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L.A. replacing signature palm trees with natives

Los Angeles' famous palm trees are dying of old age and disease, and city planners are replacing them with oaks, sycamores and other species that are actually native and offer more shade, too.
Palm trees line many of Los Angeles' streets, including this stretch of Sunset Boulevard.Damian Dovarganes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The city’s palm trees — as much a symbol of L.A. as the automobile, movie stars and the beach — are vanishing.

The trees are dying of old age and a fungal disease, disappearing one by one from parks and streets, and city planners are replacing them with oaks, sycamores and other species that are actually native to Los Angeles and offer more shade, too.

Not all palms are infected, and there is no danger of their vanishing altogether any time soon. But some parts of the city could look noticeably different in the years ahead. And that troubles some.

“I think the palm tree kind of fits with the whole Southern California vibe,” says Jonathan Scott, who manages the fashionable downtown restaurant The Palm.

The palm tree may be better symbol of L.A. than many realize. Like the many young people who come to Los Angeles in search of Hollywood stardom, palm trees are not even from here; they were brought here 100 years ago or more from Latin America and other exotic locales.

Palms provide common ground
The tropical trees that sway gently in the breeze and can grow as high as a 12-story building are everywhere — from postcards that fill Hollywood souvenir shops to the streets of wealthy oceanfront enclaves and the barrios east of downtown.

The palm tree has become so intertwined with the image of the city that its name is plastered all over liquor stores and cheap hotels. Neil Diamond once sang of Los Angeles as a place where “palm trees grow and rents are low.”

It’s been years, of course, since L.A. rents were low. And now the palm trees are starting to go.

The problem, says Steve Dunlap, a supervising tree surgeon with the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department, is that large numbers of the Canary Island Date Palm — trees with rough trunks and a topknot of fronds that look like green dreadlocks — are succumbing to a fungal disease.

Tree surgeons don’t know how to stop the fungus, which gets into the soil. Dunlap said it doesn’t make sense to replace dying palms with new ones that will probably fall victim to the same ailment. So the city has been planting other varieties of trees.

Nearly 1.6 million trees of all varieties fill L.A.’s parks and line its streets. But city officials had no immediate figures on how many of them are palm trees and how many are dying.

Residents and business owners unable to stand the thought of Los Angeles losing its palms can still buy their own and plant them on their property.

Moreover, hundreds of Mexican palms, which look a lot like the Canary Island Date Palm and were planted throughout the modest neighborhoods of south Los Angeles to herald the 1932 Olympics, are still thriving.

Million-tree project
The palms are vanishing just as Los Angeles is kicking off an ambitious project to plant a million new trees. On Oct. 1, officials gave away 3,000 trees, and they have compiled a list of nearly 60 varieties they are planting and encouraging residents to plant. Palm trees did not make the cut.

“They don’t provide the same benefits as the other, more leafy trees,” says Paula Daniels, a Board of Public Works commissioner who is heading up the planting effort.

Their tall, bare trunks make them inferior when it comes to providing shade, Daniels said, and some experts believe their scant leaves make them less effective at trapping air pollution.

And while sun-dappled palms lining a freeway may look good in the movies or on a postcard, Dunlap said people standing beside them can feel as if they are next to a telephone pole.

“Oak trees are more native to L.A. than palm trees?” Scott Wannberg said from behind the counter of trendy Dutton’s Books in Brentwood, not far from the palm-lined streets of Hollywood. “I don’t know about that, but I know one thing: I like palm trees!”