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LA's love-hate relationship with the palm tree

John Rabe

The LA County Arboretum's Frank McDonough peers through the fronds. Instead of the Heart of Darkness, it's the heart of palm.

The palm tree is ubiquitous. This photo of Joe Sauer, who has the Northridge earthquake epicenter in his back yard (in Reseda), is also a testament to the inescapable nature of palms, which tower over his neighborhood.

John Rabe

The palm tree is ubiquitous. This photo of Joe Sauer, who has the Northridge earthquake epicenter in his back yard (in Reseda), is also a testament to the inescapable nature of palms, which tower over his neighborhood.

John Rabe

Three symbols of Southern California - the Sun, a police helicopter, and a palm tree - converge in Cypress Park.

An undated photo of a woman frolicking with a date palm, probably in the Coachella Valley.

LA Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

An undated photo of a woman frolicking with a date palm, probably in the Coachella Valley.

An undated photo of LA's Olvera Street. The palms came early.

LA Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

An undated photo of LA's Olvera Street. The palms came early.

The palm tree is so obiquitous, it becomes the perfect disguise for a cell phone tower.

LA Public Library/Gary Leonard Collection

The palm tree is so obiquitous, it becomes the perfect disguise for a cell phone tower.


The palm
Is the bomb.
-- Frank McDonough, LA County Arboretum

LA's fine, the sun shines most the time,
And the feeling is laid back.
Palm trees grow, and rents are low,
But you know I keep thinkin' about
Making my way back.
-- Neil Diamond, "I Am ... I Said."

Recently, Kevin Roderick of LA Observed posted:

"This native Angeleno has finally seen one too many palm trees. Granted, it has been awhile since I have lived elsewhere. Maybe I'm overdue. But some palm trees are just out of place, and for those we're starting a photo series here I'll call Ridiculous Palm Trees."

Like this one, about which he writes, "The parking lots at Dodger Stadium have more ridiculous palm trees per square mile than just about anywhere in Los Angeles. They only stick out more when the lots are empty."

(Credit: Kevin Roderick)

And I have to grant Kevin's point that this tree isn't doing much for the parking lot. Maybe, as he told me, he's reached this palm tree tipping point because the drought is making not just the palms but the whole city look dried out.

Frank McDonough, a botanical information consultant and blogger at the LA County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, wasn't surprised by Kevin's change of heart. "I've never seen a plant about which people have been so ambivalent. People love 'em or hate 'em."

Palms are surprisingly perfect for Los Angeles. Most of them are immigrants, McDonough says, that came with the mission padres and the botanists who arrived with the orange boom, and they're photogenic. He says a palm tree is "very symmetrical, it has a column, I mean, it's just like Greek architecture."

Listen to my interview with McDonough and Roderick (who really does love many palms) for much more about the tree that, for better or worse, has become the emblem of Los Angeles.


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