A TREE GROWS IN PHOENIX
If you're driving back into Phoenix from a trip to San Diego, somewhere along I-10, after brain-numbing miles of creosote, you will realize subconsciously that you are getting close to home because you will begin to notice palm trees sprinkled here and there. You'll see little groups of them planted around isolated houses, like the trees the pioneers planted around their homesteads in Nebraska, proof that they were domesticating that wild land.
Palm trees look peculiar in the desert. There are plenty of palm trees in the city of Phoenix, of course, hundreds of thousands of them. They are as much a part of the city as canals, Mexican restaurants, golf courses and traffic accidents. They are background music. Folks hardly give them a second thought, except when a city administration cuts them down on Central Avenue. It's only when you see them on the outskirts of town, looking decidedly out of their element, that you begin to wonder how palm trees got here, and once they got here, what they've been doing since.
The palm trees of Phoenix are not the gracefully swaying species of the postcards from the Caribbean. Local members of the family Palmaceae tend to be squat, trees that would hold their own in encounters with pickup trucks, but not trees that inspire dreams of chucking it all and becoming a beachcomber. Palm trees are not really good at giving shade. They become a positive nuisance in November when they drop black fruit on the sidewalk and make an unpleasant mess. One species grows a bushy and unattractive skirt of dead palm fronds that hangs in silent witness to one's lack of interest in yard work. This mass of dead foliage can tempt nasty children with matches. (It's happened.) This species of landscaping can also get hit by lightning, catch fire--no problem!--and burn your house down. On the other hand, you can't chop a palm tree down and use it for firewood. You can't get orange juice from it. You can't have fun climbing a palm tree. No footholds. Clearly, the palm tree did not insinuate itself into every neighborhood in Phoenix by selling its utilitarian value. The palm trees of Phoenix are symbols. You can figure this out by looking at the sign in the rear window of a pickup truck headed downtown on the Squaw Peak Parkway one workday morning.
"Lazy Lifestyles, Jay and Diane," the sign says, and there is a picture of a palm tree beside those words. The Dos Flamingos restaurant in Scottsdale features huge, metal palm trees as elements of its decor. And the owners of the Scottsdale Galleria felt so deeply about palm trees, they spent $8,000 apiece for eight artificial ones. (Check it out! They're Styrofoam!)
Palm trees seem to pop up whenever someone wants to let you know you're having a good time. As anyone who has ever received a postcard knows, palm trees are a symbol of vacation. They indicate "earthly paradise." The palm trees of Phoenix tell us we are living in heaven, or at least, that we are all here on a sort of permanent vacation, even if we are heading downtown on the Squaw Peak Parkway for another day and another dollar.
They are an indication that, finally, goddamnit, we are having fun.
@body:The first palm tree in Phoenix was said to have been a tourist attraction. "The tree was photographed by every winter visitor who came to Phoenix until it adorned Kodak collections in all parts of the United States and many parts of Europe," bragged an article about it. Clara Evans' palm tree grew from seeds brought from the Sandwich Islands in 1879 by Judge Alexander D. Lemon, and planted in her yard at 234 West Monroe, a site now frequented only by tourists who are lost, since it contains the parking lot of the First American Title building. Palm trees were something folks in Phoenix, newcomers and winter visitors, bragged about to the chilly unfortunates back home. A picture in the Arizona Graphic of December 23, 1899, shows a smug gentleman sitting under palm trees with an exotic drink and a watermelon on a table in front of him. "Merry Christmas, Phoenix, Arizona," reads a hand-lettered sign.
The precursor of Walgreen's photo Christmas card, this homemade special served the same purpose: to show the recipient how much better the sender's life is than his own. "Better" in this case translates roughly to, "You don't have to shovel sunshine."
Local mythology, however, has ignored Clara Evans and credited the first palm trees in Phoenix to Dwight Heard, he of the museum fame. Folks at the museum get a little tired of denying the story, but there is a kernel of truth to it. Dwight Heard, in addition to collecting Indian art, was a developer. He platted and sold the Los Olivos neighborhood downtown, one of whose selling points was its streets lined with palm trees.
So important were palms to the Heards, they came in for specific mention at Maie Bartlett Heard's funeral in 1951: "Early in their residence here, believing in the great possibilities of reclaiming the desert and of making the town and the valley more beautiful, they began to set out palm trees, lots of them, at their home. . . ."
Dwight Heard's home stood just behind where the C&W Rainbow Market stands, at the intersection of Broadway and 24th Street. The area is presided over today by a group of cheerful fellows who introduce themselves as winos and will give the casual visitor a guided tour in return for pocket change. "It used to look like a big motel," one offers helpfully, spurred by the suggestion that there may once have been a building standing on the spot, and he may have a recollection of it.
"It's an old Indian burial ground," another ventures, topping his pal's response to visitor interest.
An older gentleman with glasses, one Chester, has loitered on the corner of Broadway and 24th for 40 years and leads the tour to the old mansion site.
"I used to live under these trees," he explains, as he walks between the rows of palms that line the entrance drive to the Heards' house. More palms, arranged in a rough rectangle, indicate where the mansion used to stand, on a lot now overgrown with weeds and littered with broken glass. A woman staggers under the trees of Chester's old homestead.
The trees are pretty much of the leafless variety, indistinguishable from telephone poles. Palm trees look particularly pathetic when all their fronds fall out.
Chester is glad to have been of help.
@body:Since Phoenix is now largely covered with golf courses, it's surprising to discover palm trees once made the Valley one of the premier date-growing areas of the United States.
A footnote in the history of Arizona agriculture, dates never rivaled cotton, copper, cattle or citrus, since most Americans probably average one-half of a date every year, during the annual holiday visit to Aunt Mildred's house. The other half of the date is generally slipped quietly into the napkin.
In the late 19th century, however, hopes were high. Seedlings were planted here in the Salt River Valley, as well as around Yuma, in California's Coachella Valley and in New Mexico. By the 1920s, 500 acres of dates were under cultivation around Phoenix. There was a grove at 51st Avenue and Northern. There were groves in Mesa and Tempe. There was a grove at 47th Street and Lafayette. That's where the Sphinx Date Ranch got started. Although the ranch once had acreage under cultivation in the city, Sphinx's groves are now in places less tempting to golf-course developers, like Buckeye and Yuma. Its local presence has been reduced to a gift shop offering boxes of dates and the inevitable cactus jelly, while doing most of its business at Christmas. The Sphinx Date Ranch's retail outlet smacks of yesteryear in that it still looks like a roadside attraction, although the road it's beside is Scottsdale Road, and its neighbors are minimalls.
The Sphinx Date Ranch is presided over these days by a refugee from Minnesota named Rich Heetland, who has curly hair, blue eyes and a complete inability to give voice to any negative thoughts about the future of the date business. He will go so far as to say date milk shakes are "addicting."
Heetland has much of the information about Phoenix dates in his head, and the rest in newspaper clippings hung on his wall. The date business in Phoenix was excellent through World War II, which cut off foreign competition. Then the bottom fell out. The postwar boom made possible by air conditioning turned date groves into housing developments. The grove at Lafayette and 47th Street became the Arcadia neighborhood, for instance, and places like the Sphinx Date Ranch became colorful remnants. Heetland can suggest another colorful remnant in the person of Harry Polk, the only man who harvests dates commercially in Phoenix.
A former philosophy major at ASU, a former hippie living in the desert and a former member of an ashram, Polk is a round-faced chap who spends his life climbing up palm trees on a large ladder.
If you live in Arcadia, you probably know him and the deal he offers, which is either $50 to $100 cash per tree for the privilege of harvesting your crop, or 10 to 15 pounds of dates. Most folks take the cash. No one outside of the Saudi Arabian royal family eats ten pounds of dates a year. Harvesting dates involves more than just picking the fruit when it's ripe. It also involves assisting the trees in fertilization, a process which palm trees perform both lackadaisically and incompletely when depending only on wind, time and chance. During April, when Polk is collecting pollen from male trees and shaking it all over female trees, a hay-fever sufferer can get an attack just by looking at him.
Holding a machete and a green plastic garbage sack, Polk hauls himself up a tree and balances himself 20 feet above the ground on two insubstantial-looking but apparently quite muscular fronds. With the machete, he trims away about half the female flowers, which grow in big bunches. That's so the ripening dates will have plenty of room to get fat and juicy. Then he tosses a bunch of male pollen over the remaining flowers.
"Yeah. No foreplay," he says with a laugh.
@body:Maybe the most colorful of the colorful remnants of the date industry in Arizona is the community of Dateland, located between Yuma and Gila Bend off I-8, out of the reach of almost everything except a couple of radio stations from Mexico. It's well worth a day trip. Try the Mexican food. Ask at the restaurant how to get to the Horn Monument, which commemorates seven soldiers in Patton's army killed on maneuvers there during World War II.
Dateland used to be a roadside attraction before I-8 replaced U.S. 80. Under new ownership since last year and now managed by Paul Whipple, who introduces himself as "Mr. Whipple" and describes himself as "the ugly fat guy in the restaurant," Dateland is changing its image from tourist trap to travel center. A motel. Diesel fuel. Advertisements on late-night truckers' radio. That sort of thing. They ran out of dates a month ago, and don't care.
Some 500 souls live in Dateland, almost all of them farmworkers who harvest the grapes, lettuce, cotton and other crops, so that although the number stays the same, the faces change. Paul Whipple has very little good to say about the Border Patrol or the U.S. government in general, and thinks being out of range of television and three days behind on newspapers is as close to heaven as a man can get. He would, however, like to spread the word about the chile rellenos in the restaurant. He claims they are the best in the United States. (They're not bad.)
They're made by Ismael Vargas' mother. She used to have a restaurant in Durango. Ismael takes care of the palm trees, which had become quite sickly under the old ownership. He is lavishing love and care on the trees to increase their health and productivity. He would even like to plant more. This is the love of a man for living things; it has nothing to do with Paul Whipple's travel-center plans, which severely shortchange dates. Despite having turned the curio shop into a convenience store where the local folks can rent videos of Mexican movies, Paul Whipple is still forced by popular demand to sell date milk shakes.
"I had one date milk shake when I got here and I will probably never have another," he says, sounding unlike a man in the throes of addiction. Date milk shakes taste as you would imagine: a perfectly good vanilla milk shake mucked up with pieces of old, dried-up brown fruit that would taste a lot better in, say, a nut bread. @rule:
@body:Elaine Joyal keeps track of botanical specimens at Arizona State University, and can tell you how many kinds of palm trees there are in the world, and make it sound interesting. She is the kind of nonstuffy scientist who will describe one species she doesn't recognize as "a cute little palm tree." Just now she is standing on the desk in the tiny office she shares with two other graduate students, grabbing down some hats and bags fashioned from palm trees. She is wearing olive-drab shorts and a shirt with a leaf pattern, which seems highly appropriate.
Joyal is a botanist, but she's interested in the uses to which human beings have put plants like palm trees. This means she has to do her field work in little towns in Sonora, traveling scenic back roads buying hats from peasants. Oh, the onerous demands of academe. Contrary to what one has imagined, she explains gently, palm trees are native to Arizona. Although they didn't grow in Phoenix until folks planted them, they did grow as close as Palm Canyon in the Kofa Mountains south of Quartzsite. That's the state's most famous native stand of palms. There's another stand of palm trees in a canyon near Castle Hot Springs that may be native; the argument continues.
The native species in both these canyons is Washingtonia filifera--California fan palm in English--and is the squat, dumpy one with the big, shaggy skirt. Some excellent examples of Washingtonia filifera with intact skirts are viewed daily by thousands of commuters stalled in traffic at the eastbound exit to the Hohokam from the Maricopa Freeway. Hopping off her desk, Joyal leads the way down a hall and stops in front of a floor-level window that gives out on an interior courtyard in the life-sciences building. In the courtyard stands another fully skirted Washingtonia filifera, into which birds are flying. The skirts are great places for wildlife to hide, including snakes, scorpions and all kinds of spiders.
"That's what a palm would look like in a natural oasis," Joyal says. "Most palms are in wet areas. The few palms that are native to arid regions grow in the wet sites. Usually you only find them in drainages."
Joyal remembers the first time she saw Arizona's native palm treesin the Kofas. "I was doing collecting for another project and I remember looking over and seeing them and thinking, 'Are those palm trees?'" The palm trees in the Kofas, and similar palm trees in similar canyons around Palm Springs, used to emulate movie images and stand along a shoreline. That was some time ago, geologically speaking, when a large body of water called Lake Cahuilla occupied much of Southern California. When the lake disappeared, the palm trees were stranded, and fled to the canyons. They huddle at the canyon bottoms, California author Kevin Starr writes, "like soldiers waiting to go over the top."
The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California, like the Sonoran villagers Joyal is studying, traditionally used the palm trees for just about everything. Now, the Cahuillas are some of the richest people in Palm Springs, having gotten in on real estate back in the 50s. The Cahuillas have just bought the Spa hotel and are rumored to be contemplating gambling, but back in the old days, they lived a little closer to the land. They made houses out of palm wood and roofs out of fronds. They ate the fruit of the palm trees. They made baskets out of them. Every few years, the Indians would burn the trees in the oases to get rid of the shaggy palm skirts. It didn't hurt the trees; in fact, it made them bear more fruit.
"The palm was to the Desert Cahuilla what the bison was to the Sioux," writes Gary Nabhan, a nice comparison, although palm trees tend not to thunder with the same rumbling magnificence across the Plains.
The palm trees of the Kofas were a popular story for Arizona Highways after they were discovered in 1923. At that time, U.S. 95 going south from Quartzsite was unpaved, and the eight miles from the road to the foot of the mountains had to be bushwhacked. The magazine helpfully printed a photo of the mountains with the proper canyon opening marked, so readers could find the interesting trees. Today, signs direct you toward the turnoff, the eight-mile track is graveled and graded, there's a roomy parking lot and even a helpful brochure telling you how to find the trees. The going up the canyon is rough, blocked by big boulders, sticky spider webs and the thought of rattlesnakes. It's puffy going, so you forget to keep turning to your left to look for the side canyon with the palm trees. Then you see them.
It's a Saturday morning and no one else is around. The canyon is quiet except for the birds. Just the tops of the trees are visible. They look like children, hiding there quietly. There's something touching about seeing palm trees in their natural habitat.
"We hope your walk into Palm Canyon was a satisfying experience," the brochure reads.
Thank you. It was.
@body:Despite the fact that palm trees are a native desert species, Washingtonia filifera is an arbor non grata at Desert Botanical Garden, a policy that director Robert Breunig gets a little defensive over. "People make suppositions about what I think about palm trees," he says, apparently imagining that most people in Phoenix take a strong stand on the palm-trees-at-the-Botanical-Garden question. He is personally quite fond of palm trees. In fact, he has a palm tree in his front lawn. He was going to chop it down, but then the thought that it was a living thing stayed his hand. But he doesn't want palm trees in his botanical garden because, native or no, they look pretty dorky standing cheek by jowl with Sonoran desert species like saguaro and lechuguilla. Besides, they attract pigeons, known to bird watchers as "flying rats." So while Washingtonia filifera is a desert species, not even a botanical-garden director associates it with sand and camels. "Palm trees are not evoking the desert, they're evoking Southern California," says Roger Brevoort, who works for the city in historic preservation and is quite at home talking about the symbolism of trees and architecture. As everyone knows, Phoenix is a suburb of Los Angeles. Phoenix would like to be Los Angeles. If you want to know about palm trees, look west.
Palm trees figure in the work of a number of artists associated with Los Angeles, like Ed Ruscha, who published a whole book of photographs of palm trees, listing the street address of each. Ruscha also published similar books showing pictures of gas stations and parking lots in Los Angeles, which tells you his view of the city.
David Hockney painted palm trees in Los Angeles, too, although his tend to stand next to swimming pools. This last tip comes from Bruce Kurtz, curator of 20th-century art at Phoenix Art Museum, and a man who seems to spend a lot of time wishing he were in Los Angeles. "Hockney was a transplanted Briton who came to Hollywood because he was infatuated with the whole myth," Kurtz says. "He used California to mean Eden."
Phoenix's palm trees, he says, evoke a similar resort mentality. "Palm trees means it's warm enough so you can take all your clothes off outside," Kurtz says. "You're on vacation."
The association of palm trees with vacations is not a God-given one, such as the association of haste and waste, ice cream and happiness or impulsiveness and pregnancy. In fact, vacations are a fairly recent invention, having to wait upon the invention of the middle class and the work week.
The first place where folks went to take vacations and get warm, says James Haug, was Nice on the French Riviera. "It all began there," he says by telephone from his office at Mississippi State University, where he teaches. The rush to the Riviera began in the 18th century with a couple of British noblemen, but tourism got serious after 1860, and made Nice one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe.
In his Leisure and Urbanism in Nineteenth-Century Nice, Haug describes the famous resort: a formerly sleepy little town that experienced a boom because of tourism; an energetic local newspaper that encouraged "visitors, more visitors, and still more visitors"; a population of conservative locals; and a yearly influx of more cosmopolitan visitors, called "hivernants," roughly translatable to "snowbirds." To make things nice for the winter visitors, the city fathers of Nice built a lovely boulevard along the Mediterranean, named it the Promenade des Anglais as a nod to their English visitors and lined it with palm trees.
"They began casting around for devices to make the city seem exotic," says Haug. "The Promenade des Anglais consciously creates the idea of a tropical setting. You're leaving the cold behind and coming to a location that's different from anyplace you've been before."
Bill Myers was hoping to evoke something similar to what the businessmen of Nice were trying to evoke, albeit on a less ambitious scale, when he planted 185 palm trees at his trailer park in Tonopah. "I've always liked palm trees," he says. "I came here from the Midwest. Palm trees create a landmark people remember."
Another Midwesterner who became fascinated by palm trees is Jim Jacob, an artist and an associate dean at the University of New Mexico. He was very disappointed when he arrived in Albuquerque to find no palm trees, so he rushed off to Los Angeles to have a look at some. That led to the incorporation of palm trees in his paintings for a number of years, and to his collecting hundreds of palm-tree tchotchkes, mostly tacky postcards and items made of ceramic. "Phoenix is a baffling place," he says, recalling a visit here. "The city has no relationship to the landscape. I remember seeing green lawns with palm trees. With the lawn, people were keeping one foot where they came from, but they'd have palm trees, too, so they'd have paradise."
@body:In 1949, a religious group in Canada had a revelation. They were to sell their belongings, live communally and follow heavenly advice concerning diet and apparel. They were to move to a new location.
"We were shown the name 'Agua Caliente' in letters of fire," says Elect Star, a gray-haired woman who appears to be in her early 60s. She is wearing the white dress with a yellow band, the red vest, and, because she's working, the blue apron that is the uniform for female members of the Children of the Light.
After a number of years of looking at a variety of Agua Calientes, the group came upon the one located not far from Dateland on the north side of the Gila River. There's an old tourist hotel there, where people used to come to take the waters, and the Children of the Light stayed there for a while.
Then they moved into the buildings they occupy today a short distance away. The Children number only ten now, and most are in advanced years. Still, a casual visitor knocking on the door will be greeted warmly, asked to sign the guest book and invited for the afternoon snack.
And presented with a gift of dates upon departure.
Another part of the Children's revelation had to do with palm trees.
"We were definitely shown palm trees," says Elect Star. The group harvests eight different kinds of dates from 136 trees.
"Palm trees are very significant and very important," Elect Star says. She grabs a Bible and looks for the passage. "It talks about their being long-lived and upright."
@body:If you're driving back to Phoenix from a long weekend in the White Mountains, the first palm trees you see--somewhere along Shea Boulevard--do not evoke thoughts of heaven. Heaven? Phoenix is the largest desert city in the world. It is the state capital. It has a university, and professional football and basketball teams. It has freeways with traffic jams clogging them. It has two million people, many of whom have to work for a living.
So if it's summertime, and it's Sunday night, and you have just driven the Salt River Canyon and then the Beeline, and you have to go to work in the morning, the palm trees lining the streets of Phoenix don't evoke thoughts of heaven. Actually, they look more like landscaping around the entrance to the inferno, the promenade to the gates of hell.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
Thu., Dec. 10, 6:25pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona