates), and while the desert fan palm is native to Southern California, date palms, old Mexican fan palms, and queen palms would soon overtake Los Angeles.
Palm trees grew in popularity during the Victorian era alongside the development of greenhouses, which allowed them to flourish in otherwise inhospitable environments. During that time, palm gardens and palm conservancies were built throughout Europe–there was even a palm court on the ill-fated RMS Titanic. The palm trees encapsulated the Victorian ideals of exploration and conquest, leaving behind the religious associations they had carried since antiquity, and moving towards the exoticism that eventually came to epitomize 20th-century Los Angeles. The Orientalism of the mid-nineteenth century compounded a desire for imported attractions like the palm tree.
As Los Angeles grew (rapidly, and in many directions), city planners set out to beautify the streets. For landscaping, palm trees proved to be a cheaper alternative to grander, classic trees like the magnolia, while still impressing a sense of grandeur and luxury. Moreover, the Los Angeles heat offered the ideal climate for palm trees to thrive.
“Palm trees suggest perfectly-clear days free from woes…They are the emblem of the American West.”
Through careful marketing efforts designed to entice Easterners into the West, Southern California came to be known as a “semi-tropical” environmental, one that encapsulated the fantasy of faraway lands without the overseas travel and taxing humidity. Publications hailed Los Angeles as a paradise and featured the palm tree alongside articles enumerating the merits of the city. Even the University of Southern California embraced the emblem of the palm, declaring as their motto Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat (“Let whoever earns the palm possess it”).
During the early 20th century, Los Angeles became an easy, accessible fantasy, and the rise of Hollywood ushered in the city’s aura of glamour and luxury. Many Hollywood films featured Middle Eastern locales, further imbuing Los Angeles with an exotic, “dangerous” appeal. Just as the Victorians had allowed themselves to be seduced by their own constructions of Orientalism, so too did more modern Los Angeles residents fall under the embellished foreign allure of the palm tree.
In the 1930s, the craze for palm trees in Los Angeles reached new heights. A massive planting effort was undertaken in part anticipating the Olympics set to occur in Los Angeles in 1932. Perhaps more importantly, the initiative also created employment opportunities during the Great Depression, and resulted in over 40,000 trees being planted. Today, L.A. is alive with earlier decades’ efforts to turn the California desert into a seductive cultural oasis.
In the past few years, however, Los Angeles’s urban palm trees have begun to die, as their 75- to 100-year life span reaches its end. The threat of diseases, as well as the incursion of the red palm weevil, has made palm trees a difficult horticultural tradition to sustain (even without factoring in their heavy reliance on water in an increasingly waterless California). The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced in 2006 that they would not be replacing the palm trees that die, and would instead be moving towards re-introducing native, drought resistant plants to cityscapes, like native oaks and sycamores.
The desert fan palms native to California grow where there is water— for all that palm trees are associated culturally with the desert, they require an immense amount of water. In California, groves cluster alongside oases (an instance when the cinematic trope proves accurate)– hence the naming of “Palm Springs”. In recent years, however, changes in the water table have hindered native palm tree populations, and the drought has made the foreign palm trees of L.A. all the more impractical.
Over 2,500 species of palm tree exist and live in various climates– deserts and rainforests alike. They grow coconuts, betel nuts, dates, and açai berries– one can even make a wine from their sap. But their lasting impact in America has been in the sunny daydreams they inspire. Palm trees suggest perfectly-clear days free from woes. They promise relaxation and easy luxury. They symbolize a paradise full of warm beaches and crashing waves. They are the emblem of the American West– the nostalgic promise of better shores.