San Diego Street Trees: My Love-Hate Relationship with Palm Trees

by on April 3, 2013 · 4 comments

in Culture, Environment, Ocean Beach, San Diego

Santa Barbara Street, looking north from Orchard Avenue

Santa Barbara Street, looking north from Orchard Avenue. Photo by Wireless Mike that was published in an article by Richard Agee.

Originally published at San Diego Free Press

A requiem for the palm at the end of the mind

palm looking up into 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.

palms in a rowBut 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 palm nuts maturewill 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.

palm with top cut off

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. 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.

palm tree avalon villasWhile 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 sunrise

Palm tree with sunset.

palm tree sunset with rays

Palm tree with smoke choked sun after the Cedar Fires.

palm tree smoky

Palm tree with odd green light before a rainstorm.

palm tree by day

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

palm tree really early with flash

All images by Richard Kacmar except the first photo.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Wireless Mike April 3, 2013 at 7:17 pm

I am surprised to see my photograph as the lead to Anna’s article, with credit for all images given to Richard Kacmar. That photograph was lifted from Richard Agee’s article in the OB Rag, “Saving the Palm Trees Along Santa Barbara Street Over the Years” from November 22, 2010. That articled detailed the author’s personal experience with Urban Forester Drew Potocki’s attempts to illegally remove historic trees along city streets. That photograph, among others, was taken by me specifically for that article, to showcase the beautiful and historic palms that grace the streets of Point Loma.


Frank Gormlie April 3, 2013 at 8:07 pm

Sorry about that Wireless Mike; I made the attribution – thanks to a heads-up call from Richard.


Wireless Mike April 3, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Thank you, Frank.


John April 9, 2013 at 4:27 am

Anna’s palm definitely was looking a bit scruffy, needed a little trim off the bottom. Another issue is that big palms like that, left overgrown, get filled with pigeon droppings, and even rats.
The city does trim them, maybe not as much as some would like, but it does get done. If they don’t before the first good blustery winter storm, the fronds blow off in the wind, they wash down the streets in the rain, and can clog up the storm drains severely. This contributed to floods we experienced in, IIRC, 1994. It was also an El Nino year, didn’t help.
We haven’t had one of those since the ’90’s BTW.
I’d love to see giant Torrey Pines on every block, like the one on Brighton between Abbott and Bacon. What’s the down side, crack a sidewalk once in awhile?


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