Go back to the first time you ever came to Stanford. Maybe you were visiting with parents or maybe you came for the first time before orientation week in September.
Regardless of how or why we came, most of us remember the same thing: our first trip up Palm Drive.
There is a professor jogging on the pedestrian path, pushing her baby in a stroller. Cyclists blur past in bright jerseys, while students—chatting excitedly in a pack—head to the Caltrain for a day in San Francisco.
Then, there are the palms—166 towering jungle masses lining a stunningly bold alley. You sense how they enclose you, as if to say, ”You have arrived, and there is no turning back.” They nudge you gently along a mile-long path until you are released, and the shining panorama of the Quad and Memorial Church greet you from across the Oval.
Palm trees have been a significant feature of campus since the University first opened in 1891. From the very start, the palms have played a nuanced role in campus allure and culture— not just the 166 palms lining the iconic Palm Drive, but also the 434 other specimens dispersed across campus.
Fourteen genera of palms grace the campus, the most common being the Canary Island Date Palms and the Mexican Fan Palms, both of which line Palm Drive.
The Canary Palms, a short and stout variety, comprise about 66 percent of the palms on campus. Mexican Fans, a taller plant, make up about 13 percent.
According to Julie Cain, landscape historian, many of the palms were imported from outside of the United States and started out on campus as seedlings.
Campus legend has it that the first University President, David Starr Jordan, suggested to Leland Stanford that palms be planted along Palm Drive.
“The palms were definitely a Victorian favorite,” Cain explained.
“There was a huge interest in exotics—plants that you bring in from an outside area. And the campus is covered in them,” she added.
She went on to explain that Frederick Law Olmsted did not come up with the idea for the palms, as is commonly believed.
More than 130 years later, palms are the tree—or scientifically speaking, the grass—that visitors remember. Some of the palms on campus today were planted here before the University was even designed, and campus architects and landscapers still choose them today to accentuate new structures.
Clearly the palms have some kind of intriguing power.
“I think you would be hard-pressed to find any more dramatic entrance to a university than Palm Drive,” said Director of Admission Shawn Abbott. “It evokes a sense of grandeur that I don’t think you find at any other university in the U.S.”
Abbott explained that the palms attract prospective students who are unaccustomed to Stanford’s Mediterranean climate. While the palms are perceived as being quintessentially Californian, however, they are not indigenous to the Bay Area.
“The palm trees symbolize warmth and provide a welcoming element,” Abbott said. “I think that resonates more with students who are not from California.”
The palms are so prominent that even design consultants working on publications for the Office of Admission have been concerned about the impressions that the trees make on potential students on behalf of the University.
“When we were in the process of developing our publications, one of the design consultants wondered whether the use of palm trees would suggest that the University was too laid back or not serious enough,” Abbott said. “I don’t think they symbolize a lack of intellectual rigor at all—I mean, they’re a tree.”
Some do see the palms, however, as a reflection of campus culture.
“When I think of Stanford, I think of palm trees, and hammocks and skateboarding to class,” said Elise Geithner ’13. “The palms show that people are laid back and enjoy the outdoors.”
President John Hennessy said that the palms emanate campus positivity.
“They seem to reflect a sunny and bright disposition, which I think is part of our culture,” he said. “People tend to be happy at Stanford.”
Geithner believes campus palms induce the release of healthy endorphins, likening the campus to a “tropical island.”
That said, however, the palms don’t exist entirely without contention. Campus legend has it that one palm tree costs as much as one year of Stanford tuition.
“I’ve heard $50,000 [per tree],” said C.J. Jameson ’10. “Your tuition is going to a palm tree—that can be seen as controversial.”
Hennessy refuted this myth.
“Most of the palm trees that we have obtained over the years have been donated,” Hennessy said. “And in some cases, even the upkeep has been donated.”
“We’ve never spent very much University resources on the palm trees,” he added. “People like them enough that they’re willing to give us money for palm trees.”
Max Pinedo, Stanford tree crew supervisor, was unable to provide figures regarding the expense of the palm trees.
“We don’t have exact figures, because usually our budget includes all of the [tree] maintenance that we do,” Pinedo said. “One thing that I can say is that we have a tree crew of 10 people and a leader.”
However, palm trees are economical in the sense that they generally require less maintenance than other trees, and also consume less water. The only maintenance palms really require is frond-pruning once per year, occasional fertilizer and irrigation.
“They’re reasonably environmentally friendly,” Hennessy said. “If we wanted to plant a lot redwoods around, they would consume a lot of water, particularly in areas where they would be relatively exposed like Palm Drive.”
Students have occasionally spotted fire trucks watering palms along Palm Drive. Pinedo explained this by saying that newly planted palms usually require a large volume of water when they are first planted in order to become established in their new environment.
After the first couple of years, irrigation is covered by a built-in system that runs along Palm Drive.
Although tree crewmembers sometimes have to climb very tall palms that a cherry picker can’t reach, the team tries to avoid the use of spikes on the trees.
“They use their boots, and their hands and ropes,” Pinedo said. “There is always a risk when you climb trees or you climb palms, but there are procedures for doing it.”
Pinedo added that the entire tree crew is certified by the International Society of Horticulture, which mandates the workers learning safe tree-climbing procedures.
In the case of the Canary Island Date palms, abundant flowering and fruit must be removed along with the fronds.
“Those dates are not edible,” Pinedo said. “We don’t harvest any fruit on campus.”
But despite their quirky gloriousness, not everyone is swept away by the palms. Many see the palms along Palm Drive as substantially more artistic than the palms scattered around campus.
“Palms by Tresidder and frat houses have been more divisive,” Jameson commented. “In that case, it doesn’t seem to add much.”
Cain agreed that outside of Palm Drive, she isn’t particularly fond of the fronds.
“I’m kind of like, they’re tall, they don’t give you shade, they’re not native—what is the deal with the palms?” she said.
Although the palms were first selected as far back as the 1880s, recent incorporations of exotic elements in modern campus structures suggests that the palms will always have a place in Stanford’s aesthetics.
A new open-sky courtyard designed by Peter Walker in the Schwab Center features a stunning, small forest of California Fan Palms.
“When I saw the Peter Walker courtyard, it completely changed my mind about whether or not you could do something interesting with palms,” Cain explained. “I love it. When you go in there and you can hear the palm fronds kind of rustling in the wind, it’s this totally cool effect.”
Geithner summed up the charm of Stanford’s giant tree.
“Palm trees—there is life, and color and they’re just always there,” she said.