Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Glorieta de la Palma 200 years old and still going strong

A Mexico City journey I enjoy is to walk, drive or bicycle along tree-lined Paseo de la Reforma. Though now a long easterly-westerly avenue, it was originally designed in the 1860s to link Chapultepec Castle — then Emperor Maximilian’s palace — with the city center.

Austrian military engineer Ferdinand von Rosenzweig patterned it on the grand European boulevards, especially Paris’ Champs-Élysées and Vienna’s Ringstrasse. Maximilian christened it Paseo de la Emperatríz, the Empress’ Promenade, referring to Empress Carlotta.

Along Reforma you will see some of Mexico City’s best-known and certainly most viewed pieces of public art. They are in the traffic circles as well as along the sides of the avenue. They have a permanence that is reassuring as you make your way by them or use them to give directions – as in, “The U.S. Embassy is a block east of the Angel of Independence.”

But look at old photographs of the city and you will see that the position of statues is anything but permanent.

The statue of Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec Emperor at what may be Mexico City’s busiest intersection – Reforma and Insurgentes Avenue – was moved a few meters out of the intersection during López Obrador’s 2000-2006 administration in order to improve traffic flow.

The Angel of Independence at the intersection with Florencia Street – now an emblem of Mexico City much like the Statue of Liberty is for New York – tumbled off the top of the column in the 1957 earthquake.

President Lopez Portillo (1976-82) moved the statue of Diana the Huntress at Reforma’s intersection with Sevilla Street out of the traffic circle to a park so that people walking by could see it better. President Carlos Salinas (1988-94) moved her back into the traffic circle.

I always look forward to seeing the monument at the intersection of Niza Street and Paseo de la Reforma. This monument is living, and growing. A 75-foot high (25 meters) palm tree soars in the middle of the traffic circle. That traffic circle is commonly referred to as the Glorieta de la Palma.

I call it the traffic circle of the heroic palm. That tree is quite the survivor. The oldest published photograph of that palm tree is dated 1920. Not only is it still thriving in the middle of one of the city’s busiest intersections, it has stood its ground for a little over a hundred years despite several attempts to remove it.

The most recent attempt was eighteen years ago, in 1996. Those wanting to get rid of it argued that it would die within eight years anyway.

At that time the palm tree was to be replaced with a monument to 17th century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Anyone who reads this column knows that I am a big fan of Sor Juana. But I joined the 25,000 other people who within days of the announcement signed a petition to save the palm tree. There were already other monuments to Sor Juana and another was not necessary at the expense of this wonderful palm tree.

Tree specialists say that the Canary Island Date Palm – the kind in the Glorieta de la Palma — can live to be 200 years old. It’s the same species of palm you see growing all around Los Angeles where it was introduced about a hundred years ago — right about the time the heroic tree in the glorieta was planted.

Dealing with adversity is not unusual for palm trees. While frequently thought of as trees of beaches or deserts, palm trees are also the tallest trees of the rain forest. There, however, they are at a distinct disadvantage as far as trees go. Palms only grow upwards. They cannot send branches out in search of direct sunlight. Their leg up is that many palms can grow faster than other trees. If fortunate to grow where there is a gap in the rain forest they shoot up as fast as they can before other trees move in and block the sunlight — frequently becoming the highest trees in the forest.

I have seen the exception to the rule, palm trees with branches, in Costa Rica’s coastal rainforests. These trees usually have no more than two branches. But branches they are.

That’s also where I’ve seen the “walking palm”. With the base of its trunk raised up a foot or so off the ground, on roots that look like a many-legged tripod, it can actually move to position its leaves in the sunlight. It sends new roots out toward the sunlight and lets-go of the roots holding it back in the shade.

The heroic palm tree on Reforma is going strong despite dire predictions about its fate. It is fortunate that it doesn’t have to fight for sunlight. It can focus on being resilient in the niche it has found — the hallmark of life in a big city.

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