Palm trees have become something of a ubiquitous symbol for the city of Los Angeles, so most people are surprised that they don’t grow natively in the area — every palm tree in Los Angeles is an import.
The Allure of Palm Trees in Los Angeles
Palm trees are an iconic symbol of Los Angeles, and everywhere you look in the city you’ll see them. Sometimes they’ll be in the distance, painting the blue skies with their graceful silhouettes. You can’t miss them towering over the the concrete barriers as you drive the highways that thread through the city. And sometimes they’ll be lining the street you’re driving down — almost every Los Angeles neighborhood has a street lined with palm trees.
Despite their omnipresence today, palm trees are not native to the Los Angeles area. When Los Pobladores arrived in Los Angeles in 1781, there was nary a palm tree to be found. Rather, the landscape was mostly scrub grassland. Palm trees were first planted by Spanish missionaries in the 18th century, possibly due to the palm tree’s biblical prevalence and its importance in Palm Sunday celebrations.
But it wasn’t until the 1930s when Los Angeles was marketed as an exotic desert oasis that the palm trees really proliferated.
That’s when Pasadena planted a palm tree every 100 feet along many of its streets. The city of Venice, to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, planted 200 Mexican Fan Palms on Washington Boulevard (two species of palms commonly found in Los Angeles are named after George Washington — more on this in a moment). 25,000 were planted in advance of the 1932 Olympics. Another 40,000 were planted as part of a Works Progress Administration project.
At some time in the 1990s, someone decided to count all the palm trees in Los Angeles. There were around 75,000 of them growing in the city. And now, 90 years after most of them were first planted, these trees are approaching the end of their natural lifespans.
The Three Palm Trees of Los Angeles
There are three main varieties of palms found in Los Angeles, all members of the Arecaceae family with two of them from the same genus, Washingtonia.
The Washingtonia trees are named after none other than the first president of the United States. The genus was supposedly christened in 1879 by Hermann Wendland (sometimes Von Wendland), a German botanist who worked in Belgium. Wendland was a palm tree expert and great admirer of George Washington.
California Fan Palm
The California Fan Palm, Washingtonia filifera, is the only palm to grow natively in the United States. Also known as the Desert Fan Palm (especially in Arizona, whose citizens seem to resent it being named for another state), the tree can commonly be found throughout the Colorado and Mojave Deserts.
It’s often found growing near standing water in places such as at the Fortynine Palms Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park, the Palm Canyon Oasis in the Anza-Borrego State Park, and around vaious, smaller oases near Palm Springs and Palm Desert.
W. filifera is known for having a somewhat stout trunk up to four feet in diameter and can typically grow up to 70 feet tall. As it grows, it has a tendency to retain dead leaves along its trunk that can give it a shaggy appearance. This mass of leaves looks a little like a skirt around the tree and, as such, the California Fan Palm is sometimes called the Petticoat Palm.
And while it grows relatively quickly, it’s not as fast as its cousin, Washingtonia robusta.
Mexican Fan Palm
The Mexican Fan Palm, Washingtonia robusta, is the most common palm tree in Los Angeles. It isn’t native to the area, but it does grow in northwestern Mexico and Baja California. It’s possible that this species may be native to parts of Southern California as well, but that can’t be definitively proven today due to its proliferation across Los Angeles.
W. robusta is, as the name suggests, a very robust tree. It doesn’t need as much water as W. filifera and new growth can crop up just about anywhere, thanks to animals spreading the plant’s seends. If you come across a small palm tree growing in a weird spot away from other palms, it’s likely a Mexican Fan Palm.
The W. robusta tends to be slimmer than the California Fan Palm with a trunk no more than 2 feet in diameter. They also grow taller — up top 100 feet more more — and as they grow the trunks develop bends and curves. Most often, when you see a street lined with towering, skinny palms trees, those are Washingtonia robusta trees.
W. filifera versus W. robusta
Although categorized as two distinct species, there is very little differentiation between W. filifera and W. robusta. Some botanists have suggested that these trees should be considered two subspecies of even the same species. There is also a hybrid of the two species, known as W. filibusta that may occasionally show up in Los Angeles, but with the similarity of the two trees is exceedingly difficult to spot.
As evident by the name, both of these palms have fan-shaped leaves. But despite their similarities, the two species do exhibit some differences that can help differentiate them. W. filiera tend to be slightly stouter than W. robusta. Generally speaking, the trunks of W. filifera trees tend to grow straight upward and don’t readily bend in the wind. Conversely, the taller, slimmer, curving trunks of W. robusta will wave and bend with even a gentle breeze.
Both varieties tend to hold onto their dead leaves, but the W. filifera more commonly retains a skirt of palm leaves around its trunk. It’s also known to retain the base of the leaf stalks on its trunk, giving the tree a rougher trunk with a cross-hatched pattern. W. robusta, on the other hand, tends to more easily shed the entire petiole leaving behind a smooth trunk. However, there is quite a bit of variation here, though, so this is not a hard and fast rule.
Both species have a tendency to retain their dead leaves as something of a skirt around the trunk. In general, W. filifera holds onto its leaves, and these develop into a very dense layer of leaves, sometimes covering the whole trunk. W. robusta, perhaps because they grow so tall, will drop these dead leaves more easily, especially in high winds. As such, the taller W. Robusta tend to only retain a small fringe of dead leaves beneath the crown of green palm fronds.
In both species, this fringe serves as a safe havens for birds and rodents — especially rats. An exterminator I once met told me that every palm tree in Los Angeles has a rat’s nest in it. That’s a lot of rats. These dead leaves are also quite flammable — it’s not uncommon to see a burning palm tree in Los Angeles.
Canary Island Date Palm
The other common palm tree seen in Los Angeles, the Canary Island Date Palm, Phoenix canariensis, is native to the canary islands. It’s easy to differentiate this species from the other common palms growing in Los Angeles.
Whereas the Washingtonia varieties are tall, thin, and tassel-topped with fan-shaped leaves, P. canariensis has a much stouter trunk and is topped with an almost round proliferation of feather-shaped leaves. Its trunk, too, is more rough and covered with ridges left over from its shed leaf bases. The trunk is reminiscent of the skin of an elephant — or even a dinosaur.
The Oldest Palm Tree in Los Angeles
In 1889, a single Washingtonia filifera, known as the San Pedro Palm, was transplanted from somewhere on San Pedro Street (where it had been growing since 1850) to Alameda Street in front of the Southern Pacific Depot’s Arcade Station (now Los Angeles Cold Storage).
For the next 25 years, this tree marked the entrance to the Southern Pacific Station. For many of the thousands of people traveling to Los Angeles, this tree served as an silent ambassador to the city, greeting tourist and transplant alike.
In 1914 the railroad planned to build a new station and the iconic tree needed to be removed. Rather than destroy it, the railroad gave the tree to the city. It was moved to Exposition Park, where it still grows today.
The Longstreet Palm Trees
In West Adams, a group of 23 Mexican Fan Palms, known colloquially as the Longstreet 23 have grown along what was once known as Palm Drive for nearly 100 years. So while these aren’t the oldest palms. in Los Angeles, they’re still impressively old.
Charles Augustus Longstreet, a clothing magnate from New York, moved to Los Angeles and bought a parcel of land known as the Longstreet Tract in what is now Downtown Los Angeles. In 1870, Mr. Longstreet lined the driveway leading to his mansion with a twin row of fan palms. This spot was often featured in postcards from the early 1900s.
Longstreet died in 1877 and the property was sold in 1884, and the lot was subsequently subdivided. But these 23 palm trees endured through it all. They still grow there today, on what is now the grounds of the Orthopaedic Institute for Children.
The Trouble with Palm Trees
One of the main reasons to plant trees in an urban landscape — especially a perpetually sun-drenched heat desert like Los Angeles — is to provide essential cooling shade.
But palm trees, with their towering height and sparse leaves, are not effective shade trees. They’re also known as water-hogs, sucking up as much as 1000 liters per day, a problem in a city that has long struggled with sourcing enough water for its citizens. Fan palms also don’t provide any fruit. They have always served a purely ornamental function.
It’s worth mentioning here that, botanically speaking, palm trees are not trees. Rather, they are monocots, making them closer relatives to bromeliads and grass-like crops such as corn, wheat, and bamboo than pine trees or native-growing live oaks (which are both classified as dicots).
Additionally, fan palms often shed their dead leaves. When these leaves fall, a common occurrence when the strong Santa Ana winds blow, they can cause damage to property and people, both from impact and from cuts — the stalks have sharp, jagged growths along their length.
Finally, the palm trees of Los Angeles are slowly dying off. Some have fallen victim to the South American palm weevil while others are prone to suffer from fungal infection by Fusarium. And, because they’re not the best tree option for Southern California, it’s unlikely that they’ll be replanted — at least not in such numbers as they have been historically.
Legacy of Los Angeles Palm Trees
Despite their net negative impact on the city, palm trees will probably not disappear entirely from the Los Angeles. They’ve become an important symbol of city — helping to sell the mythology of the city as America’s exotic getaway destination.
Whether you like them or not, you can’t ignore the fac that the palm trees of Los Angeleshave been indelibly woven into the fabric of the city’s identity. After all, a pair of crossed palm trees is even central to the iconography of In-N-Out, a beloved Los Angeles institution.
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