Palms look out of place

Judith De Jager, Diep River

Why the sudden fashion for palm trees in public spaces? Palms do not belong here and look out of place.

It was bad enough when they appeared along the freeway to town, then along stretches of Main Road, and then ruined the view of the Constantia Valley from the M3. Now I see Ladies’ Mile is getting the same treatment.

Yes, palms are relatively low maintenance, grow to a predictable size and their roots do not spread as far as many other trees. But these advantages can be obtained with other, local plants, which would at the same time encourage pride in our national heritage, and avoid the numerous other disadvantages of palms.

Palms are expensive, ranging from R1 000 to R5 000 a tree, not counting transport and planting costs. Palms waste water: They consume up to 1 000 litres of water daily so if you count the number being planted along the Ladies’ Mile island you can imagine the effect on our precious groundwater. Local tress drink less, though any tree drinks more than ground-level plants.

Palms are a safety hazard: they drop sharp bits, presenting a menace to pedestrians. Their fronds drop and then blow about in bad weather, causing a traffic hazard. Palms are ineffective producers of shade and coolness: They cool the surrounding air by less than 1 percent, in comparison to indigenous trees which cool the air by up to 5 percent while also providing actual shade. Use of palm trees therefore means more use of artificial cooling in cars and nearby homes, with associated energy wastage.

The Western Cape has hundreds of endemic and indigenous plants that are cheap, low maintenance, water-wise and beautiful. Only five species of palms are South African, and none occur naturally in the Cape. Take just for two indigenous examples, plectranthus and mesembryanthemums. They grow readily from cuttings, don’t mind being stood on by pedestrians, require very little water once established and offer a stunning indigenous display for many months.

If trees are essential for some reason – there must be better options? Yes there is a need to avoid excessive root spread, messy fruit and leaves that can block stormwater systems. But still why use palm trees? Surely the City of Cape Town is committed to environmental sustainability as a principle of urban planning? Palms are costly, unnecessary water-guzzlers that do not reflect our floral heritage, and in my subjective opinion, extremely ugly. World-class cities around the globe are removing palms for the very reasons explained above. We need to stop the palms, now.

Eddie Andrews, mayoral committee member for Area South, responds: The City of Cape Town is not planting palm trees along Ladies Mile – those that are in the area have been there for the past 20 years.

The only City work being done along Ladies Mile at the moment is a non-motorised transport project which relates to the construction of universally accessible walkways and cycle lanes along seven major roads in the south of the city.

Generally speaking, the City will not plant palm trees unless there is no alternative. Our policy is to plant indigenous as far as possible. However, in some suburbs, palms (especially fan palms) are the only suitable trees that would make an aesthetic impact without contributing to social challenges. In crime-ridden areas they are preferred because, apart from being wind-resistant, hardy and vandal-proof, they do not provide much shade where loiterers can congregate or dark shadows where criminals can hide at night; they cannot be scaled to gain access to boundary walls; and
they occupy a relatively small area which is suitable where space is limited such as pavements and freeway medians, etc.

With regard to the writer’s view that palms are water guzzlers, while they may consume more water than other trees, the water consumed would run off into the sea otherwise and not be of much use during a drought crisis.