Palm Reading

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
On a Friday evening in the summer of 2011, Los Angeles resident Brent Green was driving home from work. He was coming from a job site and took a route he doesn’t usually take to get to his neighborhood.

Brent Green:
And I might not have come this way. I mean I’m glad I did because when I saw this, I knew that it was a problem and I got out of my car.

Sam Greenspan:
What did you see?

Roman Mars:
That’s our producer Sam Greenspan. He met with Brent in Los Angeles.

Brent Green:
I saw about 25 to 30 guys with heavy equipment all wearing orange jumpsuits. They had backhoes, they had trenching machines. I mean like large tractor material. Like stuff that you can’t just ignore.

Sam Greenspan:
You and I might not think there’s anything weird about a bunch of guys doing work on the freeway berm, but Brent took one look and thought, “Well, this all seems kind of fishy.”

Roman Mars:
For starters, it seemed late for a city work crew to be doing landscaping.

Brent Green:
And I said, “That’s odd. It’s almost 7 o’ clock. They’re not even out here at 7 o’ clock. So what are they doing? They’ve got to be up to something.”

Sam Greenspan:
The crew was manicuring some trees in a fenced-off piece of land next to a freeway in what had long been a low-income neighborhood. It’s a patch of land that never gets landscaped. The only reason the trees were there was because about 40 years ago, some birds flew over and pooped out fertilized seeds and no one ever touched them.

Brent Green:
It’s not like they’re just cleaning the tree up to make it look better on the freeway. Look at all the rest of them, they all look like crap.

Sam Greenspan:
And that’s when Brent put it together. A work crew doing an after-hours landscaping job in an area where they never do any work. To Brent, this meant one thing.

Brent Green:
I know with all my being that they’re taking the trees illegally.

Roman Mars:
Stealing trees.

Sam Greenspan:
Now, the reason that Brent Green was able to deduce all of this is because he is by trade a landscape designer. And so he knew the worth of the trees that the work crew had been messing with.

Brent Green:
I’ve actually purchased these trees for projects and they’re like 20 grand.

Roman Mars:
$20,000 a tree.

Sam Greenspan:
Brent confronted the worker and asked them what they were doing. Some of them took off running. Later, a woman who lives on that street came down from her apartment and Brent asked her if she knew what was going on.

Brent Green:
She said, “Honey baby, they didn’t just take that one. They’re not taking … They took like six other ones. They took two over there, four over there. They’ve been here all week.” I’m like, “Really?” Then I called the police.

Roman Mars:
This is not the first case in palm theft. Palm rustling has been reported in Texas and San Diego. It even gets a mention in Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief”.

Sam Greenspan:
And to understand why someone would want to steal a palm tree, we need to really understand their value, which has a lot to do with the space they occupy in our collective imagination. And for that, we need to talk to this guy.

Jared Farmer:
My name is Jared Farmer. I am the author of “Trees in Paradise: A California History”.

Sam Greenspan:
In his book, Jared Farmer traces the history of the Golden State through four kinds of trees. One of them being the palm. The others are the redwood, the citrus and the eucalypt. Now, we should get this out of the way first, a palm tree isn’t really a tree.

Jared Farmer:
It’s actually not a tree. It’s kind of like grass. It’s like a super grass. It’s like hundreds or thousands of these long blades of grass in a sense like fused together.

Roman Mars:
Palm trees don’t make bark or branches. If you cut them down, you won’t find any rings in the trunk. All their roots grow in a compact root ball, making them easier to steal than say like an oak tree, which has an expansive underground root network.

Sam Greenspan:
And as far as trees go, we don’t plant palms for any of the normal reasons we want other trees around.

Jared Farmer:
It’s not for the shade. It’s not for climbing. You can’t really climb a palm tree very well. It casts precious little shade.

Sam Greenspan:
Palm trees, it seems, do something else. They’re evocative, they’re transportive, they inspire us to dream big.

Jared Farmer:
It’s about image and beauty and fashion and design, and some of it is about architecture. Palms, especially urban palms in places like Los Angeles are planted less for what they do than what they mean, or rather what they mean, it’s what they do.

Sam Greenspan:
If you trace the history of what palm trees have symbolized in the western imagination as Jared Farmer has, you start to get the idea that palm trees have always been about evoking a spirit of elsewhere. Even 200 years ago, palm trees were planted in California by the Spanish as a way of signifying on the Holy Land.

Jared Farmer:
Orthodox Christianity in Roman Catholicism often demands actually having fronds, and that’s the reason the Spanish in California grew palm trees, just to have palms for Palm Sunday.

Sam Greenspan:
So palm trees were around by the time that California became a state in 1850. And around that same time, there was a trend in art and literature of what we now call Orientalism, a kind of fascination with the East.

Jared Farmer:
Sort of that fantasy of like Arabs and Bedouins and oasis and Scheherazade, that kind of thing.

Sam Greenspan:
And so palm trees dove-tailed quite nicely with those kinds of fascinations.

Roman Mars:
Palm trees were also used to make people think of the tropics.

Sam Greenspan:
And while these three tropes are unfolding, palm tree symbolizing the Holy Land, the Orient, the tropics, they also kind of do this thing where they all congeal and collapse into a bigger notion that we can still recognize today. Palm trees is a symbol for luxury and leisure.

Jared Farmer:
So by 1900, if you went to say, San Francisco, to Union Square, or if you went to Manhattan, or to Paris, or the London, or any world city in the West, you would find a palm court in the hotel.

Roman Mars:
Even the RMS Titanic had a palm court.

Sam Greenspan:
Even though palms were already going international by the dawn of the 20th century, it was in California, around Los Angeles especially that the place in the global imagination really took route.

Roman Mars:
Oh, god.

Sam Greenspan:
A trend emerged among home owners of planting palm trees on either side of their front door. At first, this was only thing that wealthy people did.

Jared Farmer:
But at some point, you’re not rich, you just have a little starter bungalow in L.A. that like you got palm trees too. That really did sort of signify you have achieved not just the American dream but the California version of the American dream, which was everything the American dream offered but also great weather, gorgeous setting, trees that flower, smell good and look good every month of the year.

Sam Greenspan:
And while this trend is taking off, something happens in the rich suburbs outside of L.A., In towns like Redlands and Riverside, which were then super affluent. People there started planting palms, not just on private property, but also along city streets.

Roman Mars:
Almost as if to say, “We will be reminded of luxury everywhere we go.”

Jared Farmer:
It’s about, really, what I would call the municipal palm. A palm that symbolizes the city itself and symbolizes good life in the city.

Sam Greenspan:
Eventually, Los Angeles proper got hipped to this idea of municipal trees and during the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration put a lot of unemployed men to work planting trees throughout the city.

Roman Mars:
There are more than 2,500 species of palm tree, but as palm trees flourished in California, there’s one particular species that stood out.

Sam Greenspan:
The Canary Island Date Palm or Phoenix canariensis.

Jared Farmer:
Yeah. That is probably the most spectacular palm in the world, I want to say. In terms of the number of fronds, the the width of the fronds, and it has a kind of bumpy cross-hatched trunk from when the fronds detach.

Sam Greenspan:
The Phoenix canariensis is so stately and majestic that it was used as the symbol of California boosterism at the turn of the century. One Phoenix was even dug up, put on a railcar, and freighted all the way to Chicago for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

Jared Farmer:
And every day on the trunk, California boosters would put up a piece of paper that listed the temperature at Coronado Beach at San Diego and at Lake Michigan just for comparison.

Roman Mars:
Us Californians have always been dicks about our weather.

Sam Greenspan:
After the exposition, the palm tree was sent back to California.

Roman Mars:
Obviously, it wasn’t going to be left to suffer in the frigid city of Chicago. Can you imagine the horror? This is me being a dick about our weather.

Sam Greenspan:
For a long time, the Phoenix canariensis was mostly a symbol of Southern California. But eventually, especially about the 1990s, they were also in hot demand up north in the Bay Area. And since the Phoenix canariensis takes 50 to 60 years to mature, tree nurseries couldn’t keep up with the demand. You just can’t manufacture more 50-year-old palm trees.

Jared Farmer:
So there are people called palm brokers. They go to older residential neighborhoods where people have like a little bungalow, they’re like the third generation in that bungalow. They now have this 80 foot palm tree, they might have some sentimental attachment to it, but it’s actually not doing much for them and someone offers them a few hundred dollars for it and they’ll take it off their hands. And many people take that opportunity, especially in the time of recession.

Sam Greenspan:
The Canary Island Date Palm craze has died down a little, but they’re still in high demand.

Roman Mars:
And between the demand, the time it takes for a tree to mature and the sheer haft to moving these things, the Phoenix canariensis is the most expensive palm tree to buy.

Sam Greenspan:
The going price, including a truck to move it, a crane to lift it, and a crew to plant.

Brent Green:
It’s a lot of money. $20,000 a tree?

Roman Mars:
Yes, again, $20,000 a tree.

Sam Greenspan:
And that is why to bring us back to our earlier story, Angelino Brent Green was so outraged when he saw that work crew in his neighborhood that summer night in 2011. They were there, Brent believes, to steal more than $100,000 worth of palm trees. Brent reported what he saw to the police, also got the local NBC affiliate on the trail.

NBC Affiliate:
And our investigation has found this could be an inside job. We found at least one CALTRANS official could be involved in these thefts.

Sam Greenspan:
Long story short, an employee at the California Department of Transportation had signed off on a work order allowing a third party to go in and remove the trees. A lawsuit followed, one result of which was six Canary Island Date Palms getting put back on the freeway berm in Brent’s neighborhood.

Roman Mars:
At any rate, it might not matter too much in the grand scheme of things because the treescape of Los Angeles is about to have a lot fewer palm trees to steal.

Sam Greenspan:
A fungus called Fusarium wilt has been randomly killing off certain species of palm trees, including the Phoenix canariensis. In fact, several different landscape designers told me that they avoid using the Phoenix canariensis palms right now because of their susceptibility to the wilt.

Roman Mars:
And on top of that, as of 2006, the city of Los Angeles has greatly curbed it’s replanting a fan palms. Those are the really tall, spindly guys with the skinny trunks. A motion approved by the city council stated that fan palms don’t provide adequate tree cover. They don’t release oxygen into the atmosphere and they shed so many fronds that they are considered hazardous.

Sam Greenspan:
All the palm trees that got planted in the teens, twenties, and thirties are all going to be dying of old age in the next few decades. And without them getting replanted, palms will largely disappear from the Los Angeles streetscape.

Roman Mars:
Though of course, palm trees will still get replanted in the iconic spots where people expect palm trees to be.

Jared Farmer:
Designated tourist zones like Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard where they will always be because tours expected to be there because that is what L.A. is supposed to look like.

Sam Greenspan:
But Jared farmer is actually not too sad to see the palms of Southern California go. Mind you, this is a guy who writes about trees for a living and is a self-proclaimed lover of palms.

Jared Farmer:
In the time of less water and more people, I think we have to make wiser choices about the kind of trees that we use. And California will still have an incredibly diverse treescape.

Sam Greenspan:
But a Los Angeles without palm trees? Not on Brent Green’s watch anyway. He told me that when he was a kid, he used to draw houses with palm trees next to them. And now that he’s a grown-up, he’s fulfilled his own Californian American dream. Though his house is a modest bungalow, it’s made so much more stately by the 10 or so palms in front of his home. And even knowing everything I know about palms that they were basically marketing tools. And how they played at this phony sense of exoticism, I have to say it all still kind of works on me. I found myself in awe and a little jealous of Brent’s California dream.

Brent Green:
I got my own palm trees now.

Sam Greenspan:
That’s awesome.

Brent Green:
I’m very proud of it. I love my palms.

Comments (4)

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  1. Darn you..I spent my 30 minute commute in Northern California counting palm trees. Well counting and thinking about them. Great show as always. (On a side note it is sunny and going to be 70 today)

  2. Garret

    Interesting podcast – however – I don’t think the word trasportative is a word. It stuck out like a sore thumb

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