Palm Reading


Long and lean, the palm tree has stood tall as L.A.’s arboreal mascot for more than a century. In the late 1800s, the trees were planted by developers eager to give the area the look of a tropical paradise. (An oasis may have been more apt.) Of the 72,000 or so palms in the City of Los Angeles, the Mexican fan palm overshadows all others in height and sheer number. Not that its ubiquity has made the tree any less mysterious. Why, for instance, don’t they blow over the way oaks and sycamores do? And just how tall are they? Here, a chance to meet and greet the Seussian figure officially known as Washingtonia robusta.

Graphic by Bryan Christie 

1. The Bend
Nobody has a definitive explanation for what causes that distinctive curve you see in so many trunks. Some speculate that the trees grow that way, bending into the wind, for balance. 

2. The Roots
There’s a reason the trees resist the Santa Anas: No thicker than a pinkie, each root attaches directly to the trunk, like hair to a scalp. (Other trees feature a primary root from which others branch off.) Mexican fan roots may spread about eight feet in all directions, going only a few feet in depth and around obstacles—curbs, gutters, foundations—that compromise other trees’ roots. An established Mexican fan palm can survive on rainfall alone.

3. The Trunk 
Mexican fan palms sway but rarely break, thanks to nutrient-carrying ducts known as vascular bundles. As thin as the lead of a No. 2 pencil and sheathed in sturdy fibers, they travel up and down the trunk. The effect, as UC Davis palm expert Donald Hodel says, is like rebar in reinforced concrete.

4. The Base 
During winds, most of the stress is on the lower portion of the trunk, which isn’t just the oldest part of the tree but also the strongest; cells and tissues grow tougher as they mature.

5. The Size
Mexican fan palms live 100 to 125 years in urban areas. They grow fastest when young but take 80 to 90 years to reach full height—100 feet or more. The tallest tend to have the smallest crowns—about 8 feet in diameter. The crowns of younger, shorter trees are 10 to 15 feet wide. The top of the trunk may be just inches across. 

6. The Fronds
In the past the city spent more than $385,000 a year cleaning up fallen fronds. Since 2008, city hall has received 54 claims of property damage caused by them. Next year the city will be scaling back palm care to less than $50,000 due to budget cuts.