Dozens of 141-year-old Sacramento palm trees are struggling to survive at the Capitol

By Nicole Nixon
Capital Public Radio
August 21, 2023

Paula Peper squinted and looked up at a line of palm trees near the California state Capitol on N Street.

“Yeah, that’s gone,” the retired urban ecologist said, pointing to a California fan palm with a crown of browning, droopy fronds.  

It’s one of several 141-year-old palm trees that Peper and other arborists believe will not survive after being transplanted during construction around the state Capitol.

The iconic palms were planted in 1882 and line the streets surrounding the Capitol like columns. California palms can live for hundreds of years and some of them at the Capitol are 75 feet tall, according to a 2020 arborist report.

Forty-three historic California and Mexican palms were transplanted earlier this summer to make room during the demolition of the Capitol Annex. The move is dangerous for such large plants, according to tree experts.

The California State Capitol Annex project underway in Sacramento, Calif, pictured Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

Peper, who spent 28 years with the U.S. Forest Service, said the very center of the top of a palm tree — called the apical meristem — indicates whether a distressed plant will survive the transplant.

“You can see the center that goes straight up. That's part of the apical meristem,” she said, pointing to a healthy-looking tree with green fronds shooting out of the top.

Peper moved her gaze further down the line of palms, where another plant had wilting fronds sprouting from its crown. “When you see that starting to fail, you know the whole tree is going to fail. Because it's the growth point.”

Many palms have gray or brown “beards” of dried leaves where the trunk meets the crown. The dozens of recent transplants have clearly had their beards trimmed, but already there are signs of distress.

“I'm concerned because even after they did the pruning, a lot of the bottom fronds are dying,” Peper said.

Trimmed before moving, palm trees that continue to have drooping fronds are a sign of bad health for the plant overall, Capitol Park in Sacramento, Calif., Aug. 8, 2023. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

The palms belonged to the city of Sacramento until earlier this year, when the City Council approved their transfer to the state.

A spokesperson for the Department of General Services, which oversees the Capitol grounds, said the agency has not been notified of any palm trees that have died since the transplant.

In 2000, 10 palm trees at the capitol were relocated, during which two of them died, said Dan Pskowski, a former city arborist who was involved with the project. In an email, Pskowski said the remaining trees required close monitoring and care for five years to ensure their survival.

“The lesson learned was moving palms around Capitol Park is risky and should not be done,” Pskowski wrote.

Both Pskowski and Peper also worry about what winter storms will mean for the historic palms still standing.

Sacramento’s silty soil causes the palms’ roots to grow straight down, rather than outward from the trunk, the tree experts said. That will mean the trees will have less stability in their new locations during storms.

“What the experts recommend is you only move every other palm in a year,” Peper said, so stable palms could be used to anchor the transplants.

“Now, of course, all of these have been moved,” she said. “If some of them are successful in growing and putting on enough new fronds this winter, the winds can be a real problem.”

Retired Urban Ecologist, Paula Peper, feels the base of a relocated palm tree with an irrigation system around it at Capitol Park in Sacramento, Calif. on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

An iconic California symbol, but not a tree

Despite being commonly referred to as trees, most palms are more closely related to grasses and orchids.

And while the tall, lithe plants are often seen as a symbol of California’s deserts and coastline, the California fan palm is only native to small portions of Southern California. Other types of palm trees — like the Mexican fan palm, which can grow up to 100 feet tall — are not native to the state.  

It’s one reason the Sacramento Tree Foundation doesn’t include palm trees on the list of recommended trees to plant in the region. Another is that other trees offer more shade and other benefits.

“It’s not to say that palms are bad or something,” said Alex Binck, a community arborist with the nonprofit organization. “It's just another type of tree is just going to be so, so, so much more beneficial” in terms of shade, cooling, and the ability to absorb pollution.

“Everything that a tree does, it kind of scales roughly by the amount of leaf surface area,” Binck said. “So, the bigger the canopy is, it's going to provide dramatically more benefit.”

In an age of warming temperatures due to climate change, other California cities including Los Angeles and San Francisco are debating the palm tree’s benefits, its place in urban ecology and whether to replace palms that die.

At the Capitol, trees that are removed or don’t survive the construction will be replaced in-kind, according to the project’s environmental report.

“The best that they’ll do” for the palm trees, Peper said, is “at most, maybe a ten foot tree.”

There’s no replacing something over a century old, she said.

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