If the coconut palm is to Miami what the apple tree once was to the northeast, then consider Elvis Cruz a small-time Johnny Appleseed.
Going back decades, Cruz has planted coconut palms around public areas in Morningside, a lush neighborhood north of the Julia Tuttle Causeway and east of Biscayne Boulevard. The retired firefighter keeps a few baby palms growing in his backyard, and in the early ’90s was recognized for his role in the planting of dozens of coconut trees to help replace the scores killed in the ’70s by a “lethal yellowing” blight.
But Cruz says his latest efforts to spread the love have received a shady reception. Recently, about a year after planting a Maypan palm in a roundabout near his house, Cruz says he was cited for failure to obtain a tree permit. When he applied for belated permission, his application was denied, he learned, because Miami no longer allows coconut palms to be planted along public streets.
It’s an iconic tree in terms of our image, our culture Elvis Cruz
“I was dumbfounded,” said Cruz, who was threatened with a fine of $500 a day if he didn’t fix the issue.
Cruz was so miffed that he demanded to speak Thursday to Miami commissioners during their biweekly meeting by citing a little-known clause in the city’s charter. He says he’s upset about being caught in a “catch 22.” But he’s also troubled that the city appears to be distancing itself from a tree that has been as much a part of Miami history as Biscayne Bay and the Miami River.
“It’s an iconic tree in terms of our image, our culture,” he said in an interview.
Indeed, the bohemian enclave of Coconut Grove owes its name to the coconut palm. And the trees played an early role in Miami’s tourist trade, when visitors sought out the palms for postcard-like photos. Today, coconuts are hawked with straws jutting from the core in tourist traps.
Cruz says the city even used to grow its own coconut palms and give them out to citizens to be planted. (The city seal, it should be noted, displays a Royal Palm and not a coconut palm.)
The city has its reasons for moving away from coconut palms. In an email, Miami planning and zoning director Francisco Garcia confirmed that the city has specifically stopped planting trees that bear fruit “ in public property including the right of way and parks facilities.” Garcia explained the policy was implemented because of fears that storms would launch fruit projectiles, and that ripe, falling coconuts would damage property. He also said the city wants to avoid situations where people are climbing trees on public property to pick produce.
This is commonplace practice Francisco Garcia, Miami’s planning and zoning director
“This is commonplace practice in other municipalities regionally as well as in the County for similar reasons,” Garcia wrote.
Cruz says he wants the city to reconsider, and he’s got support from local historians, who say the coconut palm remains an important part of Miami’s scenery. Said historian Arva Moore Parks: “I just think we get carried away with all these rules and regulations.”