• Jordan Elder

She Doesn't Even Grow Here

Updated: Apr 25, 2019

By: Jordan Elder

Palms against the sunset on Central Avenue in Phoenix (Jordan Elder)

A Scenic Staple

Senior Adin Tarr poses for senior photos on Palm Walk. (Jordan Evans)

Adin Tarr’s graduation cords are tangled again, competing with the evening breeze and her gold stole. She darts to the side of Palm Walk to rearrange them. They only take a moment to fix, but countless other graduates in similar regalia have already strolled past, searching for an empty spot to take their senior photos.

Tarr and throngs of other seniors posing along Palm Walk have walked this street thousands of times since arriving at ASU. “When I look back at my senior pictures, I’ll remember using this exact route to get to class. It’s such a significant part of Tempe,” she said.

Freelance photographer Jordan Evans is also on Palm Walk, stooping to ground level, shooting upwards at a smiling senior for the fifth time this graduation season. “It’s a big feature that defines where they live and a place they really like to call home,” he says. He doesn’t expect the requests to shoot at Palm Walk to stop anytime soon.

It’s a powerful image: a soon-to-be graduate, ready to leave and enter the world, in front of a landmark that has been central to ASU for centuries. The palms stood before these seniors arrived, and they’ll stand long after they graduate.

Freelancer Jordan Evans has taken numerous graduation portraits at this location in 2019. (Jordan Elder)

She Doesn’t Even Grow Here

Palm trees aren’t native to Arizona. Rumor has it they were brought to Phoenix in hopes of making it feel glamorous like Los Angeles. There’s no way to confirm or deny that rumor, but it begs the question: why are these trees ubiquitous in a city that is not their original home?  

Palm trees start their journey in tropical climates all over the world.

There is one place in Arizona where wild palm trees grow; Nineteen miles south of Quartzite, inside the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, about a hundred California fan palm grow in a narrow ravine called Palm Canyon.

The USDA Forest Service speculates they began growing here hundreds of years ago because of coyote or bird droppings. The seeds sprouted into towering palms and became the wildlife refuge’s main attraction.

These trees are a sharp contrast to the well-trimmed palms we’re used to seeing around the Valley:

This photo, taken by Ray from Love Your RV!, shows the Palm Canyon ravine.

Palm trees are strategically planted around Arizona in domestic and commercial landscapes. They don’t come from Palm Canyon. Those trees will likely never be moved, as they grow between near-vertical walls of rock. Nor are they shipped in. Instead, they are grown on farms or in nurseries.

“We’ll take clippings from some of the best-looking specimen palm trees, so that way we can almost create a clone,” says Cameron Simms, a design specialist at Moon Valley Nurseries in central Phoenix. He demonstrates how to care for palm tree landscapes in the following video:

Once the trees have matured, which can take decades depending on the species, experts like Brian Blake from Whitfill Nursery plant them in yards or at businesses.

Here, Brian explains the appeal of palm trees and how they are planted.

Palm trees can take decades to grow. They’re difficult to transplant and expensive to water, so why do Arizonans continue to use them in landscaping? It’s all about the aesthetic.

The Look of Luxury

Pristine rows of palm trees line commercial complexes and neighborhoods all over Arizona. They’re arranged this way on purpose: a study by the University of Arizona School of Agriculture and Life Sciences stated this architecture trick is intentionally used as an optical illusion, making the surrounding buildings look taller.

“[Palm trees] create strong vertical accents and skyline silhouettes. These qualities have a unifying effect in massive building complexes,” the study found.

Whitfill Nursery owner Brian Blake stands in front of palm trees at the Gilbert location. (Jordan Elder)

Blake says that his customers choose palm trees for home landscaping because they bring a tropical feel to the desert, reminding them of vacation. At ASU, the longstanding palm trees remind students and alumni of the memories they made walking beneath the fronds.

Rooted in Tradition

After almost a century, the iconic California fan palms started to wither, so Palm Walk was renovated in 2016. Date palms, which require more water, were planted instead. According to Sampson, the extra water is worth it because of the shade they provide, and their fruit is harvested and donated to the Campus Harvest program.

After the renovation, Sampson was worried that alumni would resent the new Palm Walk, especially during Homecoming. Standing nervously on the sidewalk, he noticed an older gentleman admiring the palms. The man announced, I met my girlfriend here! I knew as soon as I met her that I was gonna make her my wife.

Sampson teared up recalling this interaction. It wasn’t the type of palm that mattered to that man, it was the memories created underneath them. And Sampson’s work will be the site of thousands of memories made over the next generations.

“When they walked back through, it was a palm tree. And it was still Palm Walk,” Sampson said, “Palm Walk is going to be Palm Walk forever.”

(from the Palm Walk geotag on Instagram)

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