City Informer: Why Are There So Many Palm Trees in Vancouver?

We're not exactly known for balmy weather... so how do palm trees survive in Vancouver?

Unless you’re performing a medical procedure on me, I’m a big proponent of faking it ’til you make it. Which is why I for one support the presence of palm trees here in Vancouver, a city that is famously not very sunny.

Some might say it’s cruel to taunt soggy Vancouverites in the throes of SAD with reminders that they do not live in a tropical paradise, but I say a tropical paradise is a state of mind! If we’ve got beautiful beaches and palms swaying in the wind, then this can’t be rain pooling in my shoes—it must be sweat?! And I’m loving it?!

Much of our city’s delightfully delusional landscaping is the work of the Pacific Northwest Palm and Exotic Plant Society—friends of the fronds, if you will. Inspired by a few forward-thinking gardeners of the 1960s, who independently brought some choice windmill palms into Lower Mainland landscapes, the Palm Society was founded to spread the word even further about the beauty of palms. (An easier task, to be fair, than, say, what the Skunk Cabbage Society might have faced.)

Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler.

Despite their reputation as sun-seekers, windmill palms—which are native to China—actually fit just fine into our Canadian climate. (It’s not B.C.’s first palm-rodeo, in fact: 40 million years ago, our own CanCon palm trees were growing around the base of Burnaby Mountain.) With compact root systems and a tolerance for a variety of growing conditions, windmill palms are as chill as you would imagine a palm tree would be if it were to come to life, Frosty the Snowman-style, to teach us some important lessons about friendship and also probably rollerblading. Good vibes only, brah. 

And so, in 1990, the Palm Society spearheaded a public planting project at Beach and Jervis, led by president Rudi Pinkowski, an amazing champion for palm tree rights who grew up in a perpetual winter behind the Iron Curtain and has been aggressively advocating for fun-in-the-sun ever since. Sixteen trees were sponsored by his equally passionate fellow Palm Society members, and Vancouver Park Board staff did the planting—one large windmill palm and three mini ones grouped at each corner of the garden. Sure, they don’t offer much shade or release much oxygen, but these palms serve a much more important purpose: making your relatives from Manitoba jealous. And honestly? I can’t think of a better use of our tax dollars.

Obviously, the new addition to the beach district was a hit, because what kind of party pooper do you have to be to get mad about free-ass palm trees? From there, Pinkowski and the Palm Society (band name alert!) became hungry for more. They relocated palms from the Vancouver Aquarium to Sunset Beach; they rescued unwanted palms (adopt don’t shop!) from developer sites and took them down to the sand where they’d be happier; they discovered palm trees in planters on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre—a gift from Vancouver’s sister city of Odesa, Ukraine, of course, because what do you get the city that has everything—and set them free. We owe a debt of gratitude to these palm vigilantes and their noble cause of creating picturesque beach days for all. 

All told, the Society has sponsored 100 palm trees in the neighbourhood over the past three decades. But their enthusiasm for building a beachier beach has inspired others to plant palms, too, and today, there are more than 200 windmill palms in the English Bay area alone, with plenty to be found on properties elsewhere. (Pinkowski estimates 10,000 in the Lower Mainland.) But wherever you find them, you’re a glance away from being transported to a tropical paradise. One look at a palm on the front lawn of a South Granville historic apartment complex or gracing the boulevards of Yaletown and you are instantly taken away to the balmy shores of the exotic, intoxicating West End.   

This story was originally published in the July/August 2023 print issue of Vancouver Magazinefind the digital issue here.