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Mexico City mourns — and politicizes — the loss of iconic 100-year-old palm tree

The palm tree located at a roundabout on Mexico City’s historic avenue Paseo de la Reforma died after being infected with a fungus. Its death became another symbol in Mexico’s polarized political debate.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Compared to the elaborate monuments to Mexico’s past that decorate the roundabouts and medians of the Paseo de la Reforma, the palm tree was a rather humble link to the history of the capital. 

Planted during the final throes of the Mexican Revolution, it grew to more than 70 feet tall over the last century as Mexico City grew out to become the sprawling megalopolis it is today. While that was merely half the palm’s expected life span, in recent years it had become infected with a deadly fungus, and on Sunday city officials held a farewell ceremony to cut the iconic plant down.

“Today, after a little more than 100 years, the Palm of Paseo de la Reforma will be removed,” said Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum in a tweet Sunday. “Even with various actions and measures, there are some that are impossible to save.”

At more than 7,300 feet above sea level, Mexico City is hardly the ideal habitat for this tropical plant (palm trees aren’t trees, botanically speaking). This, along with the fungal infection that has affected thousands of palms across the city, was the reason for the plant’s untimely demise, Sheinbaum said.

Tropical plant pathologist Carlos Fredy Ortiz told the newspaper El Financiero that the palm died a natural death, saying that its age and elevation above sea level “played a role against it.” Recent heat waves in the city didn’t help, either, he added. 

A landscaping crew works to remove the stump left behind the day after the palm tree on the Paseo de la Reforma was cut down. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Despite his diagnosis, opponents of the majority Morena party — to which Sheinbaum and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador belong — took up the palm’s death as a symbol in the highly polarized climate of politics in Mexico today. 

“We’re in a metaphorical war in every way in Mexico, and any terrain is a battlefield,” said Chavo del Toro, political cartoonist for the newspaper El Economista. “The palm represents one of these battlefields. It symbolizes the precariousness of the plans Morena has for the country.”

For Del Toro, the plant's death represents the misuse of public funds in the current administration. He accused Morena of using funds for political gain, rather than programs that could have saved the palm. His cartoon from Apr. 22 featured Sheinbaum looking up at the dead palm, the text a play on President López Obrador’s claim that his opponents are traitors to the homeland (la patria). 

Opposition politicians expressed similar political takes on the palm’s demise on Twitter. 

“The Palm of Reforma survived the Revolution, two World Wars and the Cold War, but not the negligence of the [Fourth Transformation],” tweeted Fernando Belaunzarán of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, referring to López Obrador’s plan to transform Mexico.

“The government of Morena let the Palm of Reforma die,” said América Rangel, a Mexico City deputy for the conservative National Action Party. “It was a symbol of the city for the last 100 years. The left destroys everything it touches.”

Those on the other side of the aisle opted to keep direct political statements out of their eulogies, preferring to commemorate the dead plant with the hashtag #PalmasALaPalma (Palms to the Palm). 

“This avenue is alive and must adapt to everyday life, and in order to adapt there are times when it has to say goodbye to what was once part of it and welcome what’s to come,” said Juan Becerra Acosta, a journalist who spoke at Sunday’s farewell ceremony. “Let’s say goodbye to the palm with palms.”

A wreath sits atop the stump of the palm of the Paseo de la Reforma. The Mexico City government plans to implement a strategy to save other at-risk palms in the capital. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Opinions were equally divided on the Paseo de la Reforma, where residents and tourists alike stopped to snap photos of the space the palm left behind.

“It was a part of our history, a loss for sure,” said Rogelio Flores, 67, a retired civil engineer who said that he indeed held the Sheinbaum administration responsible for the palm’s death.

Mariana Zárate Mena, 36, a secretary at an accounting firm, said it was “silly that they accuse Morena” of killing the palm. “Really, we’re all to blame for things like this because of what we’re doing to the climate,” she said.

The city is holding a vote to see what kind of tree residents want to see planted in the roundabout the palm occupied for the last century. Candidates include another Canary Island date palm, a jacaranda and a ceiba, as well as trees endemic to the Valley of Mexico like the Mexican sycamore and the Montezuma cypress.

On that, both Flores and Zárate could agree: they want to see a native species take the palm’s place on the roundabout. 

El Financiero reported that the Mexico City government plans to implement a program to save other at-risk palms in the capital. More than 12,000 will need to be pruned or cut down due to infections like the one that killed the palm of the Paseo de la Reforma.

Courthouse News correspondent Cody Copeland is based in Mexico City.

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