Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla says its palms were poisoned

By Pat Sherman

Rumors were circulating last week that a Village resident might have poisoned a row of palm trees in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD). Sources close to the

La Jolla Light

said the resident was allegedly unhappy that the palms were blocking the ocean view.

A representative for the museum confirmed that its consulting arborist inspected the Prospect Street palms, planted by the museum in 1996, and believes they were likely poisoned.

“After much research, he found no biotic agent (insect, bacteria or fungus) that signaled it was palm disease,” stated MCASD Marketing Manager Rebecca Handelsman, via e-mail. “He felt the symptoms were consistent with poisoning.”

Handelsman said MCASD’s facilities manager told her the museum noticed last summer that hedges around the base of the palms were ailing. Symptoms of sickness in the palms followed, including yellowing and withered fronds. A tree at the far right of the property appeared completely dead last week.

Handelsman said no one at the museum knows why anyone would want to poison the palms, and nobody has complained to the museum directly about the trees blocking views.

Queen palms across Prospect Street at St. James By-the-Sea Church were removed last year, following initial speculation that they also had been poisoned. A rector at the church said at the time that there had been a pattern of “malicious intent” over a two- year period, and that the palms had been “salted” and had copper spikes nailed to their trunks.

Though the church had the trees on a schedule of water and nutritional supplementation recommended by an arborist, after three months their condition failed to improve and the palms were removed — some by the city, and some at the church’s expense.

Gretchen Glazener with St. James’ landscape committee told the


a city arborist ultimately determined that the trees suffered from a fungal disease called “pink rot.”

At the time, Glazener said, one of the arborists inspecting St. James’ trees motioned to the palms over at MCASD and said he believed they were likely suffering the same fate.

Pink rot (

serratia marcescens

) is an invasive disease that attacks a tree’s bud tissues, petioles, leaf blades and trunks. It almost always occurs in palms that are under stress and enters through wounds or areas damaged by the removal of leaves and sunburn.

David Shaw, a farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension program, said pink rot is a secondary infection that causes the wood of the tree to rot.

“They usually enter through some kind of a wound and then they get in and eat the wood of the tree,” he said.

Shaw said it is not hard to determine when someone has done physical damage to a tree, such as cutting its roots, though it can be more difficult and costly for a lab to determine chemical poisoning. Due to the amount of recent rains in the region, it is not likely the trees are suffering from a lack of water, he noted.

“Sometimes a tree might look like it’s poisoned, but it’s not at all,” he said, noting that the real cause may be negligent care, such as an overly acidic soil pH caused by over-fertilizing (which he determined to be the cause of ailing palms in Carlsbad last month). When too much fertilizer is added to soil, Shaw said, the soil can lock in the nutrients, preventing their absorption by the roots.

Shaw said he has heard of numerous methods of poisoning trees, such as adding gasoline or rock salt to the soil, or drilling a hole in the trunk and pumping in weed killer such as Roundup.

La Jolla certified arborist Ted Klamerus said it is not rare for people engaged in disputes over the loss of views or property rights to poison, maim, fell or remove other people’s trees in the dead of night.

“It’s been documented where (frustrated residents) are spreading Roundup over the fence on a neighbor’s tree. That goes on all the time,” he said, adding that he has heard of judges imposing penalties of $50,000 to $60,000 on those found guilty of willfully destroying another’s tree.

Klamerus said pink rot has been increasingly inflicting the region’s queen palms, and arborists are unsure why. Evidence of the infection can be found by removing a section of bark at the base of the tree, and looking for the presence of a pink, viscous substance.

The disease can also be introduced by negligent gardeners, who transmit it to healthy trees via dirty gardening tools, Klamerus said.


La Jolla Light

will have a county arborist test the soil, and weigh in on the status of the museum’s palms in an upcoming edition.