Written by Esther McCoy
There are sixty or so varieties of palms, but the word generally summons up such spectacular skyline trees as the California and Mexican fan palms and the Canary Island date palm. Any one of the three is an acceptable symbol for indolence. The opposite is the pine or fir, symbol of industry, self-reliance, free will, and discipline. If you substitute Los Angeles for palm tree, you have a summary of what pineland thinks of palmland.
For instance: The palm tree can be moved with almost no root ball and survive. This readily translates into the following: The palm tree (i.e., Los Angeles) is shallow rooted, constantly on the move, shifty, shiftless, with no sense of place. You can load palm trees on a truck like telephone poles, the root structures so mutilated that nothing can bring them back. But prop them against a wall, wire them to hooks, and they will spring to life.
The fact that the greatest enemy is frost and the most vulnerable part is the crown makes the palm tree appear as something childlike, ruled by emotion and killed off by an attack of cold logic. The pine and fir die nobly to produce materials for great works, but the palm tree is worth more alive than dead, in dates or coconuts, fronds for roofing, fibers for floors, wall coverings, or textiles. Architecturally, the tall, lean pine suggests the columns of a Gothic cathedral, the thick palm trunks the columns for an open hyperstyle.
Another characteristic easy to attribute to the palm is vanity. Silhouette a date palm against a sunset, reflect it in water, and it looks so ravishing you’d swear it was born there. But the only palm native to California is the Washingtonia filifera, a fan palm from the Colorado Desert around Riverside County. As a matter of fact there are only a few trees native to Southern California. Among them the sycamore and live oak. Palm thrived near springs originally, but they made it to such bodies of water as the Pacific Ocean on wheels.
© 1976 Esther McCoy; New West (June 7, 1976), in Susan Morgan (ed.), Piecing together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader, Los Angeles: East of Borneo Books, 2012