LA’s palm trees are ‘senior citizens.’ How many years do they have left?

By Robin Estrin

People plant full-grown palm trees along Wilshire Blvd, between Western and Wilton. They come complete with bracing to hold them upright in the ground. 1926. Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection/Los Angeles Public Library.

Ahead of the 1932 Olympics, Los Angeles officials planted tens of thousands of Mexican fan palm trees around the city of Angels, as part of a plan to beautify the burgeoning metropolis and solidify its place on the world map.  

The palms were tall, dramatic, and tropical, swaying gently in LA’s warm breeze – or bending horizontally with the gusty Santa Anas. A century later, it’s hard to imagine LA without these trees. But Angelenos might be right to start trying, because many palm trees live about 100 years.

“They're senior citizens,” says Donald Hodel, retired environmental and landscape horticulture advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension. “But they still have many good years ahead of them.” 

Hodel estimates many of the palms planted ahead of the 1932 Olympics have between 30 and 50 years left. “If there's a die-off, it won't be because of the age, it'll be because of some new introduced disease,” he says.

Many of Los Angeles’ iconic palm trees – including Mexican fan palms – are invasive, but they have a long history in California. The first palms were brought to the state by Spanish missionaries in the 18th century. “They wanted to use the palm fronds in their religious services, specifically Palm Sunday,” says Hodel.

In the late 19th century, a land boom in Southern California and Los Angeles brought more palms to the area. “Real estate developers thought it would be a good idea if they had some exotic, dramatic, tropical-looking plants to photograph which would help encourage shivering Easterners to come out to sunny, warm California.”

Then, Hodel says, in the run-up to the 1932 Olympics, “tens of thousands” of Mexican fan palms were planted as street trees. “And these are still alive today.”

That won’t be true forever, though Hodel says some of the species are living to 150 years old. 

Palm trees have fans in Los Angeles and worldwide. Hodel says the trees have helped the city build a visual narrative of paradise, akin to tropical destinations like Hawaii or Tahiti.

But the lanky trees are also criticized for not providing enough shade, relative to those with larger canopies nearer the ground. 

Decades from now, as temperatures warm and the trees approach their expiration date, Hodel says officials may want to replace LA’s palms.

“If Los Angeles is looking for more shade, it's probably better not to replant the palm-lined streets with palms again,” he says. “It's probably better to plant them with broadly spreading, drought-tolerant trees.”

Still, Hodel says, palms will always have a place in LA. They “helped to achieve this idea that Southern California is a paradise on earth. … That’s going to sell.”



  • Donald Hodel - emeritus environmental and landscape horticulture advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension