Ambiance can be bought through a few seeds.

While I’ve borrowed other people’s pictures in the past as a basis for analysis, this may be the first time in which the revelation itself is not my own. I had been living in New Orleans for six months at the time a friend came down to visit. After spending the first night in the city, we followed on the second day by exploring the wetlands in the surrounding area, at which point the friend concluded: “Palm trees aren’t native to Louisiana, are they?” My immediate response was no, even though I had no proof—I had never read a study indicating one way or another about the origins of the palm family along the Gulf Coast. But I could answer without a moment’s thought because this friend made a simple observation that all this time had escaped me.

Arriving by plane, as soon as one departs the New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport, there are varieties from the palm family everywhere—the grounds of the airport are replete with them. Along some of the city’s grander boulevards, palms line the neutral ground (New Orleans for “median”) or stand sentinel at perfect intervals along the periphery. As seen in this remarkable rare instance of a snow shower along Canal Street, they function as street trees.

Though New Orleans may be among the most southerly locations in Louisiana, palms can thrive elsewhere in the state. Baton Rouge may only be 75 miles to the west (and slightly north), but it offers a notably different ecosystem and is well above sea level with a moderately rolling topography. (New Orleans to the untrained eye is completely flat.) Nonetheless, various members of the family Palmae are commonplace features in Arsenal Park, the lush grounds surrounding the state’s famous high-rise capitol building, courtesy of governor Huey Long.

palm tree in Baton RougeNot surprisingly, palms in South Louisiana aren’t limited to grand public lawns or rights-of-way; numerous households have adopted them as trees in front lawns, as seen below in New Orleans in May:As evergreens, palms during this St. Patrick’s Day parade retain their leaves. Compare this to the deciduous trees of the area, such as the crepe myrtle, which are just starting to spout their blossoms and young leaves at this time.


Palm trees, at least the genera that flourish in Louisiana, provide little shade from the sweltering Louisiana heat. Many species are high-maintenance, with considerable susceptibility to malnutrition, vitamin deficiency, or pest infestation. Particularly tall palms are vulnerable to lightning strikes. The dramatic fiery backdrop in the photo below only serves to emphasize these palms’ height in comparison to neighboring trees.

A quick scan of the landscape upon landing in a city like New Orleans should easily reveal that the majority of trees in south Louisiana are not particularly tall. Compare the palm with the mighty live oaks, featured in an earlier blog post, with a canopy that puts that of the palms to shame. But live oaks earn all their majesty from their breadth, because they’re quite short; they have adapted evolutionarily to the region’s high propensity for hurricanes by keeping their center of gravity low. Palm trees have evolved to resist storms as well; the long trunk and narrow fronds do not provide a high profile for wind shear. And of course, palms are omnipresent along tropical shorelines. But the gulf coast of Louisiana is almost completely devoid of beaches; nearly all of it are consists of wetlands that have been rapidly eroding in recent decades.

Do these pieces add up yet? A quick trip to some of the swamps outside of New Orleans should reveal why I could definitively answer my friend’s question with “no”, without hesitation.Here in the swamps south of the city, near Crown Point, Louisiana, palms are nowhere to be seen. Though frequently privately owned, many of the commercial wetlands attempt to offer tourists an authentic exposure to a cypress swamp; the land is also frequently used for hunting and fishing. Taken in January, these photos show the predominance of deciduous trees in what could be considered “real” Louisiana. From the photos above, it almost looks like it could be January in the Midwest.

A photo elsewhere down this waterway (it was a canal, much as I’d like to say it was a bayou) shows a little bit more verdure than one would ever encounter in the icy north in January. To the right in the photo below, within the red circle, is the dwarf palmetto, one of the most northerly members of this family; apparently it can survive as far north as Ohio and Pennsylvania, though its appearance is rare.It would appear that the riparian understory does support flora that remain green in the winter; the taller trees in the background clearly don’t share this feature. Most apparent, however, is the absence of any towering palms or other evergreens; away from the cities and persistent human influence, the trees do not grow. They are not native.

So why, despite their potential health problems, are palms widely visible in the urban areas of south Louisiana? It’s quite clear to me that, as ornamentation, they have a richer symbolic content than most other trees—they immediately evoke the tropics and associative warm weather. Obviously this is hardly an insight: just think of any postcard or airbrushed t-shirt from Florida. What better way to greet tourists arriving from Saskatchewan than with a cluster of palm trees as soon as they step outside the New Orleans airport? Any beachfront community will have them if their climate can withstand it; those that cannot, such as the boardwalks of New Jersey, often decorate their streetscape with fake plastic palms.

Private homeowners may have adopted the tree for its aesthetics, but I don’t doubt for a minute that civic leaders of New Orleans and Baton Rouge decided many moons ago that they wanted to instill an ambience of tropical languor. Perhaps they borrowed it from Los Angeles, whose street palms are so intertwined with common perceptions of the city that we often cease to be fully conscious of it. “Oh, there’s a movie scene with lots of cars and palm trees whirring by; it must be L.A.” New Orleans may boast a humid subtropical climate, but it can on occasion be bitingly cold in the winter, sometimes dipping below freezing with high humidity, manifested by the snowy photo linked above from 2008. But south Louisiana rarely if ever experiences prolonged cold, so the palms survive, gently helping to evoke a city tucked into a jungle. And having boulevards lined with palms adds to the city’s cachet as an aspiring counterpart to Los Angeles, a second Hollywood (Nawllywood).

With the exception of the dwarf palmetto, these various palms are introduced species to the Louisiana landscape. Are they invasive species? Judging from the photos in the swamp tour, I suspect not—they grow adequately in Louisiana’s climate, but have hardly flourished outside of areas where they are overtly cultivated. This contrasts sharply with the quintessentially southern kudzu, mistakenly introduced in the United States as an erosion remedy which inadvertently proliferated at the expense of other native plants.

So earlier generations introduced the palm family to the American Southeast to serve purely aesthetic aims and it has generally blended well when under horticultural supervision; conversely, they introduced kudzu for ecological palliative and restorative ambitions and it has wreaked havoc. Both plants have accrued symbolic associations that, at least in cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge, do not exactly harmonize. Kudzu carpets the muggy American South with such ferocity that it could not help but forge its own association; almost every homeowner has had to deal with it at some point. The palm family is a bit more precise, with associative staying power in Florida or coastal Carolina (obviously as part of South Carolina’s flag), but it doesn’t resonate as much inland, away from beaches. It might serve as an attractive embellishment in New Orleans, but it doesn’t leave a strong statement the way it would in Los Angeles. Palm trees are coastal; New Orleans, despite being surrounded by water, is not…at least not yet.

One plant surpasses either kudzu or palms at evoking the muggy clime of the Deep South: Spanish moss. Just a little further along that waterway in the swamp tour, some live oaks were brandishing a full variety of this peculiar epiphyte.Perhaps its precision gives Spanish moss its advantage; it doesn’t stretch everywhere across the South like kudzu (you probably won’t see it in Tennessee or Arkansas), and, unlike palms, it doesn’t immediately recall vacations on the beach. Tourists don’t escape to the world of Spanish moss; it’s a web that tangles itself into the rich humidity of Louisiana and Mississippi—literally too, since its perch along tree branches allows it to capture the thick moisture in the air. If anything evokes Southern Gothic, it’s a silhouette of a tree with Spanish moss lazily draped amidst its leaves. Incidentally, very few of the urban live oaks in New Orleans carry Spanish moss—quite a contrast from the photo above. The only place a visitor is likely to see this peculiar angiosperm is in the large public spaces—open unpaved stretches like Audubon Park and City Park, where groves of live oaks still carry the plant on their branches. You can just barely make it out on this photo below, in City Park’s sculpture garden.

Why is Spanish moss hard to find on oak trees grown in back yards or canopied over city streets, yet the parks still seem to have them? I can’t help but wonder if the plant only thrives in open spaces, but otherwise struggles if an area is too urbanized. And the City of New Orleans Parks and Recreation decided to import it for its parks, deliberately flinging it onto city-owned trees to add Southern Gothic flavor in a city steeped with such tradition. Of course I’m probably projecting conspiracy theories, but it is clear that both cities and private landowners reduce certain plants to commodities, not just for agricultural or ornamental purposes but even because of the semantic legacy embedded within them. The future of New Orleans and coastal Louisiana is unclear. Whether it becomes a vibrant cousin of Hollywood or a tragically engulfed Atlantis, the plant life both within and outside of the cities—often quite distinct from one another—will always offer cues to the region as a sociocultural and ecological “other” – a piece of exotic pseudo-tropicalia here within our own borders.

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7 thoughts on “Ambiance can be bought through a few seeds.

  1. Amy

    A few years ago, palm trees were planted in Mishawaka in lake-effect snow country. I believe they dig them up every year and replant in the spring!

    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for the clarification, John. Any ideas if it’s hardy enough to survive in northern Arkansas–in the Ozarks or thereabouts?

  2. Declan

    This is a really silly, weird article.

    First of all, that first photo showing the cypress/tupelo swamps of southern Louisiana? It DOESNT look like the Midwest in winter. There’s a substantial amount of green undergrowth that isn’t found there.

    Second, New Orleans doesn’t get occasionally “bitingly cold”, as you said, it has a humid subtropical climate.

    I find this temperate-climate mindset of most Americans very weird. The attitude that the United States isn’t climatically diverse, and has an ecological type that could be described as “Southern Canada”, persists way too thoroughly for a country who’s area is largely taken up by the Humid Subtropical climate.

    All sorts of evergreen vegetation, from tupelo to holly to camphor to azaleas and rhododendrons to “canebrake” or native bamboo to live oak, as well as needle and windmill palms, grow throughout the entirety of the American south as far north as Cincinnati and Long Island. To be afraid that an environment like southern Louisiana couldn’t grow palm trees is absurd, and to fret over “bitter cold snaps” in Louisiana is again another function of American delusion when it comes to the environment they live in.

    I assume you’ve been told that much of China, and to a lesser extent, east Asia including Japan and Korea are climate analogues to the United States? China and comparable locations in Asia have to contend with the bitter cold of the Siberian and Mongolian Arctic highs. Both of which are far colder and more persistent than the comparable Canadian Arctic high.

    Louisiana had a comparable climate to Guangxi province in southern China. Which gets colder. Compare Beihai, a city that averages lower winter temperatures, to New Orleans. It’s vegetation is just as lush and tropical. Why, therefore, would you fret over seldom experienced “extreme temperatures”? That’s a very odd way of thinking.

    Banyan and Bouganvillea and Betel palm thrives in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and surroundings. Banana trees for fruiting were often planted along the Ohio, at places like Cairo, Illinois, and Evansville, Indiana. The gulf and Atlantic coasts, from Texas to Georgia, have native Mangrove forests. Trees that are only present, outside of the United States, in the deep tropics of Africa and Malaysia. Citrus growth is possible in the US extending all the way up to Ohio, and Perennial banana growth is possible from Tennessee and North Carolina south.

    I recently read a story about a South Korean woman living in Virginia, who started her own, massive tea plantation in the state. I mean, people grow tea native in Canada and the U.K., and South Korea does it or course as well. But guess what she was apparently told by her American neighbors? “You can’t grow tea in Virginia, it’s too cold”. What?! South Korea gets far colder than Virginia, it can grow tea! Western Canada gets far colder than Virginia! It can grow tea! Virginia is famous for its coastal palmettos, its hardy citrus, its peanut growing, its carnivorous plants, and its tobacco, cotton, sugar cane, and sweet potato growing, WHY COULDN’T YOU GROW TEA?! In a state with a Humid Subtropical climate?!

    As for the vegetation you took pictures of in Southern Louisiana, that isn’t particularly wintry looking, one, but two, vegetation in certain areas of the immediate gulf coast can look like that because soils are too sandy, and conditions too sunny and hot, to develop some of the more moist, lush vegetation you see in other parts of the gulf and Atlantic coasts or in the American South as far north as the Ohio. That’s why you get a lot of subtropical pine growth in certain areas of the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, as these areas are also susceptible to brush and undergrowth fire. This is also common in Hunan, Guizhou, Guangdong, and Zhejiang provinces of China, as well as Nicaragua.

    Also, again, a lot of the “natural vegetation” you took pictures of does look subtropical, from the small palm undergrowth, to stretches of laurel and tupelo, to stands of loblolly pine and montezuma cypress and live oak.

    I’m really confounded by this American urge to make the ecology of the United States out to be hyper-continental, cold, ugly, and gray. Living in one of the most diverse countries, as well as one of the warmest countries on earth, that’s pretty delusional. Again, the Koppen climate make up of your country is primarily Humid Subtropical. But for an American to take pictures of all these lush palm landscapes around New Orleans and Baton Rouge and the come to the determined conclusion that Louisiana is still icy and gray, topping it all off with the statement “New Orleans may have a subtropical climate, but it can get biting cold snaps in the winter”…1) No, it can’t. 2) Even if it did, that’s not something anyone living in New Orleans should anticipate, because that’s not common 3) Humid Subtropical doesn’t denote “tropical, with no fluctuations in temperature 4) Other subtropical areas of the world get much colder on average, and still grow a variety of palms with reckless abandon and 5) If New Orleans saw cold snaps as reliably as you made it sound, it wouldn’t be classified humid subtropical….duh.

    Can you explain why you Americans are so determined to see your country as a cold, continental wasteland? It’s really weird.

    I was talking to a woman from Alabama, where Meyer Lemons were once grown and exported from, about what she sometimes grows in her garden. I asked her why only apples and cherry trees? I mean, you can grow those in Maine? She insisted you couldn’t grow citrus in Alabama. Of all places.

    Maybe Americans are just really ignorant when it comes to climatology, ecology, and geography compared to the rest of the world.

    1. AmericanDirt

      Hi Declan, I certainly want to thank you for your lengthy riposte–most likely the single longest I’ve ever received on this blog. I’ll try to be a bit more brief in my reply.

      I’m not a climatologist or a botanist, but most of what I tried to explore were the cultural implications of certain climates and the flora that we associate from that point onward.

      New Orleans clearly doesn’t belong to the same climate region as Mongolia or northern Saskatchewan. That said, I firmly assert that it receives a “cold snap” of less than 0 degrees Centrigrade, usually at least twice each winter–often more. Since the average daily summer temperate pushes 25 degrees, I’d wager that a drop below zero is a significant enough deviation relative to the norm to call it a snap. Such deviations are normal in southern Louisiana but virtually unheard of in about half of Florida.

      I can’t gauge whether your descriptor of many of those plants and the associated soil conditions are accurate, but I’ll take your word on it.

      As for the majority of the U.S. falling under the humid subtropical Koppen climate category, a simple search would suggest otherwise. Absolutely, this climate zone characterizes most of the Southeast, the Mid-Atlantic and the Ohio Valley, but only about half of Texas falls into that category, and it would only amount to about 1/4 of the country’s land mass as a whole–perhaps even less when one considers Alaska, which throws everything out of whack. About the same percentage is humid continental.

      Satsumas grow easily in southern Louisiana, so moving there dispelled me of the notion that the Deep South was still too cold for citrus. But no one associates Louisiana (or Alabama) with citrus the way they do Florida; in fact, I’d bet most Americans don’t know what satsumas are. Still, I’m not sure where you get the idea that I–or most Americans–fear cold or intent to exaggerate plant hardiness. The ultimate conclusion I drew is that, given the absence of palm trees in Louisiana old-growth forests, it’s clear it was an import, and it’s particularly prevalent in urban areas because people like seeing palm trees. Apparently you’ve had some unusual experiences with Americans.

      Given that a high cluster of small countries (particularly Africa and the Caribbean) cluster between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, most of which have much warmer climates, I’d put the US somewhere in the middle of all global rankings for its mean temperature–certainly not among the warmest.

      I’m not sure why your experiences with Americans would lead you to draw these conclusions that we tend to overstate the coldness of our country. Perhaps it’s because Americans are more likely to engage with Europeans than other foreign-born people, and when they visit our country they routinely complain about the cold of our winters. (From my experience, our winters are colder than most of western Eurasia.) Then again, they also complain about the heat of our summers.
      I’d say our climate tends to be more extreme than a lot of other places I’ve lived and visited. Anything else I referenced in my article was purely anecdotal…much like the content of your reply.

      1. James

        Just a response – if you did any rudimentary amount of research, you would immediately find that Louisiana has a few native palm species, as do states like Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, and a few more. It’s kind of ridiculous to pretend that that’s not the case.

        The commenter you’re responding to made some over the top comments, but your comment asserts that New Orleans, and the US as a whole, “has colder winters than western Eurasia”, which is just solidly and obviously untrue. Europe is in the high-latitudes. It is characterized by long winters without the possibility of warmth, little direct sunlight, lack of sun, and short, lukewarm winters capable of seeing occasional frost at night.

        Compare that to a place like New Orleans, which has higher average mean, average high, mean maximums and record highs in all seasons compared to pretty much anywhere in Europe, along with much more direct, intense sunlight, high overnight summer low temperatures, abundant sun and thunderstorms, short, mild winters, and long, very hot, and humid summers, the growth potential of Louisiana and New Orleans is higher – it has far more Growing Degree Days than anywhere in Europe outside of the southern islands of that continent. And it has multiple native palm species, something Europe does not have. New Orleans has a climate that compares to southern China, or farthest southern Japan. Not anywhere in Europe.

        So your denialism, and your apocalypticism about the record cold temperatures New Orleans has experiences, in ignorance to everything else, and the basic facts of the natural landscape (like the fact that the dormant season in Louisiana is so short, that most of the southern portion of the state is dominated heavily by subtropical broadleaf maritime forest, that the coast is dominated by mangroves, bromeliads, live oaks, magnolias, red bay, lianas, and palms, etc, that there are entire independent and perennial banana and citrus farms in Louisiana, etc), are ridiculous. They deserve to be called out.

        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          It’s weird to me that you would continue to fixate on a single person’s ruminations and empirical observations on climate, four years after your first polemic. But here you are again. You make interesting, compelling, and often persuasive assertions, and I’d welcome them more if your tone were even half as sweet as a Meyer lemon.

          New Orleans gets cold snaps. It gets them rather frequently. Not frequently enough to place it outside the humid subtropical Koppen classification, but enough that most palm varieties fail to thrive. Argue all you want against it, but I provided the visual evidence of tropical plants (none of which were very large and many of which were immature) that were killed by that past winter in my one other article on the subject: While this doesn’t mean southern Louisiana has a cooler median temps than Andalusia, Southern Italy, or Greece, it is at least an indicator that the winter extremes are more likely to preclude the natural proliferation of certain kinds of plant life.

          It wouldn’t surprise me if Alabama could grow Meyer lemons. But would they thrive? I’ve been in the Huntsville region (northern Alabama) when the December temperature was at most -5 degrees Centigrade, a condition that Huntsville gets at least every 2-3 years. While some citrus can still grow under these conditions, it would be ludicrous for a farmer to build a business off a risky weather pattern that is fairly common to the region. Louisiana grows satsumas as a cottage industry, but I can’t imagine anyone in the state making even a partial living out of it. (I had never even heard of satsumas until I lived down there; they aren’t widely known across the country.) Same with bananas. Outside of far southern Louisiana, the cold snaps are too frequent. And in southern Louisiana, the banana trees can bear fruit but it’s not likely to be tasty or popular enough with a sizable population to offer more than boutique/novelty distribution.

          I’m not sure why you pretend to be a different person than four years ago, “James”. You’re more knowledgeable on the subject than I am. But your understanding of the climate of the southern US is, like mine, imperfect. At the very least, I have firsthand experience. And these evidentiary photos. Your argument about southern US being similar to southern China (as opposed to South Korea) is probably true. China and the mainland US are similarly sized. And the southern US is certainly more humid than Mediterranean Europe. But the evidence of fairly regular cold snaps in the Southern US stands. You have not refuted this evidence because you cannot.


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