The Story of L.A.’s Oldest Palm Tree Continues…

Palm trees are one of my pet research topics. Beautiful native trees grace Los Angeles, but to me imported plants like the palm often prove more interesting as cultural and historical artifacts.

Last year, Ed Fuentes alerted me to the fact that a once-famous palm tree — the palm that from 1888 to 1914 greeted new arrivals to Los Angeles at the Southern Pacific’s Arcade Station — now lives in relative obscurity near the Coliseum in Exposition Park. After some research, I determined that the tree’s history actually extends back much further than 1888. Transplanted originally from a desert oasis sometime in the middle of the 19th century, the fan palm was already a mature tree and famous landmark by the time it was moved in front of the rail depot.

In April, over at Los Angeles Magazine‘s City Think blog, I suggested that a lone California fan palm growing in Exposition Park may be the city’s oldest palm tree. Since then, D.J. Waldie has written about the palm, calling it “perhaps the most footloose piece of the city’s landscape,” while the digital history detectives of Noirish Los Angeles (a SkyscraperPage Forum thread) have filled in important pieces of the story. Still, there’s much yet to be discovered — including the exact origins of the tree. After filing my Los Angeles Magazine post, I did run across an article from the Autumn 1950 issue of Lasca Leaves by William Hertrich, a horticultural expert and a primary force in shaping the Huntington Gardens:

As far as the author is able to determine, there is no record available as to the exact date of the first transplanting of such palms from the native habitat for use in ornamental planting in Southern California. but the late Ernest Braunton and I gathered sufficient information to establish an approximate date in the year 1888, when there appeared on July 28th in the Los Angeles Express the following item:

“Three of the stately palm trees which graced the Saunder’s place (originally the Lugo estate) on San Pedro Street, have been purchased by the Southern Pacific to adorn its new depot site on the Wolfskill tract. The first has been successfully moved, and the other two will follow in a day or two.”

As a matter of fact, only one of the four was actually moved, the other three being transported to a location on Washington Street in 1905. [There’s a discrepancy here — Hertrich refers to four trees, while the Express clipping refers to three.] Braunton, as I recall, quoted: “W. H. Workman who came here in 1854 says they were conspicuous trees then, and he told me in 1905 he thought they were then about seventy years old.

photo (6)
Another view of the historic palm

9 thoughts on “The Story of L.A.’s Oldest Palm Tree Continues…

  1. I love how history can hide in plain sight like this, just waiting for someone to come along and put the right puzzle pieces together. Great job to everyone involved, including all those sleuths over at Noirish Los Angeles (of which I am proud to say I’m one of those sleuths!).

  2. All of the history that wandering tree has stood watch over. Amazing story and the associated links provided even more info and great photos, particularly from the LAPL Collection. The old photos of the Coliseum under construction are eerie, as if a Roman stadium had been unearthed in L.A. As a fan of L.A. history and a fellow L.A. scribe for more years than I care to recall, I’ll keep an eye on your site, Nathan, which I picked up the link to over at Kevin Roderick’s joint.

  3. Theodore Payne installed the first public garden dedicated to California native plants in Exposition Park in 1915. In an article published in the Journal of the Southern California Academy of Sciences in 1918(?…I didn’t note the date on my copy), Payne writes “The site selected for this garden was a stretch of ground covering nearly five acres, commencing at the old fan palm on Figueroa Street and running south along this street to the southern boundary of the park, then west to the grand stand, then north to the race track and from there following the circular fence of the latter back to the old fan palm. Could this be the same palm? By the way, I’ve been trying to determine when and why the wild garden was removed…haven’t found any info yet.

  4. So happy to have discovered your website link thru KCET’s webpage. i used to pass that palm everyday on the bus to school, beautiful & inspiring work. Im going to love seeing & learning from your efforts & work. THANK YOU NATHAN MASTERS…Sincerely, -just another (Los)t Angelena (:0}) finding her way…

  5. Hey Dave Johnson ^, The LA County Arboretum’s Frank McDonough says there is no scientific definition of a tree. He says a tree is a tree if it looks like a tree…

    Mr. Masters, I’m bad at math. How old is the oldest palm tree, actually? Do you have an approximate number?
    I follow you on FB. Love your research!

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