Palm Springs Explained: Why don’t they trim the palm trees?

A lovely dinner interrupted by an ominous whoosh and then a thud. A stroll down the city’s main street accompanied by shouts of “look out!” Several times a year, social media pages light up with reports like these, leaving residents and visitors alike asking the following: Why don’t they trim the palm trees in Downtown Palm Springs?

The answer to that question isn’t complicated, but it is fascinating. Below we separate fact from fiction.

The top rumor: The trees are on tribal land, and they don’t trim them

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This is partially true. Per tradition, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians leaves palm trees in their natural state for a few reasons:

  • From a 2017 edition of Me Yah Whae, the tribe’s magazine:

    • (T)he Washingtonia (also known as the California fan palm and the desert fan palm) was essential, as it provided sweet fruit to eat as well as fronds to build shelter and frond stems that could be shaped into utensils for eating and bows for hunting. Recognizable for its “skirt,” or the dried fronds that hang down the trunk, the palm served another important purpose: It alerted native people to water sources, a crucial part of survival in the desert.
  • Also from the magazine:

    • According to “Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians” by Francisco Patencio and Margaret Boynton, the Cahuilla legend of how the first palm tree came to be in the Coachella Valley involves the leaders of five Native American tribes who made their way over the San Gorgonio Pass and into the Coachella Valley, which at that time had no palm trees. One of the men, the leader of the Sungrey tribe, felt his time on Earth was coming to an end. Wanting to leave behind something to benefit his people, he announced he was going to be a palm tree and stated that his name would be Moul. As he stood straight and tall, bark began to grow around him, and leaves grew from the top of his head until he had fully transformed into a palm tree.

You can find the rest of the story of Moul here, including a beautiful image by Stuart Funk.

While it’s true that much of the land in Palm Springs belongs to the tribe, and palm trees on that land are kept in their natural state, the trees that line Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon drives belong to the city. In fact, according to a spokesperson, city crews maintain roughly 6,000 palm trees (Washingtonia robusta, Washingtonia filifera, and hybrids) on our streets, of which 1,700 have skirts.

So why doesn’t the city trim the trees?

The answer to this dates back to May 6, 2009, when the city adopted Resolution No. 22475. The city proclaimed the following:

  • All California fan palms and Mexican fan palms located within the public right of way shall have the fruit pods removed.
  • California fan palms located within the public right of way shall not have fronds removed and shall retain their “skirts,” and their trunks shall not be skinned. Their fronds shall be sheared to provide 12 feet minimum clearance and fronds at the skirt bottom shall be sheared to maintain a clean look.
  • Mexican fan palms within the public right of way shall have their dry fronds removed and their trunks shall be skinned.

Basically, city leaders recognized the significance of keeping the California fan palms in their natural state, but did allow some trimming at the bottom of the skirt.

This palm tree skirt came crashing down earlier this month, damaging a vehicle. (Photo courtesy Nicola Cadwell)

Rumor No. 2: Somebody’s going to die when a skirt falls on them

Skirts do fall. There’s no question about that. But while they can cause injury (mostly cuts and scrapes) and damage to vehicles parked underneath, it’s unlikely they carry enough weight to crush a person — even a young or elderly person — to death. While people in the city have perished when trees of all kinds fell on them, The Post could find no evidence a collapsing palm tree skirt was a cause of death in the city. Our contacts at the city couldn’t remember one either. If you know of such a death, and can point to evidence and not just social media chatter, please reach out.

There have been cases of asphyxiation associated with palm tree skirts, as this 2006 LA Times article shows. Still, the most likely way to die involving a palm tree is actually by falling while trying to trim the fronds. Trimming is dangerous work undertaken by scores of landscapers each year in the Coachella Valley.

While you might not die or be injured, it’s still pretty frightening when a skirt falls. Just ask Nicola Cadwell.

“We walk down Palm Canyon a lot and we have in the past seen the odd frond blow off from a skirt in high winds and been thankful no one was near it, but we’ve not seen this level of fall before,” Cadwell wrote, explaining the picture seen above that she snapped while she and her husband were dining downtown April 18.

“It was amazing to see … all of a sudden a huge circumference of the tree fronds just fell all at once, the whoosh sound it made sounded like the first few seconds of when a building is purposefully blown up to demolish it, not the blast noise but the first whoosh when it starts to fall in on itself, not the same volume but the same noise.”

What if a city tree hurts me or my property?

If you’re injured, or your property is damaged by a palm tree skirt or anything else that involves the city or a city employee, chances are your insurance company will try to recoup some of its payout to you by filing a claim with the city. Not working with an insurance company? You can file a claim yourself via this online form.

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