Palm trees have become a Los Angeles symbols, but why if they are not native to the desert-like zone?
Besides the Hollywood sign, there is no more iconic symbol to talk about Los Angeles than its tall and lushy palm trees. But, how did this type of plant becomes one of its landmarks, and how it could thrive in a desert-like city despite not being native to it? It turns out, it can be explained by two factors: the ambition to develop its urban area and a marketing idea to sell the city as a luxurious and exotic place.
It all goes back to the year 1875. By then, Los Angeles town is basically a dry and boring desert with no more than 8,000 people living in the area. But there was something attractive about this place: railroads arrived after the completion of the transcontinental Southern Pacific line and petroleum was later discovered in the surrounding area.
Maybe Los Angeles didn’t have many trees, was too warm and desert-like, but people would eventually start to want to live there.
But first, why palm trees?
The choice of palm trees was a weird one, mainly because these plants do not provide any shade or fruit or even wood. If that isn’t enough, they are not helpful at preventing erosion, so, why did they become so important in the Los Angeles landscape? Easy, they were a symbol of exclusivity and relaxation.
Before we dive deeper into this thought, you must know that there is only one species of palm that is native to California, the California fan palm which is easily recognizable because of a bunch of fuzzy brown leaves underneath its green leaves. It is easily found around desert oases in the Colorado Desert, which by the way is more than 400 miles away.
[Two native Californian palm trees in the San Fernando mission circa 1886. Image: Californian Historical Society]
However, the actual palm trees that inhabit in almost every L.A street are not Californian, but rather Mexican palm trees which are characterized by growing taller and having a fibrous inside that makes them resistant to strong winds like those that come with tropical windstorms.
So, if they are not helpful at all, do not provide food in a desert zone, and give no shade in a sunshine city, which is their purpose?
Palms as a symbol of exclusivity and luxury
As we mentioned before, the arrival of railroads as well as the discovery of petroleum near the area, made Los Angeles the perfect town to live but how to convince people to travel to an almost ghost town, with high temperatures and almost no trees at all.
Easy, make them believe or at least, make them feel they are somewhere else more exclusive, like the French Riviera.
This destination in Europe was popular amongst artists and social elites, but it had a problem. It was very far away and not as accessible as wanted. Moreover, it had a warm climate, which by the time, was a bonus because it was believed that it had health benefits.
That is where the palm trees enter the equation. They were used to resemble the Mediterranean climate of the French Riviera.
[Palm trees outside the Beverly Hills hotel circa 1949. Image: California Historical Society]
In addition, the palms were easy to transport and plant, making them a perfect and cheap choice to fill the streets to make them look festive, joyful, and most of all, exclusive.
Soon, palm trees began to grow everywhere thanks to them being considered a symbol of wealth, luxury, nice weather, and vacation. They were even found on luxury ships like the Titanic!
Of course, it did not too long for movies and late TV to popularize the angelinian palm trees turning them into one of the most iconic symbols of not only Los Angeles, but South California as well.