Beverly Hills Bids a Frond Farewell

Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of majestic Canary Island date palms are finding themselves down and out in Beverly Hills.

A fungus is killing the Phoenix canariensis trees that have served as a lush backdrop in countless movies and TV shows, from "The Beverly Hillbillies" to "Beverly Hills Cop."

On more than a dozen streets in the self-anointed "Garden City," these once postcard-perfect trees are, one by one, fading like so many Hollywood has-beens.

To the list of ailments that are killing California's great trees, add Fusarium oxysporum, a global menace that causes its victims to die of thirst.

The pathogen -- spread through root systems, infected pruning saws and, possibly, by rodents and birds -- exists throughout California. Palms have wilted in Santa Monica, Hancock Park and Dana Point, and arborist Kenneth Allen in Marin County said he "deals with it all the time."

The fungus has invaded Florida, Texas and the grounds of Las Vegas casinos. In Australia, it has devastated ornamental plantings in Sydney's Centennial Park.

"It's a serious problem, and there is no known cure," said Ken Pfalzgraf, Beverly Hills' urban forest supervisor, whose report on the city's tree problem is viewed by palm experts as one of the most comprehensive catalogs of the fungus' effects.

The urban forest of Beverly Hills appears to be one of the hardest hit in the state. From 1,520 Canary Island date palms 40 years ago, the city is down to about 1,150, nearly a quarter of which already show the telltale signs of trouble: sagging fronds on which one side has turned brown while the other remains green. The disease can take years to run its course, but is always fatal.

A few homeowners on such ritzy thoroughfares as Foothill Road, Hillcrest Road and Beverly Drive have fresh "toupees" of emerald sod on their lawns -- spots where trees, some nearly a century old, once soared to 90 feet.

"I stayed away the day they removed it," resident Ellen Stern Harris said of the Canary Island palm that died in front of her home and was carted off in June. "It broke my heart."

And little did she realize how much shade the towering palm had bestowed on the house in which she has lived since 1955. Once the tree was gone, she invested $200 in smoke-colored window shades to temper the afternoon sun that poured into her living room.

Stephen Miller, Beverly Hills' director of recreation and parks, said it's important for urban foresters to quickly get a handle on the problem.

"The look of a street with its trees can have a tremendous impact on the housing values," he said. A chief goal of the city's street tree master plan, he said, will be "to plan for the next generation."

Native to the Canary Islands off the northwestern coast of Africa, P. canariensis is one of the hardiest and most massive palms. It can grow -- slowly -- to a height of 100 feet or more and weigh as much as 1,000 pounds per foot of trunk. It produces a bitter, inedible fruit and sports a dense crown of 200 or more fronds, each as long as 20 feet.

Although Southern California boasts dozens of palm species, the Canary Island variety is prized for the classic feather-duster profile that imparts a Mediterranean feel, trees that stand with their breeze-ruffled crowns against an azure sky.

More stately than the queen palm or the spindly Washingtonia robusta, the Canary Island palm is, to quote pioneering horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey, "the only species easily recognized everywhere, by everybody, the gem of the genus."

The loss of so many mature trees is shaping up as a minor financial crisis in Beverly Hills. At $300 or more per trunk foot, 20-foot replacement specimens cost about $6,000 each. Add $4,000 for labor, site preparation, shipping and heavy equipment, and the cost rises to $10,000 per tree. The cost for replacing trees that have died or are showing symptoms in Beverly Hills could exceed $6 million.

Replacement, however, must wait until the city determines, with the help of residents, which other trees might be suitable substitutes.

A couple of experimental efforts to replant Canary Island palms have met with failure, presumably because the fungus lingered in the soil. For the time being, the best controls appear to lie in sterilizing pruning saws and ensuring a consistent watering schedule, because excessive moisture helps the fungus flourish.

No one knows for sure how the fungus got its start, but it was identified generations ago. Pfalzgraf said he believes that genetics play a big part in a tree's susceptibility to infection.

He also suspects that the heavy spring rains of 1978 enabled the pathogen's development. Those wet conditions appear to have aided another fungus -- Thielaviopsis paradoxa -- that a few years back caused dozens of Beverly Hills palms to rot and drop their 1-ton heads, a phenomenon known as sudden crown drop.

"Palms are giant grasses," said Dave Teuschler, an arborist with Valley Crest Tree Co., a tree-moving company based in Calabasas.

Inside the trees course long ropes of connective tissue that Teuschler likens to drinking straws. They carry water and nutrients up from the soil and then back down to the roots. When those tubes collapse or shrivel as a result of fungus infestation, the crown dries out.

The loss scarcely leaves Beverly Hills bereft of a leafy canopy. About 25,000 trees -- including camphor, ficus, elm and ash -- grow in the city's five square miles of streets and parks, making it one of the region's greenest communities.

Still, Pfalzgraf regrets that these fading stars are no longer ready for their close-ups.

"This is a signature tree for Beverly Hills," he said. "It's pretty much unmatched."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 13 inches; 470 words Type of Material: Correction Palm disease -- In some editions of Section A on Jan. 18, an article about a fungus that is killing palm trees in Beverly Hills referred incorrectly to the ailment as a virus.
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