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Another Day in Paradise: Palm Trees on the Bridge? What Could Go Wrong?



What do you get for the billions-over-budget, years-behind-schedule bridge that has everything?

Palm trees, naturally.

A phalanx of hulking Canary Island Date Palms was last month installed on the eastern portion of the new Bay Bridge. These run $15,000 a pop, and are part of a $900,000 splurge for landscaping on the bridge.

Sans palm trees, perhaps, daily commuters might forget they were in California.

A grove of arborists contacted by SF Weekly described this move as "hubristic" and "crazy," among other ominous adjectives. But it was agreed that, if you absolutely had to put trees on a bridge, you could certainly do worse than the Canary Island Date Palm. These trees almost definitely won't blow over. They're majestic. "They look really good," says Christopher Altman of Trees Company.

But they possess a menagerie of undesirable traits — especially for an installation only yards away from traffic. These "are very messy trees," says Brian Baker, district manager for Davey Tree Company. They don't do spectacularly well in moist, windy areas — and they're now sprouting out of a bridge constantly buffeted by sea winds. As anyone who's done time in Los Angeles can attest, the sight of palm fronds littering the street is hardly uncommon. The fronds on these trees can reach 12 feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds.

Also: These are date palms, so they tend to drop nasty little inedible dates everywhere. These attract vermin — which likely won't be a problem on the bridge. Dates could draw birds, however. And birds have a tendency to drop nasty little inedible objects everywhere, too.

Canary Island Date Palms, furthermore, are fussy. Soil, says Bartlett Tree Experts arborist Juan Carrasco, must be fastidiously maintained at the slightly acidic pH of 6.5 to 6.8, and frequently monitored for potassium, manganese, magnesium, and calcium levels. And, on top of everything, these trees are susceptible to a highly communicable fungal disease that has slain a number of Canary Island Date Palms in San Francisco. "That's a big red flag: planting this tree when there's a well-known lethal disease in the area," says Drew Zwart, a plant pathologist in Bartlett's tree research lab. "It makes one scratch their head a little bit. But that tree really does scream 'California.'"

There might be lots of screaming, however, if the palms are stricken with the rare condition "sudden crown drop" — in which a massive, outwardly healthy tree does just what you think it would do.

In short, Canary Island Date Palms are rather high-maintenance. But, arborists agree, if properly and thoroughly looked after, everything should work out, and your commute shouldn't be inconvenienced by an avalanche of palm detritus.

Perhaps it'll go according to plan. After all, with this bridge, something has to.

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