When San Francisco’s quake-damaged Central Freeway met the wrath of the wrecking ball in the early nineties, it left a sprawling waterfront like a blank canvas. In the grand sprucing-up of the Embarcadero, the city lined the imposing roadway with more than 200 palm trees.
But now a disease is working its way through those trees, leaving many for dead and leaving San Francisco with a hefty replacement bill.
“The palm trees have something called Fusarium Wilt,” said S.F. Dept. Of Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon. “Which is a highly contagious fungal disease that can ultimately kill the trees.”
The disease is a guaranteed death sentence. So far 26 of the Embarcadero’s 220 Canary Island palm trees are confirmed to have it.
Another 34 trees show symptoms of the disease. The city has replaced four of the trees with plans to replace another three before this summer’s America’s Cup Yacht Race. But like the trees themselves, the price tag is way up there.
“To replace these trees is about $35,000,” said Gordon. “That’s both to dig them up and to put in new palm trees.”
City arborists are trying and preserve the diseased trees as long as possible. Gordon said the disease is highly contagious and can even be spread to other Canary Island palm trees using the same saw blades used to prune them.
While the city is trying it’s best to preserve the trees, some think it should cull the diseased trees at a much quicker pace.
“It makes sense in our city to maintain our big trees,” said Doug Wildman of the Friends of the Urban Forest. “But again, you’re subjecting the ones that are healthy to this disease.” '
Wildman said the city should consider different palm trees as it moves forward with roadside development projects across the city. Already, Canary Island palm trees extend down upper Market Street.
“We can’t keep planting them,” said Wildman. “We need to look at different palms if we really want palms for those applications.”
Gordon said city tree crews are replacing the dying palm trees with Mexican Fan Palms which are less likely to be infected Fusarium Wilt.
The city faced controversy over the original decision to plant palm trees since they’re non-native. But in a city of transplants and immigrants, some said the sprawling foreigners, feel right at home. “They really have found a place on the waterfront,” said Gordon.