Friday, March 14, 2014

The Rise and Fall Of Palm Trees in LA

Planted in the early years of the 20th Century, the familiar tall Mexican fan palms that form a romantic part of the city's skyline were never intended to loom so tall over the spreading city.  They were planted during a 1920s beautification boom in advance of the Olympics, and chosen because they were cheap and hardy.  Now almost a century later, the trees are all approaching the end of their natural lifespans, and will mostly not be replaced.  Palms don't really serve any purpose, since they provide almost none of the shade or air filtering that other trees might.  

But the rise and fall of the palm in Southern California is a story that is repeated over and over again, as each generation falls in love with a tree than decades later falls from favor. The most fabled tree stories of California are those of redwoods, eucalyptus, orange trees and palms, and these four are the subject of a new book, "Trees in Paradise: A California History,"about how trees have been brought to California by waves of immigrants, and how the trees shaped the communities they graced.

Hunter Communications Original News Source:
KCET

Link to article:

Excerpt: "How did Los Angeles become an evergreen city? Aqueducts mean these trees won't soon thirst for water in the Southland's semiarid climate. But the region's urban forest also owes its existence to a generation of agricultural innovators, amateur gardeners, nursery operators, and others who brought trees from exotic locales like Australia or the Andes to improve -- to 'emparadise' -- a landscape they found lacking.
In his magnificent new book, 'Trees in Paradise: A California History,' environmental historian Jared Farmer tells the story of this landscape revolution -- among many others. For example: California's vegetable giants inspired awe around the world, but the state nearly reduced the entirety of its vast coast redwood forest to stumps. Also: immigrant labor sustained Southern California's Orange Belt, yet it was rarely acknowledged in the idyllic scenes created for picture postcards and citrus crate labels.
I asked Farmer to elaborate on some of the themes he raises in his book...

NM: How did palms become such a potent symbol of L.A.? And when you look into the future, do you see their iconic status eroding away, much as pepper trees lost theirs?
JF: You're right: A century ago, the iconic street tree of Los Angeles was not any kind of palm, but the pepper tree (Schinus molle), a species of sumac native to the arid zone of South America, with its distinctive feathery foliage and scarlet berries. This tree served as Southern California's answer to the weeping willow. On my book's Facebook page, I've posted vintage postcards and greeting cards that just show just how emblematic pepper trees used to be. Today, I bet most Angelenos wouldn't be able to pick one out from a line-up of trees. (If you want to get a sense of what the L.A. treescape once looked like, drive around Rancho Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills Estates, which still have splendid peppers.)

Palms replaced peppers in the built environment and the psychic landscape of L.A. for a few reasons. First, many of the pioneer pepper trees were torn out in the early twentieth century because they acted as a reservoir for black scale, an insect that damaged citrus groves. In 1930 Los Angeles followed the example of the citrus colonies and banned further street planting of the species.

Meanwhile, in the 1920s and 1930s, L.A. was busy building its modern grid of automobile boulevards, and the city's newly established Division of Forestry was looking for standardized street trees. In advance of hosting the Tenth Olympiad in 1932, City Hall announced a 10-year plan -- a Depression-relief works project -- to set thousands of trees along major boulevards. Metropolitan foresters chose not to reproduce the familiar street trees from the pioneer era -- acacias, eucalypts, and peppers. In the age of streetside parking, sidewalks, sewers, and utility poles, these leafy, rooty growers acquired bad reputations. In contrast, palms held out the promise of symbiotic infrastructure: they could provide beautification without dropping fruit, buckling concrete, or breaking pipes and wires.

The species planted most prevalently by city crews was Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta), native to Sonora and Baja. City officials probably had no inkling these seedlings would grow so tall. The species wasn't singled out for aesthetics. Rather, it was hardy and it was cheap.

Prior to the mid twentieth century, when these uniform rows of Mexican fan palms reached maturity, fronds were not a leading feature of the urban landscape, despite the fact that tourism boosters had incessantly advertised the palminess of Greater Los Angeles. The most visible species was Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), which wealthy homeowners habitually planted in pairs along their front walkways. Although San Diego, Santa Barbara, Redlands -- and even Sacramento -- were decades ahead of Los Angeles in cultivating a palmy landscape, L.A. had better boosters."

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