I'm here to tell you about a vegetable menace that is the AIDS of the plant world. If you live in most parts of North America, these plants have you surrounded. They're butt-ugly brown sticks thrusting phallically into the sky in unnatural rows, crowned by a spidery fright-wig of spikes. They look like a raspberry on a stick.
I'm talking, of course, about the omnipresent palm tree, found everywhere in your city. It doesn't matter what you hate, this tree embodies it. The palm tree is the non-native plant imported for the wrong reasons, planted in places it didn't belong, among residents who never wanted it, and which has wrecked a veritable holocaust that would be impressive coming from a B-movie body snatcher invasion.
And you're laughing "Palm trees? Seriously? What's with this guy?"
Well, here's a little list of citations to wipe that grin off your face…
#1: Palm trees are utterly useless.
Sure, you might be saying "But they produce coconuts and dates?" That's two species, neither of which won the lottery ticket to be planted from sea to shining sea. The scientific name for the palm order is "Arecaceae," and they comprise some 2600 individual species, most of which yield no resources and a few are even toxic. Yet, like cockroaches, they show very little individual variation going back to the late Cretaceous period.
The kinds of palm trees familiar to America is the Washingtonia Robusta, AKA the Mexican Fan, or Roystonea Regia, AKA Cuban Royal. Both their purposes are purely decorative - although we'll tackle that misguided motive in due time. Other palm varieties seen in the US include the Zombie Palm (no, really, that's its name!), so-called because it's covered with needles like a cactus, ideal for Haitian voodoo rituals. There's also the Foxtail Palm, recognizable as having the least foliage-to-trunk ratio, making it resemble a giant stick with a few kinky feathers on the end.
In the first place, palm trees fail at the number-one job we plant trees for: SHADE. Their monopod structure ensures no protection from the sun unless you're very thin and stand with your arms flat to your side moving sideways all day.
Now name almost anything else that trees are supposed to do, and you'll find that palm trees do the least amount of it possible. They hardly produce oxygen, and they remove almost no ozone and carbon from the environment. A study has shown that palm trees sink 17 times less ozone and 14 times less carbon than your average oak tree. They don't mulch, having no leaves to speak of. They don't even produce wood, something you'd think would be the number one resource to get from a tree. Cut down a palm tree, and you'll find its inside is the same tough, stringy fiber the rest of the tree is made of.
They aren't even fun to climb and offer no limbs to attach a swing or pinata. Birds can't even nest in them. You can't even decorate them for Christmas without making them look like a giant dildo - we promised the editor we'd only make the comparison once.
If Ebeneezer Scrooge designed a tree, it would be a palm tree. "You get NOTHING! Away with you!"
#2: Palm trees are an ecological nightmare.
Palm trees are of course associated with beaches.
And what resource do beaches have a lot of? Water!
And that's why palm trees are native to beaches all around the tropical zone. Somehow, this connection never clued in landscapers to the thing that palm trees will greedily consume: Water! Instead, they got planted ubiquitously throughout the southern United States, a region now famous for one ecological catastrophe: drought.
It turns out palm trees drink more than any other tree, up to 1000 liters per day. And yet, surrounded by palms, Los Angeles residents mill about in the middle of a decades-long drought wondering "What happened to all the water?" I don't know but maybe ask the giant hot dog over there making the loud slurping sounds.
While we're talking about environmental impact in places like L.A., we're sure you've heard of global warming. Not many people appreciate that trees in cities have the important job of providing shade cover over the city, blocking harsh sunlight from reflecting off concrete, windows, cars, and back into the sky where the atmosphere gets simmered like a clambake from all the reflected heat. As we've already noted, shade is yet another thing palm trees are lousy at, providing less canopy coverage and cooling the air by as little as one-seventh the amount provided by any other tree.
And again in the category of "ecological problems L.A. is famous for," another problem is mudslides. Sure enough, palm trees do nothing to prevent erosion either. In fact, their thirsty character tends to choke out other plant life, reducing the topsoil around them to a dusty, hot, lifeless crust. All this time they've said "plant palm trees, they do great in the desert," without stopping to wonder if maybe there's a plant responsible for creating the desert in the first place.
As if the danger to the environment weren't enough, palm trees are also a more direct threat to humans with those huge, spiky palm fronds. Maintenance workers can die from accidents related to trimming palm fronds, and if they don't trim them, the palm fronds fall off anyway and become a hazard to passing motorists. Sometimes they can even bust a windshield. Oh, and you know those brush fires the American southwest is so famous for? Guess what spreads those like giant match heads too? So even without the conservation standpoint, palm trees still find a way to be dangerous.
But we're not done! On top of all the other ways palm trees are a giant middle finger to planet Earth (a mental image you can't unsee now), it turns out palm tree fronds are an actual headache to dispose of because they resist composting. The city of Phoenix, Arizona, is at wits' end, having simply been dumping them in a landfill, now overflowing while the palm fronds stubbornly refuse to do any good for the world even after they're dead.
That takes some determination! While you're stressing over the environmental impact of plastic bags to carry your groceries home, city planners in the United States went out and found, out of all the ornamental plants they could choose from, a non-biodegradable tree. If you've ever seen a shopper in a parking lot hurling their grocery items at a palm tree screaming "Carry them! Come on, pull your weight, you useless overgrown cigarette butt!" now you can identify.
#3: Palm trees were foisted on us for all the wrong reasons.
Like the Kardashians and many other tacky things in American culture, palm trees are weeds with excellent marketing. For years, they've been held as a symbol of wealth, leisure, prestige, and tropical paradise vacations.
But furthermore, palms are held for their symbolism in religious scriptures. Both the Christian Bible and the Muslim Quran mention palm trees numerous times, and palm fronds are even a part of some rituals. Which is charming and all, but the Bible also mentions a "lake of eternal fire" and you wouldn't want that for a feature of your backyard landscaping.
You've probably heard this cozy story passed around about Catholic missionaries planting palm trees as they settled the American frontier. The truth is, palm trees are a symptom of urban sprawl. They were planted for one important, simple reason: They're CHEAP. They grow like weeds, they're easy to reproduce, they're hardy, and best of all when it comes times to move them, their root structure makes them easy to dig up with one scoop of the excavator and transport.
If you're a developer slapping together a row of tacky McMansions to pawn off on suburban slickers when it comes time to landscape, are you going to fiddle around with an actual tree that has to be carefully planted and nurtured? No, you're going to order a flatbed truck of palms and have those ugly pretzel sticks jammed in the ground by five o'clock.
#4: Palm trees aren't even real trees.
Not content with being a deadbeat in every other way, palm trees can't even be a positive contributor to their category. Check back at that Wikipedia entry on "Arecaceae" - palm trees are actually from the grass family, having more in common with bamboo or the plain turf grass on your lawn than with anything else we call a "tree."
And you thought we were kidding when we called them "weeds"? That's literally what they are! Don't mow your grass for long enough, you'll have a yard full of weeds. One time that happened and that's how we got palm trees.
#5: Palm trees are being divorced from their flagship homes.
We've picked on Los Angeles a lot here because that city is the world's poster child for the palm tree menace. Lines of towering palms are as good as the only trademark the city needs, may be considered equal to the Hollywood sign. And palm trees are bad enough that L.A. has announced plans to get rid of the palm trees. If you check back through other links in this article, Florida, Arizona, and Texas are all swearing off their harmful palm tree addiction too.
City planners and residents in the southern states are quick to protest when municipal landscaping budgets come back with no palm tree provisions. "But it's part of our identity!" Which is a great conservative argument you could make to justify any bad habit at all? "I can't go to AA, I'm the town drunk! Nobody would recognize me if I cleaned up!" Meanwhile, that protest photo tells the whole story: A barren, parched, post-apocalyptic landscape with no other signs of plant life at all, but there stand the fat, triumphant palm trees, with misguided citizens complaining because they're being replaced with real trees.
The fact is, ecologists, landscapers, and city planners are all coming together to gradually realize that they've been had by a jungle of prehistoric grass. The palms are going away and none too soon. If we found out that palm trees came from space and were actually an alien biological weapon designed to devastate our planet, well, we don't care if it's not proven, we're going to believe that anyway.