Art museum in La Jolla replaces two potentially poisoned palms


By Pat Sherman

Following rumors earlier this year that the tall, stately palm trees in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) may have been poisoned, the museum has replaced two of the trees at the northern end of the property, which it believed would not survive.

“We see small signs of life (tiny green offshoots) at the top of the other palms and will wait to replace those in hopes that they may eventually recover,” said MCASD Communications Associate Leah Masterson, via e-mail.

She said museum officials had samples from the top of one of the ailing palms tested at the county’s plant pathology lab to determine whether any fungus, disease or insects contributed to the decline in the trees’ health.

“No insects or primary plant pathogens were found on the sample,” Masterson said of the report. “The finding is consistent with poisoning and does seem to debunk the pink rot theory,” a potential source of the trees’ failing health suggested by tree experts with whom the La Jolla Light previously spoke.

“While it doesn’t rule out the possibility of poor maintenance, it seems a very unlikely cause,” Masterson said. “The trees have been healthy and growing ever taller for 16 years and were under the care of the same landscaper and arborist for the entire time. Once their declining condition became apparent, the arborist was called in. His efforts have appeared to help some of the trees at the south end of the property. The palms elsewhere on the site are doing great.”

Palm trees across from the Prospect Street museum at St. James By-the-Sea Church were removed last year, following initial speculation that they had been poisoned.

The health of MCASD’s trees began to wane at about the same time, Masterson said, noting “suspicious activity” related to St. James’ palms, including copper spikes found nailed to the trunks of the trees.

“The idea that all 30-plus trees on both sides of the street would suddenly die of poor maintenance after decades of successful growth cannot be ruled out, but it does seem unlikely,” she said. “We also had some soil tested in May through a private lab. This sample was collected by security after they noticed a white powdery substance around the base of the trees last summer. The sample proved to contain an active substance that was either an herbicide or pesticide, but the test was not able to determine which type.”

Replacement of the two palms this month cost the museum $6,000. Masterson said replacing the entire row of palms in front of the museum would cost around $33,000.

“Whatever caused these beautiful trees to die, it’s incredibly unfortunate for the museum,” she said. “Replacing them comes at a substantial cost that was not budgeted for. We take great pride in our building and property and as a good neighbor we will do whatever we have to in order to maintain its beautiful aesthetic.”

According to California’s vandalism laws (penal code section 594), when damages to property total $400 or more, the crime could result in a felony conviction with a prison term of up to three years, a fine of up to $10,000 and formal probation.