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Palm Drive landscaping plans to take trees into consideration

STANFORD -- "I would like to think that when the class of '45 comes back for its 50th reunion, Palm Drive will be just like they remember it. You know, in memory our favorite places are always better than they were in real life."

That's how landscape architect Tom Richman, A.B. '80, will know that the planned upgrade of Palm Drive has succeeded. To contribute to that success, all Richman has to do is find the right combination of plantings to meet the original design envisioned by Frederick Law Olmsted, plus factor in some modern considerations like automobile and rollerblade traffic, maintenance costs and water conservation.

And he has to choose shrubbery that will complement the road's rows of 100-year-old palm trees, without endangering the trees' ability to stand for another 50 to 80 years.

Stanford's Canary Island palms (Phoenix canariensis) have survived a century or more of drought and flood and Big Game traffic. Herb Fong, university grounds manager, says the trees are relatively easy to care for.

They require an occasional pickup crew for dropped leaves and dates and a trim of dead branches every few years. They're drought tolerant, and Richman says they are currently "hungry but healthy" after being slightly under-watered and under-fed in recent years.

Surprisingly, improvements to the roadway may be the least of the trees' troubles, since palms can tolerate paving as close as two feet from the base of the trunk.

Currently, the palms stand in a strip of mostly cleared earth between the pedestrian walkways and the potholes of Palm Drive. The landscape plan calls for a row of bollards to discourage cars from driving between the palms and into the arboretum. Waist-high shrubbery will soften the look of these bollards and further protect the trees. A row of lower shrubs will provide a green border on the pedestrian side of the palms.

The new plantings must be good looking, low maintenance and resilient enough to grow back after an occasional sideswipe by a bicyclist or driver.

If the flowers are conspicuous, they must be the right color - red and white, preferably nothing in blue and gold. Most of all, the plants must take their water and nutrients in dosages compatible with the palms.

The water and nutrients needed to maintain new shrubs may be a challenge for the palms. A palm is a monocot, like a cornstalk or a blade of grass: It grows by adding leaves at the top. Since the trunk does not thicken with age, the tree normally dies when it gets so tall that it can no longer support its own weight. Too much enriched water rising up to its living tip can stimulate a growth spurt that makes it top heavy.

Fortunately, Richman says, drip irrigation and other new landscape technology make it possible to deliver water to trees and shrubs selectively. And Canary Island palms are used to a Mediterranean climate similar to the Bay Area's, so he has a range of possibilities as he and Stanford's gardeners make test plantings as they look for the ideal palm-compatible shrubs.

University crews under Fong will provide regular maintenance for the new plantings and landscape areas.



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