NOT ALL PALM TREES IN CALIFORNIA ARE INDEGENOUS

When most people think of California one of the first images that pops into their minds is a palm tree lined street, or a beach scene with palms trees swaying in the breeze. Palm trees have become part of the landscape and history of California. So how many of the palm trees species we have become accustomed to in California are actually native to California?

The answer to that question may be surprising because in actuality there is only one species native to California and that is “Washintonia Filifera” more commonly referred to as the California fan palm. All of L.A.’s other palm species, from the slender Mexican fan palms that line so many L.A. boulevards to the feather-topped Canary Island date palm, have been imported. L.A.’s palm trees owe their iconic status more to Southern California’s turn-of-the-century cultural aspirations and engineering feats than to the region’s natural ecology.

Southern California’s native palms grow far away from Los Angeles, in spring-fed Colorado Desert oases tucked deep inside steep mountain ravines. Centuries before palms were cultivated for their horticultural value, the Cahuilla Indians used these Washingtonia filifera as a natural resource, eating the fruit and weaving the fronds into baskets and roofing. California’s eighteenth century Franciscan missionaries were the first to plant palms ornamentally, perhaps in reference to the tree’s biblical associations. But it was not until Southern California’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century gardening craze that the region’s leisure class introduced the palm as the region’s preeminent decorative plant. Providing neither shade nor marketable fruit, the palm was entirely ornamental.

Today many of the palm trees planted in the 1930s are nearing the end of their natural life spans. The city of Los Angeles department of water and power has already stated that as the cities palm trees die they will most likely be replaced with trees more adapted to the region’s semi-arid climate, requiring less water and offering more shade.

So it would seem that in the future the only palms remaining in California will be the ones that were originally there in the first place, the California fan palm.