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Southern California Palms: how an exotic became an icon

22 Jan 2016 4:12 PM | Deleted user

An icon is a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something. In the case of cities or geographic regions, there are icons that represent those places; the Statue of Liberty in New York, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, rolling hills and cypress for Tuscany. For years images of swaying palm trees have been used to represent Southern California and, more specifically, Los Angeles. Interestingly, palm trees are not native to California. There is only one palm tree native to the Southwest US and Baja California: Washingtonia filifera, or the California fan palm. How did palm trees, which didn’t exist in the popular California landscape until the 1920’s, become the icon whose image still represents the Southern California lifestyle?

A century ago, the tree lined streets and avenues of Southern California and Los Angeles looked very different than they do today. The trees that made up the urban forest were primarily pepper trees, acacias, and eucalyptus. Over time those trees died off or, in the case of pepper trees, were banned. Pepper trees acted as hosts to black scale, an insect that was damaging citrus groves, and in many cases peppers were removed to protect citrus. In 1930 Los Angeles banned further planting of that tree. Acacias and eucalyptus got a bad reputation among infrastructure managers as their roots raised streets and sidewalks and cracked underground pipelines.  In the late 1920’s, city foresters started looking for less damaging trees to plant and found Washintonia robusta, the Mexican fan palm.

Before 1920, the only palms being imported and planted belonged to wealthy collectors. The Huntington estate near Pasadena and Fairchild estate in Florida were two significant importers and collectors of exotic palms. The Huntington estate is now a botanical garden. Palms from all over the world were being placed in collections and conservatories, but significant plantings of palms didn’t occur until 1930.

In 1932, the City of Los Angeles hosted the summer Olympics and in the run up to the games the city dressed itself up by lining streets and avenues with thousands of stately Mexican fan palms. In 1931 alone more than 25,000 palms were planted. The Mexican fan palm was not chosen because of its aesthetics but because at the time it was recognized as being both hardy and cheap, and few planners realized the relative seedlings they were planting then would grow to such great height.

In a coincidence of timing, those palms planted in the 1930’s reached maturity and height at the same time as the Hollywood film industry. Movies filmed in Hollywood with stars like Bing Crosby featured California scenes with, you guessed it, palm trees in the setting. Thus began in earnest the creation of an icon.

Eric Anderson is the owner of Anderson’s Seed Co. in Escondido, which specializes in offering exotic fresh harvest palm tree and cycad seeds along with seeds for cactus and succulents, California natives, and other ornamentals. Anderson took over the business from his grandfather, Horace Anderson, who was also a seedperson, and has a long history in the ornamental plant industry.

““The big planting came when they dressed LA up for the 1932 Olympics. Then in the 1950’s and 60’s palms went to more mass market. In the 1950’s it went from high end collectors planting stuff they sought for their own collections, to nurseries growing interior palms by the millions and then landscape palms. Before that, in the home landscape you had a lawn and a silver birch. In the 70’s, you had a lawn and a queen palm.”

“In the Pasadena area, in the 60’s when all the nice houses got put in, they put in a circular driveway and they put a set of rhapis humilis in the middle. Then in the late 70’s landscapers from Cal Poly would go and take out those palms and start their nurseries. One nursery I know got started by removing one of those big clumps of palms and dividing it up. It took two or three years for them to come out and look really nice, but they sold for a good value.”

While rhapis humilis and Canary Island date palms were being placed along driveways of new homes, interior palms were being cultivated by the millions. “The biggest one was the dwarf parlor palm, Chamaedorea elegans, and then the bamboo palm, chamaedorea seifrizii.  Rhapis excelsa was cultivated for higher end markets both for indoors and outdoors.”

The 1990’s brought exciting new developments in the palm industry. A veterinarian from Vista, Dr. Mardy Darian, an exotic plant collector himself, traveled to Madagascar in search of new palms. He returned with Dypsis decari, commonly known as the triangle palm, and Bismarkia nobilis, or Bismark palm which is a fan palm with striking blue-silver fronds. “He found not only those,” says Anderson, “but literally hundreds of new species. In the 90’s there were 46 known palms from Madagascar, and only about 10 of them were cultivated. By the time a decade had passed after he started going in, they’d described over 200 new species and they still don’t have them all. And some of those are more tropical, suitable for Hawaii or Florida, but some of them are suitable for Southern California. They kind of are what’s next in the industry.”

For palms used in the landscape, sales trends are cyclical and have gone boom and bust with the housing industry and development. Demand is steadier for interior palms, but the Kentia palm blurs that divide. Kentia palms originated from Lord Howe Island off the coast of Australia and from 1920 to the 1980’s export of Kentia palm seed was the island’s primary industry. “Kentia’s are really durable,” says Anderson, “and they are one of the most beautiful palms. They have a rich dark green beautiful leaf habit, and they’re versatile; they can take abuse. You can grow them indoors in casinos, and in coastal California you can plant them outside and make a nice specimen palm.”

Today, the new exciting palms are coming from hybridization. F1 and F2 crosses are producing desirable new palms for the landscape. “That seems to be the focus from here going forward,” says Anderson, “There’s one new hybrid people really like called the mule palm, it’s a cross between a queen and a butia. There are some nice Chamaedorea hybrids; one of them was named after my grandfather, Chamaedorea ‘Horace Anderson’. It’s more of an interior palm, though it grows nice in the landscape around SoCal.” Though not native, palms have found a welcome home in the landscape and popular culture of Southern California, and as the icon of sunny California, it’s a safe bet they’ll continue to flourish for a long time to come.

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