Fan palms no longer hold sway

Times Staff Writer

For more than a hundred years, the graceful, bushy-topped fan palm has been an iconic symbol of L.A.'s balmy, postcard lifestyle.

But city leaders now want to put an end to the tree's reign on the grounds it is bad for the environment.

City Council members voted this week to halt the placement of fan palms on parkways, median strips and other city-owned property where nearly 75,000 of them now grow.

Instead, the city will plant only sycamores, oaks and other leafy native species that will contribute shade, collect rainwater and release oxygen across the Los Angeles Basin.

The fan palm may be an emblematic part of Los Angeles, but its skimpy canopy is cheating city dwellers of the benefit of real trees since palms "are technically a type of grass and not trees," as a unanimously approved council resolution put it.

San Pedro-area Councilwoman Janice Hahn's motion, passed Tuesday, limits future use of palms along city streets unless they are needed to be consistent with existing plantings or are specifically requested by a council office or community group.

If new palms are planted, "fan palms should be discouraged" and shorter, more-densely fronded queen and king palms or Canary Island date palms used instead.

The vote comes as many fan palms planted by developers in the late 19th and early 20th century are entering the last phase of their life span. It also comes as the city is embarking on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's ambitious goal to plant 1 million new trees.

Defining a place

Those who rank the tree right up there with the Hollywood sign, Rodeo Drive and the movie premiere searchlight in defining Los Angeles' sense of place contend that officials are palming a bad idea off on the city.

"The palm tree is one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of Hollywood, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills," said Edmond Avakian, manager of Palm Limousines of Van Nuys. "It's a symbol of glamour and the good life."

Timothy Phillips, superintendent of the Arboretum of Los Angeles County, agreed. His Arcadia preserve contains fan palms planted as far back as the 1860s and '70s by legendary developer Lucky Baldwin.

"It's ridiculous. The palm brings a sense of prosperity. The palm is Hollywood," Phillips said.

"It would be a shame to lose such an icon. Removing the palm from the street tree program is a knee-jerk reaction. They are very suitable for our climate and aesthetically pleasing."

Phillips also disputed the city's assertion that the palm is a grass. "That's biologically impossible," he said.

Not everyone is a fan palm fan, of course. Those who prefer leaf-bearing trees deride the palm as a stick-figure intrusion that lacks a place to hang a birdhouse, much less a swing or a hammock.

Hollywood filmmakers seeking a leafy East Coast look often have to search far and wide for local neighborhood settings that do not have a gangly palm poking its crown of limp fronds into the background sky.

But the end of the palm tree era has been creeping up slowly on Los Angeles.

For more than a dozen years, the fusarium wilt, a fungus endemic to local soil and lethal to palms, has been systematically killing them, especially the Canary Island date palm. The fungus is often spread among trees by contaminated chain saws used by tree-trimmers to remove dead fronds.

Some urban foresters have ordered landscapers to sanitize their saw blades with a bleach mixture and avoid cutting live fronds as a substitute for frequent pruning.

More recently, the replacement of infected palms and the planting of new ones has been slowed by the lack of affordable stock.

Landscapers say the cost has been driven up by the purchase of vast stands of palms for glitzy new Las Vegas casinos and Phoenix commercial developments.

The future of the palms has been an issue in the Country Club Park neighborhood in Los Angeles' Mid-Wilshire district.

Subdivided between 1906 and 1912, the neighborhood is distinguished by palms that have grown as high as 150 feet.

"I love these trees," said Peggy Richie, who has three large palms in front of her two-story Wilton Place home. "I was born and raised here. These are the trees you expect to see in Los Angeles."

Country Club Park has plenty of time before having to decide on replacements: Fan palms can live up to 150 years, say officials at the Department of Public Works.

Planted for the Olympics

Surprisingly sturdy because of a heavy, clumped root system, fan palms began popping up in Los Angeles in the 1880s when property owners imported seedlings. Specialized palm nurseries were in operation by 1900 as a palm-planting spree hit the city. Thousands were planted in a citywide beautification effort before the 1932 L.A. Summer Olympics.

In the wild, the two most common street palms, the California fan palm and the Mexican fan palm, grow 40 to 60 feet high. They shoot up into the 150-foot range in irrigated areas, however.

Councilwoman Hahn said the city's move away from palm trees was spurred in part by a public works analysis of satellite imagery that suggests that only 17% of Los Angeles is covered by a tree canopy. The average U.S. has 28% shade coverage.

"My district is the worst, with only 5%," she said. "We need more shade in Los Angeles. Planting palms gives the look of sunny Palm Springs and Hollywood, but not the shade we need."

But the palm isn't in danger of disappearing completely from L.A., Hahn promised. The city is not removing healthy palms, and residents can continue to plant them if they want.

Hahn wouldn't speculate what might be Los Angeles' iconic tree 100 years from now.

"It won't be the ficus, though," she predicted. Widely planted as a shady street tree in the 1950s and '60s, its aggressive roots have caused sidewalks to buckle.

"That was a bad choice 50 years ago," she said.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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