A requiem for the palm at the end of the mind
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance. On Mere Being, Wallace Stevens
Street trees in urban areas are important. They provide a human scale to our surroundings and soften the mind numbing linearity of vast expanses of concrete. They clean the air we breathe and provide much appreciated shade. On an often unconscious level they impact our feelings about a street or neighborhood’s economic status and safety, which is to say its desirability as a place to walk or live.
A specific iconic tree can define where we live on a particular street or in the city of San Diego itself. For many residents of Ocean Beach, that iconic image is of a Torrey Pine. I can remember a spectacular late afternoon descent over the downtown cityscape which had been turned into a massive violet bouquet of blossoming jacaranda. And of course, there are the eucalyptus in Balboa Park and lining Park Boulevard.
But the ultimate iconic image in San Diego is of palm trees. A line of sixty foot palm trees silhouetted against the sky is a stirring sight, but it can only be appreciated from a distance and therein is the palm tree problem. Walking under or close to them day in and day out is a sure way to kill your palm tree passion.
I looked up today into the hearts of the two palm trees in the parkway adjacent to our driveway. I figure they have close to a hundred pounds of beautiful maturing palm nuts between them. The palm nut bunches are now too high up in the trees to cut down without a ladder and the right kind of saw. The sidewalks underneath will soon be bombarded with the nuts which will roll around under your feet until they are squashed by all of the people who walk by daily. Flies will then descend upon the oozing orange flesh of the nuts.
This would be bearable if there were some kind of palm tree pay-off, say in late summer when the sun is blasting down and the afternoon heat is unbearable. Standing next to a palm tree unfortunately affords the same amount of shade as standing next to a telephone pole. It was months (years?) before I noticed that the palm tree on the corner which I walk by quite often had had its crown lopped off and that was only because I happened to look at the tree from a block away.
In a bad winter wind storm, the sixty foot tall Washingtonia palms in the parkway down the street launch immense dead fronds onto the cars and the street below. The City of San Diego recently settled a lawsuit that occurred when a Mission Hills resident was left paralyzed when he was struck by
a frond an untrimmed, top-heavy palm tree. City budgets over the past decade have allotted a low priority to tree trimming and maintenance. The results have been tragic as well as costly to the City. Palm trees, upon reflection, don’t seem to be the best choice of street trees.
While I dislike palm trees for the most part as street trees, I would never want them to be removed completely from our botanical landscape. For twenty three years I gazed at a thirty foot tall California Fan Palm planted in the courtyard of the apartments, now condos, across the street. It stood solitary, with its shaggy mane towering over the two story buildings.
That particular palm tree was the palm at the end of the mind, indifferent to the small figure on the porch gazing out at it from across the street. I have gazed at the palm at all times of the day and night, throughout all of the seasons. Palm tree with moon.
Palm tree with sunrise.
Palm tree with sunset.
Palm tree with smoke choked sun after the Cedar Fires.
Palm tree with odd green light before a rainstorm.
I loved the tree the most in stormy winter weather, when it turned into a Las Vegas showgirl, running long green fingers along its thigh, shaking its hoochie coochie skirt and twirling its head piece. It would make me wild with a certain kind of joy.
One evening last year I stood out on the porch. My eyes automatically moved across the street and upward. All I saw was a vast, undifferentiated emptiness.
The palm tree had been chopped down.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down. On Mere Being, Wallace Stevens
All images by Richard Kacmar
Great sentiment, Anna. But as I look out of my window on the corner of my house, my eyes are assaulted by the palm fronds that are still in piles from the last wind storm almost a month ago. Every time the gardener is here he fits a few more into the black or green trash cans, but it unsightly and dangerous. While walking Buddy during the last wind, we heard a loud crack and seconds later a heavy frond fell down, narrowly missing both of us. And they hurt! The sunsets and sunrises are beautiful; but I would have a hard time being convinced that the palms have any other purpose. My neighbor down the street just planted one – on the corner, no less. Now when walking – or driving – it is impossible to see if there are any on-coming cars because the beautiful greenery – and it is beautiful at this height – is an obstruction to clear vision. But…I did enjoy all your photographs.
Anna Daniels says
Judi- the dead fronds are a real pain- heavy and hard to cut down into trash bag size. Definitely something to think about before planting that lovely 3 foot palm tree in the front yard or garden.
Laurie Macrae says
Really nice, Anna. And Rich, your photos are superb.
Wallace Stevens, that unlikely hero of poetry, was just on my mind.
All trees, like all children, I think, are deserving of our attention.
Jacarandas get a lot of bad press here for being “messy”. But what a glorious mess!
Shelley Plumb says
I don’t much like palm trees either. They are (I think) native to this area so they belong here and have a purpose in the Great Scheme of Things. Do like Rich’s photos and your article, Anna. Maybe it all boils down to where one grows up. I grew up on the East Coast with all the beautiful foliage that changed with the seasons, provided shade in summer and shelter from a rainstorm.
Anna Daniels says
Shelley- I did some more research on palm trees before I wrote this article. With the exception of Washingtonia filifera, the palms we see here in San Diego are non-natives. These non-natives represent turn of the 20th century cultural aspirations- basically to make Southern California into a Mediterranean palm guarded littoral– and they also represent the technological access to water at the time.
As I wrote, I really do have a love-hate relationship with palm trees. They are as much a part of our landscape now as the non-native (invasive) mustard plants that transform the hillsides with a mantle of diaphanous yellow. (Mustard seeds were brought here by Junipero Serro, strewn along the whole trail that links the California Missions.)
But cultural aspirations change over time as well as our consciousness of the availability of resources. Replacing existing street palms when they die with a different kind of tree makes sense because we now think about watering needs, impact on sidewalks, provision of shade and need for maintenance.
John Anderson says
Well put Anna (both the article and this comment about the non-nativeness of basically all palms here). Upcoming projects like North Embarcadero and the Horton Plaza Park enlargement drive me crazy with their insistence on having palms be the central focus of any greenery. There are so many beautiful native trees and plants that are easier to maintain, provide the shade that is so often used, and require far less water and other inputs that non-natives often do.
Sorry to hear about your neighboring tree disappearing. I’ve had the same feeling coming home and seeing a huge, mature tree on our block had disappeared with only a bit of sawdust and a stump marking its many years on the earth.
Anna Daniels says
John- the City of San Diego has a Street Tree Selection Guide. There are 91 trees listed; only 12 are natives. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the other trees require excessive water/maintenance, but it does mean that our cultural aspirations have very little to do with what this region originally looked like or the kind of vegetation it supported. Here’s the City’s list
I have been dismayed by the number of mature trees that have been cut down on private property. Multi-unit apartment complexes have been the worst. I have seen a mature tree cut down and the following day the area was covered in concrete and became another curb cut parking space. This is illegal. And it happens.
Robin Rivet says
Anna, your words evoke strong emotions for this tree lover, but a few facts need clarity. Botanically, palms are not actually considered “trees” at all by most horticulturists. They don’t develop tree “rings”, and their taxonomy is the grass family; although they are also angiosperms – so there have some similarities to their larger relatives. Secondly, the City of San Diego’s Street Tree List has as much to do with nursery availability, and archaic city codes requiring large boxed trees to be planted on streets, as it does to what grew here before people. I am an urban forester, and have to fend off purists who somehow believe it is possible for San Diego to revert back to the pristine chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and grasslands that graced our former ecology. Unless we scrape off the man-made parking lots, roads, schools and businesses too, we must compensate our excess carbon consequence, with larger non-native (but highly adaptable) trees. Most people, (even native plant enthusiasts) cannot name 10 endemic trees, and even those who can – need to realize how few of those are actually “native” to the micro-climates of the specific area. Torrey Pines may be indigenous to our county, but they weren’t exactly “native” in City Heights. Finally, be careful about leveling alarms about palm fronds hurting people; the fellow in Mission Hills was crushed when the entire palm fell over, not a mere frond. And THAT- was likely the result of super-saturated soil failure from the powerful storm, as palms have rather strong fibrous root systems. Try uprooting a 6″ volunteer palm sometime, but keep rooting for TREES – and log yours into our map!
Anna Daniels says
Citizens–map your trees here:
Anna Daniels says
Robin- trees do indeed evoke strong emotions! The mid-city areas are part of an urban greening plan. I hope that residents in City Heights will participate in this project, and have useful information to consider when making a tree selection. Thank you for adding to that information!