Please see: Neighborhood News San Diego San Diego City Council finds funds to trim palm trees: Over $250,000 appropriated

Some palms, especially the most common, as well as a lot of common trees, are not only extremely expensive to maintain properly, many are in such bad condition that they are a danger to life, limb, and property.

But it's always politically wise to back tree-planting; it's like motherhood--you can't afford to oppose it. The legacy of high maintenance costs and hazard potential that indiscriminate tree planting imposes upon the future, is either never mentioned or is hushed up or ignored (or outvoted) when it is—often amidst emotional storms of protest.

While a quarter-million dollars may seem a paltry sum to have 7,500 palms "trimmed," bear in mind that that is only for the sawing off a few fronds and hauling them off to the landfill. The frond bases, some with very stout spines, are left in place to fall when they will, often in very large quantities at once. They can be dangerous too. The frond bases were not left attached when the City's highly professional tree crews used to be responsible for street tree and park maintenance. All it took to remove them was a single swipe with a linoleum-knife or similar instrument another few minutes per palm.

While it is true that falling fronds, especially from the most widely planted Mexican Fan Palm, can be dangerous, many palms and other trees are in such poor condition that they are in serious danger of toppling or breaking. Since palms weigh tons, whatever is in their way will be flattened. Apparently the money for removing the dangerous palms and trees is either tight or non-existent, and is usually done on an emergency basis, such as when the amount of lean has dramatically increased enough to alarm someone with enough common sense to recognize the danger, but this can put the tree crews at risk of injury or death.

The last time I checked, we have an excellent Urban Forester, but he was not mentioned in David Batterson's January 29, 2013 report (cited above). Odd, that. I'm sure that he is aware of most of the potentially hazardous palms and trees in the City's rights-of-way and parks, and I'm sure that he does his best to protect the public. I'll also bet that has a file full of complaints and that most of his reports fall on deaf ears. (Yes, I am just guessing.)

But no one person can be aware of all the obviously hazardous trees and palms on all City property. Not all trees and palms provide any warning before they shed fronds, branches, or fall over.

But you can help your Urban Forester make your neighborhood and city a safer place by reporting some of the most common symptoms. Here are some that do not require more than common sense to recognize:

  1. Size. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. What goes up must come down eventually. Not all big trees necessarily need to be removed, but they can cost thousands of dollars to maintain, and may still come down.

  2. Lean. Leaning trees and palms are on their way over, and are, by definition, exceedingly dangerous. Trees and palms that form a curve in their lean are not necessarily highly hazardous, but bear in mind that trees and palms, absent some external influence like trade winds or interfering structures and other trees, naturally grow straight up (side branches do not always count—trees have different natural habits of growth). But if you see a palm that is leaning from the ground and is straight, not curved, the area in the direction of the lean (some palms and trees sometimes twist as they fall, so may or may not end up on the ground (or your head or your car) exactly under the direction of lean).

  3. Exposed roots or cracks in the ground or pavement or other structures, sometimes radiating from the trunk of the tree (palms give no such warning—the lean is all you get). The reason the roots become exposed is often due to the increasing girth of the roots, which is commonly caused by a hard geologic formation near the ground surface. This is common on most of the “mesas” of San Diego, including Balboa Park. The tree is being literally pushed out of the ground by its own roots. NOTE: ALL ROOT –PRUNING WEAKENS THE TREE. This is NOT good tree-management practice. With few exceptions, new roots do not form from structural roots near the base of the tree (palms, however, can form new roots from the base of the “trunk,” but their roots are so small that they rarely, if ever, need pruning. Raising the grade around the trunk of palms can sometimes cause new roots to form, and can be one way of stabilizing a potential “leaner.” However, once the palm is leaning, trying to stabilize one in this manner is often fruitless, and can lead one down the garden path, so to speak, and the palm will fall over anyway.

  4. Poor health. This may be the most difficult for the untrained eye to see, but palms with stunted tops and trunks of uneven diameter are probably visible enough for anyone who cares to really look critically at them to tell from strong, healthy, very green fronds/leaves and thick, slightly but continuously tapered trunks all the way to the top.

The history of property damage, misery, injury, and death from falling fronds, limbs, and trees is, depending upon whether you are a victim or a spectator, not all that frequent. A lot of this phenomenon is due to the professionalism of our Urban Forester and his unsung heroes who do risk life and limb doing tree work. You may owe your life to such people. But they can’t get all the help that they need to bring San Diego’s Streets and Parks up to the standard of safety that they would like. Almost any street has trees that will fall if we don’t catch them before they do. In the meantime, damage to sidewalks, retaining walls, and even buildings can cause serious trouble. Broken and heaved sidewalks pose a significant tripping hazard, and can be a barrier to wheelchairs, walkers, and other hazards to the disabled and infirm. We, the taxpayers, must pay when claims are paid and lawsuits filed in cases of damage, injury, and death are cause directly or indirectly by hazardous trees, and those who petition effectively to prevent corrective work from being done should (perhaps when pigs fly) compensate us (the City) for our/its losses, including staff time and lost productivity that results. Ambulance-chasers, ARISE!

The Urban Forester is like an Army doctor—he must “triage” the trees, taking the most dangerous one out first, then moving down the scale to those with clear, if not immediate potential for falling. The shallow soils around much of San Diego are simply not tree country. Where the thin soils are just deep enough, some palms are probably a pretty good choice. The Mexican Fan Palms are cheap and fast-growing, but the Queen and King palms, for example, and many others that are quite beautiful are superior choices. There are also many beautiful trees that can be grown in such places, such as red-flowering eucalyptus (not the sugar gums that are so prone to breakage and falling), and the peppermint tree, both from Australia, and even our native oaks in some places. Before planting any tree, the site should be checked for soil depth and the tree for the potential girth of its roots. Any tree that has been planted is like adopting a pet—you are committed to its proper care for the rest of its life. Dogs and cats may or may not outlive us, but most trees almost certainly will. That means that trees become the responsibility of the community, which must either care for them properly, or humanely dispose of them before they kill some of (usually the innocent).


Twister Jan. 31, 2013 @ 1:29 p.m.

To the Moderator:

I must have broken some rule, but I don't know which one. I posted a clarification yesterday, and it has been removed. What did I do that was so wrong? I don't have a copy, so if I am to edit the content, I will have to re-write it. It would be nice to get an email about such actions, and to include the offending text.


dwbat Jan. 31, 2013 @ 8:27 p.m.

Quite an interesting article. I learned a LOT about palm (and other) trees. I had requested information from the City's Risk Management department, asking about what claims and/or lawsuits they had last year, if any, from falling fronds. The department passed on my request to the City Clerk as a California Public Records Act Request. That means that calendar pages will flutter in the breeze while I'm waiting. News reporting doesn't wait for such requests; the Reader is NOT a monthly magazine. I had hoped the Mayor's new pledge of "transparency" and "open government" would speed up media requests for information. Next time I should call Donna Frye (Director of Open Government) for assistance. I assumed Risk Management had a database of claims, and could simply do a search for "fronds" and perhaps find something.


Twister Jan. 31, 2013 @ 10:08 p.m.

dwbat, I have posted additional material to your article, which supplements my remarks here. All readers of my article should visit yours frequently if they want more information than I have presented here, so should see all of the comments at .


Twister Jan. 31, 2013 @ 10:34 p.m.

dwbat, I hope you have broken the spell that I referred to in my one successful post (out of three) to the moderator above. I will now try to remember what I tried to post first. I believe I said that I did not intend to leave the impression that I believed that the falling frond-bases would cause GREAT bodily injury or damage, but they can cause “minor” injuries, especially to children. Sometimes the recurved spines that line the frond’s “stem” can be retained, depending upon how closely the fronds are cut off (it would be interesting to see the specifications for palm-trimming), and could cause a nasty, painful cut or scratch. Not all such injuries end up being so minor as they appear, however, as such cuts can become infected (keep tetanus shots up to date). Rats find the fruit and the cover quite attractive, and can sometimes be seen running up and down the trunks with great ease. They like the palm fibers for nest material (so do some birds, for that matter, but there is no shortage of nest material. Admittedly, I am most interested in the most dangerous aspects of urban tree management and mismanagement.


dwbat Feb. 1, 2013 @ 10:49 a.m.

I see the City Council will vote Tuesday to "Apply for a 2012/2013 CAL FIRE Urban & Community Forestry Program Grant of $75,000 to prepare an Urban Forest Management Plan for the City of San Diego. Accept and expend those funds and allocate $25,000 matching funds from the General Fund for the project." It's ADOPTION AGENDA, CONSENT ITEMS, Item-100.


Twister Feb. 1, 2013 @ 1:57 p.m.

A pilot Urban Forest Management Program was done in-house, using "free" interns and a little staff time for training around 1971. The administration at the time did not like the idea and apparently no trace of it remains (e.g., maps depicting the location of each tree, herbarium specimens, dbh, height, and condition). I presume the herbarium specimens are still in the Natural History Museum, but am not sure. A major purpose was to assess tree heath and conditions, especially with respect to public safety and cost of management.

Let's hope that something even better comes out of spending 75k on another one, but it will be interesting to see what is actually produced.


dwbat Feb. 2, 2013 @ 9:49 p.m.

It's not surprising that the "administration" opposed the idea. Wasn't that Pete Wilson?


Twister Feb. 3, 2013 @ 6:53 p.m.

If memory serves correctly, yes. But it never even got close to him; superintendent-level people killed it.

BTW, I remember sitting right under him while he was giving a public speech; he was so tense his chin was trembling. I suspect that his portrait's nose kept getting longer too.


dwbat Feb. 4, 2013 @ 7:55 p.m.


I searched and was able to find a photo someone shot on that occasion!


Twister Feb. 6, 2013 @ 3:59 p.m.

dwbat, it appears that we are the only ones who care about this subject, but at least our reports will be around for a while if someone happens to be searching. Did you get in touch with Frye?


dwbat Feb. 6, 2013 @ 6:11 p.m.

I didn't contact Frye, but I will next time I ask a city dept. for information of a public nature, and get stonewalled or referred to the City Clerk's office (where such requests move like molasses going uphill in Vermont in the winter).


Twister Sept. 22, 2013 @ 12:54 a.m.


Have you had any luck getting the information you wanted? The rain season's coming, and palms and other trees will be breaking and falling. The database should reveal at what rate breaks and falls occur over time, how much property damage, and how many injuries and deaths. Yes, deaths are "infrequent," but even those few have been largely unnecessary. Without such data, how can the City possibly manage its trees responsibly. How many street trees and trees in parks and other public property are there and what is the state or condition of them? The policy seems to be based on the fact that "God" is responsible, which has to be the most arrogant cop-out of all time. Yet, it persists--IN OUR LEGAL SYSTEM!


dwbat Sept. 23, 2013 @ 12:33 p.m.

I haven't followed up on that, as I've moved on to other stories.


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