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Palm Has Armageddon Made in Shade

I have this recurring daydream about an L.A. Armageddon. Usually it starts as I sit gridlocked on the Hollywood Freeway, watching diesel fumes drift sleepily over car tops. Everything goes very still on the freeway, and I get this picture of a holy fire descending to bring some final revenge on L.A. and gridlock and the whole shebang. Most of us get taken to Beach Hell for our sins.

And then I start to wonder which artifacts would survive the L.A. holocaust. A Mike Glickman real estate sign maybe? Or a license plate that reads, “AZ4 SUZE”? Or a bag of oranges at the end of a freeway exit?

Actually I have my own favorite, and that’s what this column is all about. My nominee for Last Object is Washingtonia Robusta , otherwise known as the Mexican fan palm. If God ever designed one creature to outlast the rest of us in Los Angeles, surely this is that creature. I have come to feel the warmest sense of kinship with the Mexican fan palm and some day you may too.

Maybe you are thinking you haven’t noticed the Mexican fan palm. That’s OK. You must look closely, but once you’ve noticed it and stared in wonder at the incredible places where it thrives, fan palm watching can become a sort of obsession.

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For years, I also was unaware. Then one day, as usual, the traffic was stopped dead on the Hollywood and I was left to daydreaming about God’s revenge. My gaze wandered around the collection of heavy iron puffing away and then fixed on the median strip. I was startled.

Right there, shoving its tiny crown through four inches of industrial asphalt, was a palm tree. A seedling palm tree, its fronds already covered in grimy dust, its trunk entwined with audio recording tape. Somehow it had managed to take root in that no-man’s land, underneath the asphalt, and then push its way upward, toward the light.

I thought about all the petunias that had croaked in my back yard after months of pampering and the best nutrition Armstrong’s could provide. I found myself hating the petunias and loving the palm tree. Where was this orphan palm getting its water? How could it live in the constant, carbon-monoxide winds of the Hollywood Freeway?

Then I glanced down the median strip and saw another. And then another. There were dozens of little fan palms muscling their way through the asphalt. Some of them had lifted whole chunks of pavement and left cracks two inches wide. They were everywhere along the median strip, decorated by clumps of fiberglass insulation, old tire treads, used syringes.

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Since that day, I have watched for them in unlikely spots. I found one fan palm growing underneath an RV that must have been parked for years on a street in Sun Valley. The palm crown was pushing against the differential.

There was another growing out of the corner of a building at Ventura Boulevard and Laurel Canyon. The owners cut it down, but you can still see the leftover trunk lodged underneath the outside wall, where it is partially bearing the weight of the building. Any day now, I expect a small green shoot to emerge from the trunk.

No other palm tree behaves this way. Date palms, canary palms, queen palms are all more civilized, more beautiful, and you will not find them growing where they are not invited. Only the Mexican fan palm has this junkyard-dog quality.

It is also homely, with a tall trunk and small crown that make it the least desirable of all the palms for landscaping. In Florida, where it also thrives, a University of Miami botanist recently called for an extermination campaign against the Mexican fan palm. She called it “a weed.”

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Little did she know. Here in L.A., Caltrans constantly tries to exterminate the fan palm from the freeway median strips. The maintenance men cut them down, jerk them out with chains, stomp them with their boots. It doesn’t work.

I called the Caltrans supervisor in charge of the Hollywood. How many fan palms you got out there right now, I asked. Hundreds?

He paused. More like thousands, he said.

They had tried everything. Even chemicals. They finally stopped because the chemicals had no effect whatsoever.

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That palm tree, the supervisor said, is the meanest thing Caltrans deals with out there.

I hung up, feeling all warm inside. Caltrans was whipped. Here was a palm that seemed made for L.A. It was too mean to die, too tough even for Armageddon. And if I had to choose, I would take it over a Mike Glickman sign, any day.


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