Under the Unlovely L.A. Palms


A palm tree looms over my back yard, a loony intruder on a peaceful landscape. Dead fronds cascade down its stalk, providing a hide-out for rats and birds and, for all I know, lost socks. Taller than a telephone pole, surrounded by power lines and neighboring houses, the tree has stretched itself to the point where it can be removed only by helicopter and at great expense.

More than money, though, keeps me from uprooting it. I am slowed as well by a vague sense that, after a decade in Southern California, I should have learned to love my palm and all its kin. I wonder if an inability to appreciate these municipal totems reveals a larger failure to make peace with the city itself, to assimilate.

Palm trees, of course, are shorthand for Los Angeles, the preferred symbol of postcard artists, poets and subdivision marketeers. Palms speak to what Los Angeles imagines itself to be, and to question their place in the skyline is to rally an army of passionate defenders. Los Angeles loves its palms, so why can’t I?


There is no question they are strange looking, devoid of branches and deep roots. From Mark Twain’s “feather dusters struck by lightning” to John Updike’s “isolate, like psychopaths,” writers have strained to capture the palm’s visual weirdness. My favorite description came from an out-of-town friend. It was one of those awful summer days, when everything fades to brown and the air has the smothering feel of overheated polyester. Driving by Griffith Park, we noticed a line of grimy palms that hovered above the wilted roadside vegetation.

“Ah, yes, Los Angeles,” my friend declared, “where the palm trees look like Q-Tips.”

My brooding about palms was triggered by news from San Francisco. The City That Knows How is in a great stew over plans to plant a row of Canary Island palms along the waterfront. Once thriving wharves are being converted into boutiques and restaurants, and the designers are keen on palms. This makes many San Franciscans think of Los Angeles, which makes them angry. Planting palms, one critic snorted, would be “like witnessing an invasion from another planet.” Namely, the planet of L.A.

Now I happen to agree that palms belong in San Francisco as much as the Golden Gate belongs in San Pedro. At the same time, I wonder how the city can afford to fret about trees at a time when its streets are overrun by homeless people, its baseball team is defecting to San Jose and even columnist Herb Caen, its biggest honk, is writing stuff like “Los Angeles is so far ahead of us it’s outta sight.”

Luckily, San Francisco’s palm debate is not our worry. We’ve got our own troubles, and with them the palm tree has taken on darker symbolism, employed in everything from paintings to rock videos as a means to mock the illusion of paradise. “The palm tree,” observed an introductory essay for a 1984 palm artwork exhibit, “is incriminated in the city’s banality and broken promises.” Let me put it another way. In my previous post as city editor, my colleagues and I always were looking for the perfect Los Angeles logo--a singular image to evoke the city in all its wonder and misery.

We tried out a lot of them, but never did we do better than a palm tree with bullet holes.

I have done my palm homework over the past few days. I can tell you that only one strain of palm tree, the Washington filifera palm, is native to these parts, that Junipero Serra and his cohorts first imported palms here, that the biggest campaign of palm planting occurred just before the 1932 Olympics, and that the palm’s popularity among landscape designers seems to wax and wane on 20-year cycles.

What I cannot tell you is why I dislike them.

They seem garish. They seem fake. In Santa Ana winds, they can become lethal, dropping fronds like bombs and carrying fire from rooftop to rooftop. In smog sieges, they seem to gasp for the last good air, canaries in the urban mines. They can appear haphazardly placed, old soldiers devotedly marking what once were the entrances of grand estates but now are simply suburban streets. While they can be pretty, framing blue water or a red sunset, the palm trees of Los Angeles more often seem, I don’t know, tacky.


But all that is so much groping. The fact is I cannot explain precisely just why my palm tree bothers me. And so, I will continue to barbecue in its shadow and listen for rats, contemplating the tree, Los Angeles and assorted alternatives. Maybe someday, I’ll get to the bottom of it all and be able, with clear conscience, to summon the tree-yanking chopper. Maybe I’ll learn to love my tree, hug it, give it a trim. It will be interesting, to me anyway, to see which of us outlasts the other--the palm tree, or me.