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Exploring home: the history of palm trees in Los Angeles

Jul. 31, 2018
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My friends and families from out of town always gazed at the rows of palm trees outside my driveway with such a joyous and amazed expression. I never thought twice about them, perhaps because I have grown up with them—they just don’t seem too out of place. When I am walking home, looking out the window from work, or going to school, I can always spot palm trees. But I’ve never questioned why there are so many of them in Southern California, particularly in Los Angeles. To further explore my beautiful city, I’ve decided to answer the strangest, most random questions that no natives ever pose (though they really should). First on the list: palm trees.

The more I delved into the history of palm trees, the more fascinated I became. California’s 18th century missionaries were the first to plant palm trees here. Slowly but surely, as California and Los Angeles became more populated in the 20th century, city officials decided to create a distinct image to attract Easterners to the West. Palm trees were cheaper and more fitting weather-wise than other trees. Palm trees redefined the perception of the West, particularly of Los Angeles—a tropical paradise with the seductive appeal of Hollywood glamour. 

As Los Angeles set out to rebrand itself, another phenomenon arose. In the 1930s, the city began planting palm trees in anticipation for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Beyond the glitz and the glamour of this beautification, this effort tremendously helped the unemployed: in March of 1931, 400 unemployed men found jobs planting palm trees across 150 miles. Many of the palm trees that decorate the sidewalks and boulevards today were built in the ‘30s, and ever since then, LA has solidified its image as a tranquil getaway, a utopia of sorts.

In researching this topic, I was absolutely devastated to find that the red palm weevil, an insect native to Southeast Asia known as the “biggest threat to palm trees worldwide,” has been found in Laguna Beach. Also, as these palm trees continue to die from other pests and climate changes, LA officials have seemingly chosen to not replant dying trees. Though no one can estimate how long that process would take, the LA Department of Water and Power has stated that they would likely replace palm trees with a species “more adapted to the region’s semi-arid climate, requiring less water and offering more shade.”    

I found it so interesting that the iconic LA palm trees’ history mirrors the city’s culture as a whole. I know that many people view Los Angeles as the home of superficial, plastic Kardashian wannabes (although what is wrong with that?), but Los Angeles is a city steeped in culture and diversity that is entirely its own. It’s a land of dreams and imagination, of sunlight so clear and bright that anything seems possible, of Koreatown and Little Ethiopia. This LA—in its palm trees and glory—is my home, and I couldn’t be more proud.