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Keep Palm and Carry on?
Episode 6
Keep Palm and Carry on?
This week, we look at the supermodel of plants in L.A: the iconic palm. They may be everywhere, but they’re not native to the city. How they got here, took over and complicate the great native v. non-native plant debate. Human Nature is sponsored by BetterHelp and our listeners get 10% off their first month of online therapy at Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Evan Meyer 0:00

[theme music] Across the arroyo, we have some incredibly tall Mexican Fan Palms. They still have their um, dead leaves clinging to them, so they have this much more wild look than than many that you'll see in the city. They're just like almost comically tall. I mean, all right. Real talk, they they're kind of silly looking right? Like, [laughing] [other people talking in background] [duck under]

Marcos Trinidad 0:22

Hey, what's up? From LAist Studios, this is Human/Nature. I'm Marcos Trinidad. Every week, I'll invite you to get into the nature of your neighborhood. But first, I want to tell you a little bit more about the nature in my neighborhood. One of the memories I cherish the most from my childhood [music out] was all the walking I did up and down the hills of Highland Park, each street lined with a variety of different trees. And once I get to the top of a hill, looking around and seeing the skyline filled with palm trees of all sizes. And when I saw them, I felt proud that this was my neighborhood because that image of palms, on the backdrop of all these homes was such a beautiful sight. And now I see them everywhere. [theme music] They're in people's backyards, they're in parks, they're along streets. They're a big part of the landscape here in Los Angeles. Which is ironic, because these iconic LA plants aren't even from here. At least not originally. [music out]

Evan Meyer 1:32

They're kind of like this backdrop to Los Angeles, and people don't often dig deep into the details of how they got here, why they're here. What are they doing? How are they interacting with the ecology of our city?

Marcos Trinidad 1:46

This is Evan Meyer, Executive Director of the Theodore Payne Foundation. It's a nonprofit dedicated to native plants.

Evan Meyer 1:54

So they're actually like a pretty fascinating case study for this intersection between our human world and the ecological world that coexist here in Los Angeles.

Marcos Trinidad 2:04

So let's talk a little bit about that. Because how did they get here? How did that actually happen?

Evan Meyer 2:09

Well in, in California, broadly, there is a native species of palm tree, [original music] which is the California Fan Palm, Washingtonia Filifera. And you can go out to the desert, go out to Palm Springs and see the oases and they're absolutely beautiful. Where you walk through open hot desert, and all of a sudden, you're at this pool of water, and there's palm trees, and there's orchids, and there's ferns. And that's a completely native ecosystem that goes back millennia. The palms in Los Angeles have all been brought in. There's no palm tree that was native to LA or really anywhere on the coastal side of the mountains in California. So they've all been brought in as part of the horticultural trade and as part of the development of the urban environment here.

Marcos Trinidad 2:54

So when you say that they were brought in, by who? Like who? Who was bringing 'em in? Like, how did that happen?

Evan Meyer 3:01

There's actually quite a few different species of palm trees in Los Angeles, but the ones that really like reign supreme today, there's two species, [music out] the Mexican Fan Palm, Washingtonia Robusta, and the Canary Island Date Palm, Phoenix Canariensis. They create a certain aesthetic that people like and it's way different than other parts of the world. And you know, palms don't grow everywhere. So there's something kind of luxurious, glamorous. But the palm that really dominates LA today, the Mexican Fan Palm, that was brought in in a concerted effort in the early 1930s for the Olympics.

1932 Olympics Announcer 3:38

[soundbite from 1932 Olympics] [Olympics music with horns] The first heat of the 100 meter sprint, was won easily by Eddie Tolan of the United States team. [duck under]

Marcos Trinidad 3:45


Evan Meyer 3:45

Yeah, 1932 Olympics um, somewhere in the range of 25,000 Mexican Fan Palms were planted, and that's really the legacy of palms today that really dominates the LA skyline. [1932 Olympics music out]

Marcos Trinidad 4:00

That's really interesting, because you can't go anywhere without seeing a palm.

Evan Meyer 4:05

They're everywhere. They're literally everywhere. Um, you can look up and they're everywhere. You can also look down and they're everywhere. [original music] And that's what I think is really interesting about them is, the Mexican Fan Palm in particular, has escaped the pen. It's jumped out of its domesticated life and gone feral on the streets of LA. [Marcos laughs]

Marcos Trinidad 4:25

So there's point o' no return, point o' no re- return.

Evan Meyer 4:28

Yeah, I mean, it it's basically just now it's like, out there. It's part of this spontaneous urban ecosystem that humans have very little to do with now. We don't maintain the palms. Um, they're just out there growing out o' sidewalk cracks, vacant lots.

Marcos Trinidad 4:45

After the break, palm expert Lorena Villanueva-Almanza on these mysterious and resilient plants. [music out] [break]

Marcos Trinidad 4:58

To people in Los Angeles, and probably anyone who has ever seen a movie set in LA, the Mexican Fan Palm is instantly recognizable. It's tall, really tall, slender, and it has these bright green leaves at the top, that kind of look like a bunch of hands. It's also a plant that goes by a lot of other names. Scientists refer to it as Washingtonia Robusta, the Mexican Fan Palm, but they're also known as Mexican Sky Dusters because they can grow to more than 80 feet tall. That's eight stories high.

Lorena Villanueva-Almanza 5:34

They are fantastic creatures. I like to call them that because they have this great personality.

Marcos Trinidad 5:41

Lorena Villanueva-Almanza studied these iconic, sky dusting, fan-like palms.

Lorena Villanueva-Almanza 5:47

One of the last chapters of my life was doing palm research, and I studied Washingtonia palms in Mexico and Southern California for my PhD when I was back in Riverside, California.

Marcos Trinidad 5:59

I called her up because I wanted to understand how these palms grow in their original native habitat, and what that can tell us about why they thrive in a city like LA. Lorena told me about a research trip she had made to these palms' native range in Baja California Sur, in Mexico. [original music]

Lorena Villanueva-Almanza 6:19

I was sampling these old date palm groves with several colleagues, including also my dad, he was in that first field trip with me. And we were counting seedlings of date palms. And we started noticing these other plants, really small, almost look like grass. And I didn't know exactly what they were, but then we pulled out the seed and it turned out to be Washingtonia. And it was covered with Washingtonia. It almost looked like like grass really. And then you just have to turn around and see the palm grove totally covered with big Washingtonia palms. And so then the mystery became well, I'm seeing this palm here in San Jose. Um, but I'm also seeing this palm in Riverside, California. So how come it has been so successful at colonizing different places in in such long distances? [pause] These palms have really astounding capacity to survive in places that I wouldn't imagine they could survive. [music out] So we see them sprouting on the sidewalk, right?

Marcos Trinidad 7:31

Yeah, I was gonna say like a sidewalk crack. [laughing]

Lorena Villanueva-Almanza 7:33

Mmm hmm. Yeah, yeah, they're so capable. And actually, the Mexican Sky Duster is considered an invasive species in California, while in its natural habitat, it's almost endangered. So-

Marcos Trinidad 7:48

Oh, wow.

Lorena Villanueva-Almanza 7:49

The irony of it- it's, it's almost tragic. [original music] There's water extraction happening in the canyon, lots of tourists visiting. So of course, these palms can't grow without water, which is something that might be a little bit more abundant in the cities because there's water irrigation systems happening. The other reason why they're endangered in their native populations is because in San Jose del Cabo, the population around the hotels is just taking the leaves of these palms and making roof thatching for hotels. And once you take the leaves off the palm, if you kill that tissue that is producing these leaves, then you're killing the palm basically. [pause] We are part of the landscape. And our history as humans is intertwined to that of the palms and the plants that dwell with us in the cities.

Marcos Trinidad 8:49

After the break the big debate over the future of these fronds. [music out] [break]

Marcos Trinidad 9:02

When I was talking with Lorena and Evan about palms, I noticed a couple of terms comin' up. Native plants and non-native plants. I asked Evan to explain what he means when he says a plant is native.

Evan Meyer 9:16

In North America, a native plant is defined as a plant that occurred here prior to Europeans arriving on the continent. Prior to that, there are many people in North America, the Indigenous people of North America. And their, they had close relationships with plants. Plants were traded, moved around, but in a much less, shall we say, destructive, uh or aggressive way, as they did during the colonial era when entire ecosystems were just removed and replaced with things that were brought in from other parts of the world. And what that did was essentially unravel the ecology that it evolves in a place for, you know, millennia, and it also brought in plants that escaped cultivation. Or, or they just kind of hitched along the ride and and planted themselves. But when that happens, it can really disrupt the ecosystem that exists. And sometimes those plants, because they don't have natural predators, they can just take over vast swaths of land. And that really is a problem because it can turn what was once like a diverse ecosystem into a monoculture.

Marcos Trinidad 10:24

So with that, would you say native plants are better?

Evan Meyer 10:28

Well, because native plants evolved in a certain place, they're adapted to those conditions from, like a climate perspective. So in California, that becomes very important with water. They, they're adapted to getting their water during the rainy season and not getting watered much in the dry season. So just from a natural resources standpoint, yes, I would say native plants are better than our current conventional landscape choices. And then like we're saying, it's the whole ecological function, and their place within an ecosystem. So you're restoring an ecosystem that had been kind of broken apart or unraveled and rebuilding it by choosing plants in your garden that are going to sustain the insects that feed on the leaves, or that that feed on the pollen, [in background Marcos: Yeah.] by the birds that eat those insects, by you know, and then and so on, and so forth.

Marcos Trinidad 11:18

What does it mean to have native plants in such a built city like Los Angeles?

Evan Meyer 11:26

Well, it's sort of reclaiming what was once here through [original music] the lens of what is now here. So it's, it's really an interesting thing to be part of, because you're taking this seemingly very unnatural environment, right, like concrete and glass and steel in the infrastructure of a city and you're bringing natural elements back into it. I think that's very important for all the reasons we've talked about, like sustaining the ecosystem, being in sync with the seasons and the natural resources. Uh, but I also think it's just reminds us where we are, and reminds us that even though the city looks like a quote, unquote, unnatural thing, everything within here came from nature. [music out] I think rethinking our cities to be kind of multi-species environments, right? It's not just about the human experience, it's about the entire experience of everything there, including non-human things, um including plants, including birds, including insects, including all the stuff that we share our space with, let's design our cities to incorporate all those things, right?

Marcos Trinidad 12:34

I mean, most of the palms are not native to California, but in terms of what you're saying, they're here now, we do share our space with 'em. So how much does it matter that they're not from here, originally?

Evan Meyer 12:47

The pro palm camp, if we can call it that, [Marcos and Evan laugh] um, think that they're very beautiful, that they're you know, important part of the aesthetic of our city, that they um, are interesting to look at, that they work well horticulturally. The people who push back on it, they do so for a number of reasons. One is that a lot of the palms that we grow here come from oases, and they do take water. They don't really provide any shade. I mean, some of them maybe a little bit, but it's pretty limited. And so when you plant a street tree, and you're giving up that little bit of land to plant something, one of the arguments goes, Well, why wouldn't you plant something that shades the street, that provides other benefits? And then the big one, that comes into my work in my world, is the ecology and how are they contributing to the ecology of our space?

Marcos Trinidad 13:42

What I have noticed, as someone that watches birds, as someone that pays attention to these little things that that go on in our world when no one else is looking, I've noticed that there's an abundance of life. And it's not because these birds or these animals love palms. It's because they are using what is around. And if you have a Hooded Oriole, or or a Bullock's Oriole, that needs a space to nest, they're choosing palms. Barn Owls, I've I've found a number of nesting Barn Owls. We don't have a lot of barns in LA. [laughing] You know, [in background- Evan: Yeah.] so looking at at the role that this plays is is something. What else in our our our built landscape is reaching that height. And it's almost like this little ball of habitat that exists in the world away from everything else. There's something pretty amazing about that.

Evan Meyer 14:48

Well palm trees are hosts to Epiphytic Ferns, so ferns that just live and grow in the kind of, that little ball up in the sky that you mentioned

Marcos Trinidad 14:48


Evan Meyer 14:51

in the palm tree. Uh, there are ferns that have adapted to living in those conditions. They're non-native ferns. So you could make the argument that they're not supposed to be here.

Marcos Trinidad 15:07

They shouldn't be here, either. [laughing]

Evan Meyer 15:08

Yeah, you could make that argument, but, but the truth is, just like we are constantly trying to sort of figure out how to put our best foot forward and make the best decisions for our communities and our uh, ecology and land- while we're doing that, nature is adapting and changing and shifting at at all times. So I don't think there can ever be an easy, satisfying, clear cut answer. I think it all has to be balanced. [original music] Whether or not you think they should be, you know, an an abundant part of the ornamental flora here in LA, you got to respect them for their tenacity and their ability to grow in some pretty tough conditions and uh (people) don't think about that. But these are not static items. They're not just things that get placed there. They're, they live their own lives, and they have offspring, and those offspring spread. And I think that's just cool. It's fun to realize that there's so many other things happening in our city, outside of our human lives, and outside of our day to day. Different plants and animals are are living and surviving and thriving and competing. And I think that's beautiful and it makes it, makes the city a more interesting place to live. [music out]

Evan Meyer 16:20

What's gonna to happen? What do you think is is going to happen with with our relationship with palms? And what do you think should happen?

Evan Meyer 16:30

Well, I think this debate is far from settled, and people will be probably discussing palms for many years to come. I personally don't think the palm's going anywhere anytime soon. Whether you love them or hate them, they're here.

Marcos Trinidad 16:43

[original music] We talked a lot about palms. I'm kind of excited to, to go check some out. D' ya wanna go, go get some eyes on palms?

Evan Meyer 16:56

Let's go look at some palms. Yeah.

Marcos Trinidad 16:58


Marcos Trinidad 17:00

Evan and I headed to the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena with one of our producers, Carla. [birds chirping] As soon as we parked we saw them, a bunch of Mexican Fan Palms. And we heard a lot of birds. [music out]

Evan Meyer 17:13

[ambient outdoor sounds] Yeah, that's amazing. You can actually see acorns embedded in holes in these Mexican Fan Palms.

Marcos Trinidad 17:19

Did you see that? That was the the Hooded Oriole. It just chased out one of the the woodpeckers. So the Hooded Oriole is the the bright yellow one that just flew into the palm. They need to like, they come out and they nest specifically in these these tall palms.

Marcos Trinidad 17:36

After we checked out those palms, we drove up the street to a close by trail. [car door being shut] And as soon as we got out the door, we were able to see somewhat of a different scenery, a different habitat. There were a lot of uh, California natives, beautiful Oak trees, a ton of different Sages, just really beautiful. And after about 10 minutes of hiking-

Evan Meyer 18:05

Across the way on the ridge, we see mansions, we see more Mexican Fan Palms. So their leaves are kind of swaying a bit in the wind. Um, sun shining through them. It's a very LA scene. So I can totally see this stand of palms here and understand why people feel like they don't belong here; they should be cut down. Maybe we could replace them with an Oak or another Elderberry. I get that feeling; I understand it. But from my vantage point, I'm seeing car after car go by on the freeway. [theme music] We're looking at huge mansions with lawns. We're seeing, in my opinion, more invasive plants around like mustard, so I, I can't see it with too negative of a light. Um, maybe we'll fix all of our problems someday and the palms can go away. But until then, I think we've got probably bigger fish to fry. [laughs]

Marcos Trinidad 19:01

Focus on driving less and using less water. [laughing]

Evan Meyer 19:04

Yeah. Start there and then we can talk about palms in 10 years, Marcos. [Marcos laughing]

Carla Javier 19:12

Human/Nature is hosted by Marcos Trinidad and produced by Caroline Champlin and me, Carla Javier. Kelly Prime is our story editor. Fiona Ng is our acting supervising producer, mixing and engineering by Parker McDaniels with help this week from Shawn Corey Campbell. Our time in the field was recorded on GabrieleÒo Tongva Territory. Ex MaÒana composed our music, and Doris Anahi MuÒoz is the music supervisor. Human/Nature is a production of LAist Studios. The marketing team created our branding with art by Christine Tyler Hill. Special thanks to Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Neha Shaida. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. That's all for this episode of Human/Nature. See you next week. [music out]

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