A dead palm tree stands on the neutral ground on Canal Blvd. in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. Lethal bronzing disease is a disease that is killing off New Orleans' tall palm trees. (Photo by Sophia Germer,, The Times-Picayune)

New Orleans faces a possible future without palm trees, which you can see shriveling up on neutral grounds throughout the city.

The culprit is an incurable disease called lethal bronzing, which first appeared in Louisiana 10 years ago and has now spread to six parishes.

Press reports suggest this is devastating news, describing palm trees as “treasured” hereabouts, but let us try to be brave. One of the reasons palms may be dying out in Louisiana is that they didn't belong here in the first place. Learning to live without them should be a breeze.

“The people of Louisiana love palm trees,” according to press reports of the scourge afflicting them, but that love is surely not universal. Its basis is, any case, purely aesthetic, palm trees having little practical value, and beauty is notoriously in the eye of the beholder.

For many of us, live oaks, for instance, have every bit as much visual appeal as any palm.

If palm trees do disappear from New Orleans, “I don't think we'll miss them, especially on the ecological side,” Raghuwinder Raj Singh, Director of LSU's Plant Diagnostic Center said. Palms provide hardly any shade in a city that has lost 30% of its leafy canopy in recent decades and is now generously dotted with heat islands.

Compare one of those scrawny desert trees with the luxuriant wide-radius foliage of the sturdy live oaks that abound in Louisiana, and sustain a variety of wildlife. This is where the action is. If function and form are inextricably linked, live oaks surely get the nod for their overall appeal. But the majority view, endorsed by Singh, seems to be that palm trees are easier on the eye.

That would explain why “the people of Louisiana love palm trees,” and why they feature so heavily in campaigns to boost the city. Palm trees and exotic glamour go hand in hand in the popular imagination, although the reality of life in a sandy outpost must be extreme tedium.

The associations, moreover, are universally dull. Who can view a picture of palm trees without remembering how hard it is to find Bob Hope funny?

Lethal bronzing was discovered in Texas in 2001, and appeared in Louisiana 10 years ago. Two years after that, its vector was identified as a planthopper that sucks the palm's sap and spreads bacteria. If a palm ever gets infected, it is a goner, although the onset of lethal bronzing can be delayed with an expensive drug.

Altogether the future of palm trees does not look too rosy in Louisiana. They do not have a long history here either. Wealthy travelers in French colonial times would bring home exotic flora to impress their stay-at-home neighbors, but it was not until the 1930s that the Works Progress Administration set about establishing palm trees as an integral part of the Louisiana landscape. That effort really started gathering steam in the 1950s, but now we are reverting to such native species as bald cypress.

Cultivating palm trees is getting more and more difficult, in any case, as climate change brings the cooler winters and drier summers that make Louisiana more hostile to them. Thus, of all the invasive species in Louisiana, palm trees must be about the most vulnerable.

It would be better if that distinction belonged to wild hogs, but we can live without a few fronds.

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