With all the cables coming and going, this unfortunate tree does not have much room to grow without causing trouble.

Since I did not make the drive up or down the coast very often, the rare silvery-gray Bismarck palm that I could see slowly climbing into the skyline near the edge of Highway 101 through Santa Barbara seemed to be slightly taller every time I saw it. It grew slowly, but enough to notice since I only saw it less than annually. Then, when I drove by about a month ago, it was gone.

This exemplary specimen had been quite healthy and happy (even though Bismarck palms are not supposed to be happy on the coast). There was only one problem. It was under high voltage utility cables. As it grew, it got too close to the cables, so needed to be removed in order to maintain the minimal clearance required for high voltage.

Unlike other trees, palms have only single terminal buds that grow upward. They can not develop branches to grow around cables, so only die if the single bud needs to be pruned away. Complete removal is therefore the only option when palms begin to grow into high voltage cables.

Sadly, palms often get planted under utility cables. Many Mexican fan palms grow under cables because birds that eat their fruit drop the seed there. Queen palms are popularly planted around the perimeters of back yards, and along the back fence lines that are very often directly below and parallel to high voltage cables.

Trees that are not palms can get disfigured by pruning for clearance around high voltage cables, but generally survive. Trees with central leaders (single trunks) and strict form, such as spruces and redwoods, can get be so disfigured that removal may be more practical than pruning. Trees with more irregular form, like sycamores and elms, are somewhat easier to salvage. Unfortunately, crews hired to maintain clearance are unable to prioritize the health and structure of trees that get too close to high voltage cables.

Lower cables for telephone, television and house-drops (lower voltage cables that extend from utility poles to homes and other buildings) do not often justify pruning for clearance like upper high voltage cables do. However, these lower priority cables can still be damaged if too many limbs sag onto them or become abrasive as they blow in the wind. Really, it is best to avoid problems with utility cables by selecting and planting trees that are not likely to become too obtrusive. Palms, large trees and trees that are likely to be severely disfigured by pruning to maintain clearance should be kept at safe distances.



  1. Gah, what a photo! I remember these discussions all too well from my days of retail gardening. People would come in asking for “small ” trees–“you know, 5-10 feet.” And I would say that unless they were thinking about a low growing Japanese maple (but of course they weren’t) trees didn’t generally stay so small. Luckily we had a beautifully wooded property and I could gesture.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. The irony of this picture is that it is in Brent’s garden, which everyone thinks is such an excellent garden. I took this picture from the roof deck where I camp out when I go to Southern California. The garden really is excellent, but even it has utility cables.


  2. I haven’t been to Santa Barbara for a year and a half, but I do understand that Edison is doing a lot of work replacing “telephone poles,” and cleaning up the air space for their wiring through out the town. How sad that they had to take out a landmark tree!

    Liked by 1 person

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