The Architect of Paradise : No Tree Is More Symbolic of Southern California, and No One's Grown More of Them Than Tom Roydon.

Los Angeles writer Dave Gardetta is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post, L.A. Weekly and Los Angeles magazine

Myths surround men who grow palms. Friends of Tom Royden, a San Diego County grower, estimate that he has grown a million in his lifetime. They say that to live in Southern California and not own, least of all see, a Royden palm would be a considerable feat. The palm men like to tell stories about Royden, who is 57, English, built like a small water tower, has traveled enough to carry a story on any subject, and generates myths in a prodigious, backhanded manner.

The palm men say Royden's the hardest-working son of a bitch, that when he was starting out in the Borrego Valley during the 1980s, he took 10 years out of his life by laboring seven days a week, 18 hours a day, to build up what is perhaps the largest palm plantation in the Western United States, the 300-acre Ellis Farms in Borrego Springs. This, Royden says, is myth. Royden, who started his own ranch in 1979, claims he would never work those long hours, though when I called him once at 10:30 in the evening I reached him on cellular--he was in the palms. He told me the moon was full, and the light was fine for fixing his tractor.

The palm men say Royden can answer any horticulture question without picking up a book; they say that when a new fertilizer lands on the market, Royden buys one bag, reads the ingredients, then gets on the phone and orders truckloads of nitrogen and phosphate and whatever, and mixes up a fertilizer himself. This, Royden says, is myth. "Go talk to the growers who are scientists," he instructed me one day. "I'm just a whore with the palms."

Yet it is scientific fact that when Royden was at Ellis Farms, he realized that the ground water pumping from the wells already contained all the nitrates the palms needed, though he couldn't explain why. He drove a water sample to the agriculture chemists at UC Riverside, who measure nitrate content in a color spectrum that graduates from light to dark blue. When Royden's sample went jet black, the chemists said, "Get this out of here and bring us a real sample." When the second test went jet black, the chemists said, " Don't drink this, but use it on the palms."

The palm men call Royden prolific. They say he's the type of businessman who "doesn't just come out to the ranch in a Cadillac to tell the workers what to do." Royden says simply that he is a bit of a loner, that he enjoys playing Boy Scout in the trees, and that he is happiest among palms. This I can attest to. I have watched him sitting in his beautiful three-story Del Mar home, beside his girlfriend Kozy at the dinner table, dressed in stained shorts, a blue windbreaker and a ratty shirt unbuttoned to the stomach--"primate mating signaling," he calls the outfit he wears 365 days of the year--and there is a slightly uncomfortable look about him that says as soon as the risotto dishes are cleared away, he's crashing off into the darkness to his nearby palm ranch.

When palm men like Royden talk of the good growing years for palms, they call them the "Reagan years." It was the 1980s, and the palm men grew Washingtonia robustas , the tall, slim-trunked palms that line Sunset Boulevard and other Hollywood streets. They grew Washingtonia filiferas , the only native California palm, shorter and stouter than the robusta but almost identical in appearance and planted in near equal numbers throughout Los Angeles. ("More robusta than the robustas ," is how palm men describe the filiferas , commonly referred to as the Mexican fan palm.) They grew kings, queens and fishtails and Guadalupe palms, sagos and kentias, reclinatas and pygmy date palms.

Developers loved the palms--they were relatively cheap, easy to move in stacks on flatbed trucks, and they drew the eyes of buyers. They said "California" to Midwesterners and "tropics" to Easterners and "home" to Southern Californians, and for a few years in the late 1980s, when the spread of housing tracts seemed almost viral, the trucks lined up in smoky queues outside the gates of palm plantations.

When Royden speaks of those years, he says "it was just go and go and go. I mean every week a new golf course was going up in Palm Springs." The palms rolled out to San Diego, to Riverside, to Ventura--the booming counties. They rolled out to Poway and Phoenix, to Las Vegas, Florida, New York, Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Singapore, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The Southern California palms were so well known that they were even being purchased in countries where the tree was indigenous.

During the Gulf War, the palm men sat in front of their television sets and watched American jet fighters land on desert runways lined with their trees. The war in the Mideast occurred at about the same time as development went bust in California, and the palm business, in turn, dropped. Ellis Farms survived the bust, as did Tom Royden's Piedmont ranch, Larga Vista ("immense view," because on a clear day you can see from Tijuana to the Santa Monica Mountains). Roadrunner Tree Farm, which is just up the road from Ellis in Borrego, is now owned by a bank.

Most palms will not grow in Los Angeles--the balmy winters are too cold and kill the palm's heart, which sits in the crest of the tree and puts out new shoots every year. Palms from New Guinea, Malaysia, Indochina and the Seychelles islands--strains that thrive in equatorial climates--die quickly in Los Angeles, while palms from Australia, Madagascar, portions of South America and central Mexico transplant well. Only a dozen or so species are grown commercially--among them the king, queen, filifera , and robusta --and depending on which palm man you speak to, another 250 or 450 or 600 or 800 species are grown in the back yards of collectors.

Palms sell anywhere from $100 to $5,000 a tree, and in California, they turn about $8 million worth of wholesale business a year these days. The International Palm Society identifies 115 palm growers in California, but palm men say that if you were to count the back-yard growers, you'd come up with 400 in the state.

The queen is the best-selling palm. Its pale trunk can reach 40 feet in height; its crown will put out 10 or more drooping fronds. You can find queen palms in parking lots of shopping centers, or struggling in street boxes along Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard; their delicate fronds suffer greatly in the city's smog. The Mexican fan palm sells second behind the queen. The fan palm, the tall, slender trees that line Sunset and Hollywood boulevards and climb the old foothill streets in Silver Lake and Echo Park, can grow up to six feet a year and reach more than 100 feet in height. The king palm follows the Mexican fan. It is similar in appearance to the queen, but its fronds are more arched and feathery. It is also found in parking lots of malls and shopping centers.

Following the king is the Canary Island date palm, which has a broad trunk and thick falls of fronds that measure up to 20 feet long. They are planted in old groves along Scott Avenue in Elysian Park and in tall groupings near the cliffs in Santa Monica's Palisades Park. The seeds of magnolia trees have sprouted in the crowns of some of the Palisades Park palms, and walking along the ocean view at sunset, you can spot their silhouettes growing out of the fronds, 60 feet above the ground.

Today Royden's ranch looks much as it did during the boom, spread over two foothill properties and now planted with more palms than ever before: 80,000 queen palms from the Amazon jungle, 10,000 roebeleniis from Cambodia, 2,000 king palms from Australia. There are few places in the world, other than Larga Vista, where palms make up an entire forest: the pure stands of Nypa palms that extend for several hundred hectares in Sumatra, the vast zones of the raphia palm that march in congress along the coastal plains of Costa Rica. In the Larga Vista groves, the palm leaves clatter in the breezes, slipping noisily over one another. Visitors forget they are in San Diego County. They think of Vietnam or El Salvador or any other tropical place famous for its lush, fat-leafed forests and bloody civil wars.

When Royden visited Puerto Vallarta several years ago, he noticed palms growing in dry gullies and dusty ravines, feeding off ground water. He returned to his mountain and put queens in his gullies. The scientists advised planting palms eight feet on center. He put his palms down every four feet. In the cracks of granite boulders where no soil caught, Royden realized that if he planted an avocado tree, the tree would create its own soil. The palms went into the avocado soil.

With 92,000 palms, Royden has become a force of evolution. In a period of 15 years, he's converted the mountain's ecosystem from Mediterranean to subtropical, and standing in his groves, one feels that all that is needed is a helicopter drop of gibbons by the Department of the Interior. Where the ranch eventually runs out, up on the mountain's crest, the natural chaparral rises high in clumps of expectation: an expatriate foliage waiting to rush back in and reclaim its nation.

*

Donald L. Bren, who is president of the Irvine Company, and whom colleagues describe as a "big-picture kind of guy," guided his company's decision to employ the palm as the signature tree for Irvine and its surrounding satellites. The Irvine Ranch, once a family-run, 100,000-acre parcel that stretched from the Cleveland National Forest to the Pacific Ocean, has since the 1960s developed into one of the richest subdivisions in the United States. Industries, businesses, homes, schools, shopping centers and a university went in. Bren, who is also described by his colleagues as a "framework, systems kind of guy," realized that the company's stucco diaspora needed a unifying theme to create a sense of place.

"People want to have some sense of identity to where they live and sleep," says Robert Elliot, vice president of urban planning and design at the Irvine Company. "Something that makes you wake up and take notice as you're slugging it through traffic. It's a sociological thing."

Newport Beach's Fashion Island, which is a satellite of the Irvine Company, was the first experiment in what Elliott now calls "setting up a hierarchy of place on the ranch." Into the early 1980s, Fashion Island was planted with sycamore trees. Sycamores, however, belong to the old landscapes in towns like Tustin and Anaheim and Santa Ana--cities filled with ficus, camphors, eucalyptus, pepper and orange trees. The Irvine Company did not want any part of these trees--they were selling something new. The sycamores were pulled from Fashion Island, and three concentric circles of slim Washingtonia robustas were planted around the island's borders.

"Landscape can invent identity in a place that already looks like its surrounding areas," says Elliott. In the Washingtonias , the Irvine Company found its "hierarchy of place." Some 1,300 palm trees have been installed on the ranch since the Fashion Island project. One, the Canary Island date palm, has gone on to enjoy a renaissance throughout the Western United States.

"We were always looking to history," says Elliott. "History that is about making this place a part of Southern California." Seven thousand acres of orange trees were removed while looking to history.

Landscape architects credit the Irvine Company for creating what is today called the corporate landscape--an environment of metal, glass and lawns whose cornerstone is the palm tree. For developers, the palm's "verticality" lent an instant classicism and authority to housing tracts, competed nicely with the swooping altitudes of commercial high-rises and drew the eyes of shoppers to malls while their skinny trunks left the signs of store owners in plain sight.

But if Irvine sold an idea of regional identity, which developers could quickly translate to their own projects with a truckload of palms, there were still institutions that wished not to submerge their personas into Irvinism. The new J. Paul Getty museum, for instance, wants no part of the palm. It sees itself as a cultural institution, and the palm as a tree of commerce. UCLA wants no part of the palm, either. Emmet Wemple, the Pasadena architect who is working on a redesign of the university's grounds, says UCLA wants to project an image that is East Coast--in other words, that is Ivy League, not Pac-10--and so palms are drus non grata on the campus. Palms march right up Westwood Boulevard to the university's gates, where they are denied entrance. Sycamores, camphors and other more stately trees are found behind those gates.

Not long ago, blueprints for a planned shopping center passed the desks of Thousand Oaks city planners. There were palms on those blueprints, and once that information leaked from City Hall, Thousand Oaks residents reached for their cellulars to remind their representatives that they were promised no palms. "They like their mountain meadow effect around them," a Thousand Oaks landscape architect told me. "They like the rural handle." Banners are also not encouraged along boulevards in Thousand Oaks, and one wonders if the palm tree has become some ugly cipher--advertising a daily commerce that Angelenos have rejected by moving to the Ventura border.

*

Standing in Larga Vista, eyeing a tractor crane that has unexpectedly disgorged its cable and utility hook, Tom Royden admits that he may have been too kind to Mrs. Kroc the previous week. He bangs on the crane's yellow arm with a wrench the size of a skateboard. Royden's three Oaxacan workers, who are watching this standoff between man and crane, call the wrench a "cayman." Crocodile. Royden circles the tractor like a twitchy wild cat. Joan B. Kroc, who happens to own the McDonald's Corp., had requested 14 queens last week for her home, big ones, trees that stand 20 feet high and that Royden calls "crane palms" because he needs machinery to move them.

"I was being, what do you say, very helpful ," says Royden. "Very helpful" in this case meant lifting a queen with a root ball the size of a Volkswagen, a questionable proposition. In that standoff--queen against crane--the palm tree won: Mrs. Kroc's palm tree sagged and then dropped, the crane arm sighed and then snapped like an ice cream stick. "Hydraulic oil was squirting out at a gallon a minute," says Royden, who has just rethreaded the cable onto its wheel and is rotating the wrench around an apple-sized bolt. "That'll teach me a lesson I'll remember for the next couple of weeks."

Royden, whose stories and anecdotes rarely seem to cross north of the Panama Canal, knew nothing about growing palms when he started at Ellis Farms 20 years ago, although he certainly had been in the right place for most of his life to learn. Royden's great-grandfather, a physician, was forced to leave England for New Zealand after losing one too many patients during amputation procedures. Royden's grandfather, after being sent to England for schooling, signed up on a merchant trader bound for South America. He jumped ship in Buenos Aires. Royden's father was working for a tin mine in Bolivia when he met a young woman who had just arrived from England, and Royden himself was conceived in Chile just before World War II.

When Royden speaks of his years building up Ellis Farms, he says, "It felt like we were carrying on like Bedouins in the first years, living under camouflage left over from Patton's campaigns, like soldiers camping in the desert." The U.S. Armed Forces had trained in Borrego Valley during World War II, and among the soldiers stationed there was a Joe Ellis. Before he left Borrego, Ellis promised himself that he would return to Borrego valley and buy property. In the early 1970s, in the small town of Logan, Utah, Tom Royden and Joe Ellis' paths crossed.

Royden was a graduate student of agriculture, studying irrigation systems at Utah State University, and Ellis was in Logan after moving his family from California to sit out the '60s. Ellis took Royden aside and informed him that he owned property in the hottest, most miserable location in California. Could Royden piece together a feasibility study of potential agricultural crops?

Royden was mildly interested but had other plans. He traveled to southern Europe with the hope of founding an avocado industry. He wandered through Sardinia, Italy, Portugal, Sicily and Spain, showing up on the doorsteps of British expatriates with a single question: May I plant an avocado tree in your yard? In English gardens along the Mediterranean, he planted Hass avocados, Pinkertons, Reeds and Zutanos.

He eventually found the perfect avocado climate in southern Portugal, whose weather, Royden says, is remarkably similar to Irvine's. About the time that Royden discovered Portugal, the country's government suffered a coup, and a new law was passed that limited foreign ownership of irrigated land to 10 acres. Within a month, Royden showed up unannounced at Ellis' doorstep in Borrego Valley.

Royden climbs into the cab and cranks the engine. He is pulling 20 queens today for a broker who is lost somewhere in the palms, trying to decide on numbers 19 and 20. The crane's engine coughs, its spark plugs detonate, there is a sound of metal at odds with itself, and then the crane jumps into life. The noise it makes is oil sputtering in a 30-foot frying pan; when the engine misses, it emits an artillery sound that makes you sick in your organs before it reaches your ears.

Three black dots bob up in the green grass--Royden's Labrador retrievers, Pesado, Indio and Manotas. Only their heads float above the field's surface. Royden got his dogs after a palm thief began hitting the groves of local growers, leaving palm men waiting with shotguns on their front porches at night. The thief was eventually caught--he was a well-known San Diego developer stealing for his own house.

The queens Royden is pulling today weigh 600 pounds each. Royden crouches in the tractor's cab, calibrating the descent of the crane arm into the forest. Two of his workers wait to hook it onto a canvas saddle that wraps around a palm's trunk. Royden grimaces. He looks like he's flying a twin engine through a fog bank. Gusts of bees--which Royden raises to pollinate his avocado trees--blow in his face.

The crane's arm is lost in the fronds, a yellow metal extension of Royden's own grease-covered arm. When a palm is yanked from the grove by the crane, it jumps into the air like a caught fish--it flips, it shimmies, it smacks its fronds about in the air above the trees. The crane doesn't give. Sitting in a grove, watching a palm being pulled, is like experiencing an inexplicable force reaching down from above. The palm beside you, which is 20 feet tall, shoots into the air as if suddenly repulsed by topsoil, crashing the sky, leaving behind a jagged blue hole in its wake.

The bottom lands of Larga Vista are planted extensively with queens--they can take the cold air that pools at night in the lower elevations of the ranch. Most palm farms are balkanized in subtle weather systems called microclimates. The wrong microclimate can kill a palm. In Borrego Valley, cold air moves in river patterns across the valley floor, and unsuspecting palm growers have lost entire groves because they planted their crop smack in the middle of a riverbed.

The borders of microclimates tend to multiply in direct relation to the increasing fervidness of the grower. There is a grower in Vista who believes his back yard has more microclimates in it than any other location in the world; he has the tiny systems mapped out as if on satellite radar. Palm men drive cars with thermometers built into the dashes; on cold nights, they speed down the freeways toward their groves, eyeing temperatures like worried mothers.

Royden drives the load of queens and Labradors out into a field, where a crane with a frozen transmission is waiting to load the palms onto the broker's truck. Two feet stick out from under the crane. "Vern," Royden asks the feet, "do you think we can run the crane if we don't move it?"

"Sure," say the feet.

Royden climbs into the cab. "Lots of hydraulic oil is going to drip on you now, Vern," Royden cautions, and out slips Vern, looking like he couldn't absorb another drop. Vern Peterson is tall, skinny as a stick, slathered in transmission oil from shoe to neck and burnt by the sun until his face is as red as his scraggly hair and beard. He looks like a carrot recently sprung from black loam.

Vern is many things to Royden--a mechanic being not the least of them--but mainly he's a dowser, a well-finder. "Basically," says Royden, "I would have had to quit business at Larga Vista if Vern hadn't found all these wells." The wells are currently pumping 700 gallons a minute, a respectable flow for 92,000 palms.

The broker--who never found 19 and 20--is ready to leave. He says 16 of the queens on his truck are headed toward a "$4-million home" in La Jolla, where they will be unloaded by crane, and the remainders will be taken to a second site, where they will be unloaded casually--by skateboard. After the bill is taken care of, the broker inquires about returning the next day for 19 and 20. "Delighted," answers Royden. "I will likely be working on my bees."

Tom Royden's first memory is arboreal. In it, he is 5 years old and devising irrigation systems for the two avocado trees that grew in the family's back yard in Chile. Royden was sent to England that same year, and much later in his life, after he had already spent years working as an agronomist for the United Nations in Tanzania, he found himself one afternoon beside an avocado tree under irrigation.

"An immense quietness and stillness enveloped me," Royden says of that day. He rediscovered an equation he had forgotten as a child: trees plus water equal happiness. While creating irrigation systems in African countries, he avoided the maladies that travel with water: malaria, river blindness and schistosomiasis. He flew to Ecuador with UNESCO and journeyed high into the Andes, where the second-tallest tree in the world grows--the ceroxylan palm--and where Royden helped Indian villages foster small economies by growing the pyrethrum flower, which is processed into a natural insecticide.

In the dry Andes, Royden came down with meningitis, which led to photophobia, a painful sensitivity to light, and to the backward bending of his spine into the shape of a bow. He was flown back to England to rest. Six months later, after his spine had relaxed into its former position, he left England for America, where he met up with Joe Ellis.

Royden, who views his life as a book, feels as if he's ending a chapter that began when he found Joe Ellis in the desert in 1974. Soon, he says, he would like to return to the Third World and open up a last chapter. He says he'd like to give back some of what he took, although from the tangible evidence in his house, that amount seems small: Indian weavings folded in downstairs trunks, an anaconda skin whose surface measures 200 square feet. The United Nations, however, is no longer really an option; the association is not making the hires it once did. Royden says he likely would seek employment as an irrigation expert with what he calls a "nugah," or nongovernmental agency. He says he would tell the nugah "just pay my expenses, I don't need a salary."

Royden would consider working in the Third World for perhaps another five years, preferably on some gentle slope of the Andes, or possibly in Ethiopia or Somalia. He would be ending his life the way its first chapter opened, playing with mud, irrigating avocados, waiting in the tall groves before he's taken across the sea, on to the cold isle of England, land of his ancestors.

*

In the summer in Borrego Valley, where the temperatures reached 128 degrees and Tom Royden poured himself a cup of coffee when he got thirsty, Ellis Farms would open the water wells that sat under their palms and let them flow--4,000 gallons a minute, 24 hours a day, more than 37 million gallons a week. Borrego residents noticed that local weather patterns changed when Ellis flooded its palms--the trees were transpiring 10 times the amount of water they were holding onto, and clouds of humidity rolled through the area, cooling the valley at night.

This is how you sustain a tropical forest in one of the hottest places in the Americas. The water lying under Borrego Valley is 200,000 years old, confined by fault action in saturated sand, held in place by plutonic and metamorphic rock shaped in the form of an inverted champagne glass that measures 3,000 feet from lip to bottom. The Borrego Springs Airport sits directly over the stem. Geologists call the water under Ellis Farms "old water," and they have a theory of why it is so rich in the nitrates that the Ellis palms love: There is a dead tropical forest buried beneath Borrego.

There are few places today in North America where the palm tree is indigenous. A population of 25,000 Washingtonia filiferas --or California fan palms--grows along an oases chain that begins in Baja California and extends to its northernmost appearance: Grapevine Canyon in Death Valley National Park. Millions of years ago, however, during the Cretaceous and early Tertiary periods, North America was rich in palm forests. Palms have been unearthed in fossil formations along the steeper slopes of the Rocky Mountains, part of the Cretaceous Dakota group, as well as in suburban New Jersey, in the Upper Cretaceous Magothy formation. Fossil palm trees have been found in Texas, Wyoming, Washington, and near the head of Hamilton Bay on Kupreanof Island off the coast of Alaska--as far north as a palm tree ever got in this world.

A prospector named Stockton, who is credited with importing the first Washingtonia filiferas into Los Angeles on a burro during the 1840s, never heard of the Upper Cretaceous. He had no idea that the two wild filiferas he pulled from an oasis--today called Palm Springs--were the remnants of an ancient palm forest. He was unaware that the San Andreas Fault was pushing Baja California into the San Francisco Bay, and that the resulting fault action was driving ground water to the surface in desert places, allowing the filiferas to survive in nostalgic pockets of the disappeared landscape.

Stockton planted his palms near a stream beside his adobe home, across the street from where today sit a dry cleaner, a dance academy and a Chinese food restaurant. He sat beside his house and watched his palms bend in the wind. The Civil War came and went. The palms grew. Eventually, Stockton died, his house crumbled into the ground, and after a while the ground was incorporated into the city of San Marino. The palms still grow today, beside a soil patch that was Stockton's home, just off Huntington Drive. You can see them to your left as you drive east on the street.

Why did the miner bring them out of the desert?

"Close your eyes," a palm man said to me one afternoon, "and tell me what you see when I say this word: paradise ."

I told him I saw his back yard, which we were standing in and which was filled with more palms than I thought imaginable. He informed me that my guess was wrong. I was supposed to have pictured a South Seas island swaying with coco palms. This was paradise to him, and if he couldn't have the island, he said, he at least had his back yard for solace. It was the reason he had planted his palm trees: to re-create paradise.

No doubt it was also the impulse that drove Stockton--after weeks in the desert--to bring palms back to his adobe house; the same impulse that led the rich boosters who arrived in Los Angeles half a century later to import palms by the trainload for the subtropical gardens wrapping their Queen Anne, Eastlake and Victorian-style homes.

"Reverse almost any proposition about the settlement of Western America," wrote essayist Carey McWilliams in "Southern California: An Island in the Land," his history of Los Angeles, "and you are likely to have a sound generalization about the region . . . the rich came first." McWilliams meant that Los Angeles was a city pioneered by the banker and the oil baron, that Los Angeles was not built out of what was already here but what could be brought, which at the turn of the century included Mediterranean architecture, New England money, Southern evangelicism and a certain weakness on the part of the rich for subtropical landscapes.

"Virtually everything in the region has been imported," McWilliams wrote, "plants, flowers, shrubs, trees, people, water, electrical energy and, to some extent, even the soils."

Another import, Henry Huntington, who lived just up the stream from Stockton's twin palms and who owned the Pacific Electric railway, had a weakness for palm trees. When two palms that his Uncle Collis owned in San Francisco burned during the 1906 earthquake, Huntington asked that they be shipped to his own estate in San Marino. One of the palms still grows today in the Huntington Botanical Gardens; you can watch birds nesting in its upper regions on sunny afternoons. Later, after Collis died, Huntington instructed his uncle's estate to place Collis' widow on a train and ship her to his estate, where, after a time, he created the largest collection of palms in Los Angeles, and married his uncle's widow as well.

Today the Los Angeles basin is losing its street palms. The trees no longer rank on the planning lists found in street maintenance offices. Redlands, which has about 6,000 street palms, has lost 50 palms to Southern California Edison in the last few years--the company cut them down when they reached power-line height. The city of Los Angeles lost 270 palms to disease last year. Bob Kennedy, chief forester in the Bureau of Street Maintenance, says there are still about 50,000 palms in Los Angeles.

Beverly Hills, which maintains a meticulous tree-inventory system, has 1,360 Phoenix canarensis palms, 2,178 Washingtonia robustas and 193 Washingtonia filiferas . Last year, Beverly Hills lost 100 palms to disease--five have been replaced. Pasadena street maintenance won't even talk about more palms: other, sexier trees like the ficus and the camphor parade through the imaginations of street planners these days. When the planners talk about new trees, they speak of "shade ratios" and "atmosphere filtering" and other utilitarian functions that the leafless palm is helpless in providing.

Around the turn of the century, however, palms were being planted in L.A. on epidemic levels. They grew on E.J. (Lucky) Baldwin's ranch in the San Gabriel Valley, now L.A. County's arboretum; at Captain Thom's Los Angeles estate on Main Street, now Downtown, and on the grounds of John S. Griffin's rancho home in East Los Angeles, which is known for nothing in particular these days. They lined San Pedro Street near the Pacific, Aliso Road that led from Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Valley, the beach resorts of Santa Monica, and Sunset Boulevard where it borders Hollywood High School. Palms were placed in rows around orange groves in the cities of Riverside, Ontario and Corona to draw the interest of Eastern speculators, and along empty roads, trolley lines and water mains to attract Midwestern home buyers. Seen from a hot-air balloon above, in crisp lines and square boxes, they were a blueprint of the city to come, and even if they died in numbers during the great winter freezes of 1913 and 1922 and 1937, and caught fire easily in the summer, and were messy through the fall, and hid rats in their dead fronds during spring, no one was going to suggest taking them down.

If Los Angeles' early character was built upon what could be imported, it was equally shaped by those things the new arrivals left behind: their East Coast winters, their puritan backgrounds and conservative social order, their pre-Freudian repression and the influence of Old Europe. Los Angeles stood for possibility, a break with the past, reinvention, a new beginning, anything but Philadelphia, and an Angeleno lying in his hammock strung out between two palms, looking up at a double green burst of leafy optimism blowing in the wind above him, knew that wherever he was, he wasn't where he came from, and that was the most important knowledge of all.

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