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The Architect of Paradise : No Tree Is More Symbolic of Southern California, and No One's Grown More of Them Than Tom Roydon.

October 01, 1995|DAVE GARDETTA | Los Angeles writer Dave Gardetta is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post, L.A. Weekly and Los Angeles magazine

Myths surround men who grow palms. Friends of Tom Royden, a San Diego County grower, estimate that he has grown a million in his lifetime. They say that to live in Southern California and not own, least of all see, a Royden palm would be a considerable feat. The palm men like to tell stories about Royden, who is 57, English, built like a small water tower, has traveled enough to carry a story on any subject, and generates myths in a prodigious, backhanded manner.

The palm men say Royden's the hardest-working son of a bitch, that when he was starting out in the Borrego Valley during the 1980s, he took 10 years out of his life by laboring seven days a week, 18 hours a day, to build up what is perhaps the largest palm plantation in the Western United States, the 300-acre Ellis Farms in Borrego Springs. This, Royden says, is myth. Royden, who started his own ranch in 1979, claims he would never work those long hours, though when I called him once at 10:30 in the evening I reached him on cellular--he was in the palms. He told me the moon was full, and the light was fine for fixing his tractor.

The palm men say Royden can answer any horticulture question without picking up a book; they say that when a new fertilizer lands on the market, Royden buys one bag, reads the ingredients, then gets on the phone and orders truckloads of nitrogen and phosphate and whatever, and mixes up a fertilizer himself. This, Royden says, is myth. "Go talk to the growers who are scientists," he instructed me one day. "I'm just a whore with the palms."

Yet it is scientific fact that when Royden was at Ellis Farms, he realized that the ground water pumping from the wells already contained all the nitrates the palms needed, though he couldn't explain why. He drove a water sample to the agriculture chemists at UC Riverside, who measure nitrate content in a color spectrum that graduates from light to dark blue. When Royden's sample went jet black, the chemists said, "Get this out of here and bring us a real sample." When the second test went jet black, the chemists said, " Don't drink this, but use it on the palms."

The palm men call Royden prolific. They say he's the type of businessman who "doesn't just come out to the ranch in a Cadillac to tell the workers what to do." Royden says simply that he is a bit of a loner, that he enjoys playing Boy Scout in the trees, and that he is happiest among palms. This I can attest to. I have watched him sitting in his beautiful three-story Del Mar home, beside his girlfriend Kozy at the dinner table, dressed in stained shorts, a blue windbreaker and a ratty shirt unbuttoned to the stomach--"primate mating signaling," he calls the outfit he wears 365 days of the year--and there is a slightly uncomfortable look about him that says as soon as the risotto dishes are cleared away, he's crashing off into the darkness to his nearby palm ranch.

When palm men like Royden talk of the good growing years for palms, they call them the "Reagan years." It was the 1980s, and the palm men grew Washingtonia robustas , the tall, slim-trunked palms that line Sunset Boulevard and other Hollywood streets. They grew Washingtonia filiferas , the only native California palm, shorter and stouter than the robusta but almost identical in appearance and planted in near equal numbers throughout Los Angeles. ("More robusta than the robustas ," is how palm men describe the filiferas , commonly referred to as the Mexican fan palm.) They grew kings, queens and fishtails and Guadalupe palms, sagos and kentias, reclinatas and pygmy date palms.

Developers loved the palms--they were relatively cheap, easy to move in stacks on flatbed trucks, and they drew the eyes of buyers. They said "California" to Midwesterners and "tropics" to Easterners and "home" to Southern Californians, and for a few years in the late 1980s, when the spread of housing tracts seemed almost viral, the trucks lined up in smoky queues outside the gates of palm plantations.

When Royden speaks of those years, he says "it was just go and go and go. I mean every week a new golf course was going up in Palm Springs." The palms rolled out to San Diego, to Riverside, to Ventura--the booming counties. They rolled out to Poway and Phoenix, to Las Vegas, Florida, New York, Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Singapore, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The Southern California palms were so well known that they were even being purchased in countries where the tree was indigenous.

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