Don’t hate, the purple tree will save us all
For a few particularly grey weeks of spring, the lavender blossoms of jacaranda trees are everywhere you go, a parade of pastel fireworks exploding along Los Angeles’s streets. You not only see them, you hear them, too, as their rubbery petals render sidewalks squeaky and produce that satisfying snap under bike tires.
Yet after the flowers fade, after their annual brush with fame, the showy celebrities become unremarkable nobodies, their fern-like foliage fading back into the canopy, quietly providing shade and shelter.
I am not here to convince you of the jacaranda’s aesthetic merits nor of its place in Southern California culture—for fine coverage of both those topics, please read Julia Wick’s elegant jacaranda appraisal at LAist.
I am here to tell you that the jacaranda is the future.
The city has lost a shocking number of trees over the last decade, according to a group of USC professors from the Spatial Sciences Institute and Urban Wildlands Group who used aerial imagery to track the de-greening of LA. Their study, published in Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, showed an astonishing decrease in tree cover in certain neighborhoods, a correlation which paralleled with increased development on single-family lots.
McMansions in particular, with their widened driveways and lot line-to-lot line construction, are eliminating LA’s trees at an alarming rate, something we noted back in 2015.
Then there is the havoc that water scarcity has wrought upon LA—the city estimates we lost 14,000 trees just in parks due to the drought. And that doesn’t even count all the street trees that died because people who killed their lawns forgot that their trees still needed to be watered.
Now consider that LA’s urban forest was already seriously lacking compared to other cities. Despite several high-profile mass-planting efforts—a “Million Trees” campaign, which has worked well in other cities, hasn’t delivered here yet—and the fact that anyone can get free trees from the city (did you know that?), our streets remain glaring and unsheltered.
The need for a true tree canopy for the city is becoming critical. Trees are now our best line of defense to protect the city from the reality of extreme heat and the public health risks of air pollution, and their presence alone can help promote pedestrian activity. The city is spending a billion dollars to repair its sidewalks—and yes, some of those sidewalks have been buckled due to trees—but we need at least a billion more dollars to properly replant the parkways and complete the walking and biking experience. To finally make LA a livable city.
For a better part of a century, we placed palm trees in our most prominent lands, the tree we now associate with LA the most. But from an urban forest perspective, the palm tree is easily the worst, which is why the city no longer plants them. Palms—which are, technically, not trees—don’t produce any shade. They don’t possess any air purifying qualities. And there’s a fungus that’s slowly destroying them. We need a new tree to symbolize the cooler, cleaner, shadier LA.
Enter the jacaranda: drought-tolerant, fast-growing, wildlife-friendly, shade-providing, sidewalk-protecting. There are many LA trees that check all those boxes—sycamores are nice; oaks are native—but there are few trees that do all those things and also provide such stunning, exotic, instantly Instagrammable enchantment.
I’m not saying we need to Johnny Appleseed the city with Jacaranda mimosifolia seeds. Nor should we line entire streets with one species—that’s not great for biodiversity. But wouldn’t it be incredible to plant enough of them all over the city, in great enough densities, for people to make pilgrimages here just to see them—and at the same time, to stroll along our newly reimagined streets?
In 50 years, most of the palms that you see today will be dead. Yet the jacarandas we plant today will be thriving. When we’re thinking about our city’s forested future, we need to not just think green—we need to think purple.