Point Loma-OB’s palm problems continue with loss of trees at Liberty Station
Weevils that have killed countless palm trees throughout San Diego County claim several at NTC Park, adding to recent woes for the Southern California icons.
The palm tree arguably has come to be nearly as synonymous with Southern California as the Statue of Liberty is with New York City.
The decorative plants, particularly those cultivated from Mediterranean regions, have been used for hundreds of years to exude a sense of exoticism and luxury that California continues to inspire in the minds of people the world over.
In more recent months, however, the trees have become the focal point of crisis and controversy for the city of San Diego and its residents.
Heaps of debris from dead or dying palm trees at Liberty Station in Point Loma have fallen amid the gusting winds of recent storms, and other trees have been removed.
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Weevils taking a toll
A prime culprit in the loss of countless palm trees throughout San Diego County is a continuing infestation of a parasitic beetle known as the South American palm weevil. The weevils, which are native to parts of Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean, were first detected in the San Diego area in 2011 and since have been found as far north as San Marcos.
The majestic palm tree is part of San Diego’s iconography — symbolizing Southern California and the beach, the feel of a tropical paradise.
Joseph McClung, a certified arborist and pest control adviser for Davey Tree Expert Co. in San Diego, which offers tree services for residential and commercial properties, said the Canary Island species of palms “have so much meat that they attract the weevils quite a bit, both for their food source and protection. Those weevils eat the inside of the palm and they chew on the base of the fronds, so there’s nothing holding it together and they’ll keep falling.”
San Diego city spokesman Anthony Santacroce confirmed that the weevil infestation has played a direct role in the degradation and deaths of local palm trees.
“At NTC Park [at Liberty Station], we have lost multiple Canary [Island] palms,” Santacroce told the Point Loma-OB Monthly. “These palms died from the palm weevil.”
He said the city has a palm trimming program and monitors its palms for health and height.
As many as 24 trees have been removed from the Point Loma-Ocean Beach area since the start of the current fiscal year in July, Santacroce said. Eleven have been removed since Dec. 1.
“We are currently treating 73 palms with pesticides to prevent death by the South American palm weevil along Catalina Boulevard” in Point Loma, Santacroce said.
Such preventive insecticide treatments must be repeated two to four times a year indefinitely to be successful, according to Eric Middleton, an area integrated pest management adviser for the University of California system.
Middleton and others, including researchers at UC Riverside, are looking at how to trap and kill the weevils without damaging the trees and applying insecticides on an ongoing basis.
Area scientists step up studies of ways to control palm weevils that are killing La Jolla trees
Some techniques for trapping and killing the bugs have shown promise, but other methods, including importing a predator fly, are being considered.
That includes using a synthesized pheromone that mimics what male weevils put out to attract others to colonize a palm tree, Middleton told the La Jolla Light.
“Work is getting started to trap the weevil by putting this pheromone next to some insecticide, so the weevil comes to us, touches the insecticide and dies,” he said.
Another option researchers are investigating is whether a predatory fly from South America could be brought in to attack the weevils.
Still, Middleton told the Light, the weevil is “an issue we’re going to have to keep dealing with and might be here to stay.”
McClung said that of the 2,600 species of palms, Canary Island date palms like the ones at Liberty Station are particularly expensive.
“They are the largest palm trees we have in the area,” McClung told the Monthly. “They’re very expensive to install because they come out so large, so even if you get a small box from a nursery, they’re very heavy and often you would need a crane to install it, which drives up the cost. They also take quite a bit of time to grow.
“As far as taking care of them, pruning them is a hazardous job. They have obnoxious thorns along the fronds, and if you get poked by them, they have an irritant which can result in sores for a couple of days.”
Still, he said, the Canary Island palms are more sturdy than other species, such as queen or fan palms, which are more susceptible to being uprooted or snapped in extreme weather.
When the fronds of a dead or dying Canary palm drop off, they pose a potential hazard. A dried palm frond with no water weight can weigh as much as 5 pounds, McClung said, and healthier, greener fronds can weigh 7 to 10 pounds.
“With the high winds [of the recent storms], a lot of those older fronds fall off quite easily,” McClung said. “We usually see an influx of calls during this time of the year as homeowners start to notice a lot of debris on their properties.”
California’s palm tree history
The Canary Island date palm is not native to Southern California, but the area’s ecosystem, which shares many attributes with that of the Mediterranean, has made the region a hot spot for them to take root.
Washingtonia filifera, known colloquially as the California fan palm, is the only palm tree that is native to the United States — more specifically, the Colorado and Mojave deserts.
Palms from the Mediterranean, including the Canary Island date palm, were first introduced to California as early as the 18th century by Spanish missionaries as ornamentation for their biblical symbolism.
The plant was cemented as a cultural marker for California during urban development in the 20th century.
Ahead of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, a beautification project led by then-city forester L. Glenn Hall planted as many as 40,000 palms as “street trees.”
Historically, the Golden Era of Hollywood has been cited as playing a significant role in solidifying the palm tree as a California staple both in the cultural and physical landscape.
Also, California real estate developers planted the trees as a marketing tool to attract homebuyers to move West.
Liberty Station trees
When a palm tree needs to be removed, the city of San Diego will replace it with a species of leaf tree and not another palm, Santacroce said.
Discussions have begun to determine what kind of leaf trees will replace Liberty Station’s dead palms, he said.
Members of the Point Loma Association have indicated enthusiasm for working with local tree-carving artist “Tiki” Dan Bialk to use reclaimed trees from Liberty Station as material for art pieces, though no formal plans have moved forward yet.
Bialk, who carves tiki totems out of palm trees with a chain saw, expressed interest in such a project, saying he would “love to be able to carve that into a pelican or a turtle, something that everyone could appreciate.”
Other palm tree troubles
The problems with the palm trees at Liberty Station add to a series of recent complications involving such trees in the Point Loma-Ocean Beach area.
In February, San Diego announced that a local couple, John and Tracy Van De Walker, had dropped a lawsuit against the city over the removal of several palm trees in the neighborhood of Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street in Point Loma.
A local couple have dropped their lawsuit against the city of San Diego over the removal of palm trees in the Point Loma-Ocean Beach area that local and federal authorities said posed potential flight safety hazards to planes using San Diego International Airport, City Attorney Mara Elliott announced Feb. 2.
Local and federal authorities said eight trees there posed potential flight safety hazards for planes using San Diego International Airport because their height — about 70 feet — could interfere with sensitive navigation sensors that pilots rely on to fly when visibility is low.
Local residents argued that the towering trees were part of the fabric of the community, and they expressed skepticism that the palms could pose a threat to aviation safety.
The Van De Walkers, who filed their lawsuit in October 2021, alleged cutting down the trees would violate federal, state and local laws. A federal judge initially granted a restraining order against the trees’ removal but then declined to extend it, saying the Van De Walkers did not have property rights over the trees because the city owns them and the land they were standing on.
City Attorney Mara Elliott said all the trees in question have been removed.
Ocean Beach is familiar with jurisdictional battles over local palm trees. OB Town Council President Corey Bruins voiced frustration regarding correspondence with the city about palm tree removal.
“Historically the city has kept us in the dark on their tree removal plans in our area in an effort to avoid ‘activations’ by residents against the tree chopping,” Bruins said. “We’ve requested many times for them to give us a heads up, and it hasn’t happened yet. There very well may be plans to chop OB trees that I don’t know about.”